DAILY MAVERICK WEBINAR
Rail industry trailblazer Mesela Kope-Nhlapo did her bit to stamp out sexual harassment in a male-dominated industry
In part two of a Daily Maverick webinar series dedicated to The Trailblazers, Business Maverick journalist Ray Mahlaka hosted Mesela Kope-Nhlapho, CEO of the African Rail Industry Association, about her trailblazing journey in the African Rail Industry.
“Everywhere I go, I make it known that Mesela has arrived. To a point when they see me they say that one is from KwaThema, don’t mess with her.”
That is how Mesela Kope-Nhlapho introduced herself during a Daily Maverick webinar hosted by Business Maverick Journalist Ray Mahlaka on Wednesday 22 March.
Born and bred in KwaThema, southwest of Springs, in the district of Ekurhuleni, Gauteng, Mesela Kope-Nhlapho cemented herself in the railway and manufacturing sectors, and technical business development in a typically male-dominated industry.
Nhlapho says her interest in the rail industry was sparked by growing up with and around boys at most times. She adds that her resilience and fearlessness come from the black women who raised her, particularly her mother and grandmother.
“Because I grew up spending more time with boys, I was not one to be pushed around, and I am still not… I was born a natural-born leader and determined.
“My parents gave me the name Mesela, which means tail or backbone. The name symbolises a sense of direction, and offers support, and that is who I am and how I carry myself.”
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During more than 20 years of experience, Nhlapho says she has had to learn how to cut through racism, sexism, intimidation and victimisation, by developing a language in the sector.
“At the Pro-Tech Galvanizers, where I started my career as a quality control manager, I was responsible for 18 men. In that instance, I had to develop a language to speak to them so that they don’t see me as female but as a colleague, to get what I want. As for racism, I dealt with it very quickly… I make sure that my presence and that of other women are felt and that we are not going anywhere.
“As long as Mesela is here, nothing is going to change. But we still have sexual harassment in the workplace.
“I have had a man that wanted to gain confidential information. I told him no and he said to me: I will sit on your lap. It’s the no that I say for the first time. If you don’t listen, I will find any tool on the table to discipline you.
“It did not end well for the gentleman; he and others that I have disciplined look the other way when they see me because I’m quite firm when it comes to these things. I always tell them ‘don’t let me bring my township dress because I will go all out’. I refuse to be intimidated in my place of work. But I know women in other workplaces don’t have that luxury.”
Shortage of women
Nhlapho notes that there is still a shortage of women in the industry because of a variety of issues. She has offered support and encouraged more young females to join the industry, and beat barriers to success such as sexism and racism in the workplace.
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Further clarifying her standpoint, Nhlapo says: “I don’t defend only women, but I am pro-women and they. It’s an injustice that I hate merely because you happen to have a different body part. When people don’t believe you with a solution simply because you are a woman.”
Nhlapho currently serves as the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of the African Rail Industry Association (ARIA), a body in South Africa representing the players in the railway industry. She previously headed ARIA’s predecessor, the Railroad Association of South Africa. She also serves as Africa director for the Rail Working Group. Nhlapho was voted the top speaker at the 2021 Railway Regulator conference. She is a renowned speaker who is passionate about integrating the continent to increase intra-Africa trade. DM