Refilwe Ledwaba is a pioneer for women in South Africa seeking careers in aviation. While she is passionate about increasing diversity and inclusivity in the aviation industry, her approach often challenges conventional conversation.
As an advocate for girl’s education and youth development in Africa, Refilwe founded the Girls Fly Programme in Africa (GFPA) Foundation. The foundation focuses on empowering, enabling and supporting the next generation of makers and problem solvers in the aviation and space industries in Africa. GFPA’s success was profiled by the BBC as one of the eight top innovators in Africa.
Alongside her work at GFPA, Refilwe also boasts an interesting and diverse resume, which includes being a qualified helicopter and fixed-wing pilot, flight instructor, professional drone pilot, social entrepreneur and an academic. Refilwe is a trailblazer, and, among many other accomplishments, she has pioneered for women in the industry by becoming the first black woman in South Africa to gain an Air Transport Pilot helicopter license.
Today, Refilwe becomes the latest recipient of the AeroTime Aviation Achievement Award, joining 22 other recipients who have been recognized for supporting the aviation industry and the next generation of aviators.
Famed astronaut, Sally Ride, once said: “I think it’s important for little girls growing up and young women to have role models in every walk of life.”
This quote struck a chord with Refilwe, who highlights the importance of young girls realizing that they can pursue their chosen careers by seeing successful women in those roles.
She says: “I had the privilege [of] growing up surrounded by really powerful women in my family and community. My grandmother was a good storyteller, and because of the stories I loved reading and I was such a dreamer. My mother was a school principal, and we had a lot of women in our community that were entrepreneurs, that were doctors, and I looked up to these women. I wanted to become one of them.”
But Refilwe’s exposure to aviation was far from conventional. Initially, she thought she would become a doctor.
She says: “Aviation was never a viable career choice for me when I grew up. Within my communities, I was limited to what I could see, which was a doctor. Outside the community, I couldn’t dream about becoming a pilot, as I had never seen anybody that looked like me as a pilot, or a pilot in general. The closest thing to a pilot that I saw was on TV, and it was Tom Cruise, and he definitely didn’t look like me.”
One “fateful day” while she was pursuing her medical career, Refilwe boarded a flight from Johannesburg to Cape Town. During the flight, she heard the voice of a female first officer speaking from the flight deck. Galvanized by the discovery that a woman was flying the plane, Refilwe realized that being a Pilot was a viable career choice.
Her first role in aviation was as a member of the cabin crew. Later, she joined the South African Police Services cadet program and spent the next 10 years flying fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters on exciting flights and missions, including coastal search and rescue missions and others dedicated to combating crime.
Refilwe also became a role model in her own community. Not only was she responsible for catching criminals and lowering crime rates, but through her career she was able to show her community that it was possible to be a black female pilot – and thrive.
While Refilwe has faced challenges in her career, she cites the support of her instructors and the people around her as integral to helping her to overcome any obstacles.
She says: “I handled many of those challenges by proactively seeking both men and women that were in the industry. For me, it’s quite important as well, that as much as we speak about the challenges and the barriers that we face as women in the industry, we need to also acknowledge, that we didn’t just overcome those barriers by ourselves, there were a lot of people, a lot of support structures that were around to help us to overcome some of those barriers. Because sometimes if we don’t recognize that, then you make it seem as if you need to be a strong individual to be successful.
“In a certain period, yes, you need to be strong. But it also takes a very strong network, a very strong support structure [and] a very strong community that you build yourself, for you to be successful.”
Refilwe notes that diversity and inclusion are at the forefront of the most debated issues in aviation.
“Yes, we can crunch numbers and account for the percentages of women’s involvement in the industry,” she says. “But we need to go a little bit deeper in understanding what diversity and inclusion [are].
“Diversity means being different, in that it can be a form of race, it can be ethnicity or gender. And inclusion is about ensuring that people feel that sense of involvement, support and learning, which can be added from a community, a company or an organization.”
She continues: “Today, there is a lot of emphasis on diversity. There’s been a lot of emphasis on numbers, but not necessarily on inclusion. And I think it’s a problem because if we don’t talk about inclusion, then we are missing that leaky pipeline.”
So, what exactly does Refilwe mean?
“If we get a lot of women trained and, for example, we get the numbers up, but they don’t stay, then that’s a problem,” she explains. “So, it’s almost like we are working backwards. There’s a lot of focus on the numbers, like we’ve got 10 women, but there’s not a lot of focus on whether the environment is conducive enough to retain those 10 or 20 women.
“When we talk about diversity and inclusion, it is almost like we put it as a women’s issue. But I don’t look at it in that way. I look at it as an inclusive approach. In a company it’s not a women’s only or men’s only issue, it’s a company issue. It has to be an inclusive approach in the sense that everybody has to be involved.”
She continues: “You’ve got male champions. You’ve got people that are on the other side, such as male pilots and male technicians, that understand and want that change to happen. But often, we exclude them because we look at it as only a female issue.
“For me, it’s important that when a company talks about both women and men, they talk about the issue of diversity and inclusion from all levels. Everybody needs to be involved.”
Refilwe also serves on several boards, which focus on youth development and empowerment. Her work with the GFPA aims to support and empower young women in the industry through scholarships and mentorship. It also seeks to address the retention of talent in young women across various aviation professions.
She says: “For us at the GFPA, it is important that we have a pipeline that supports young girls from the entry stages of their careers right up until they are in the industry. There are other problems that arise, which we need to really resolve for these young girls to be able to get into the industry, stay in the industry and meaningfully contribute and give back to the industry.”
AeroTime Aviation Achievement Award
To acknowledge and celebrate her dedication and commitment to empowering and supporting the next generation of aviators and for her efforts in enabling and encouraging young women in Africa to have equal access to opportunities in the aviation industry, Refilwe Ledwaba becomes the 23rd recipient to be awarded the AeroTime Aviation Achievement Award.
Refilwe now joins 22 other award recipients around the world who are being recognized for their work in changing the aviation sector and encouraging the next generation of aviators.
She says: “This means a lot not just for me but for the foundation. We’re passionate about what we do. And we’ve got a phrase that we always use as a foundation where we say ‘we always go out to change these girls’ lives’. But sometimes it is our lives that change as well. So, it’s such an emotional connection when we see the leaders of this world and other young girls coming up because it does change our lives as well.”
Linda Ngozwana, a Junior Airside Systems Engineer at NACO and a volunteer at the GFPA Foundation, shares her thoughts on how she met Refilwe at a women aviation breakfast where Refilwe delivered a speech. Linda also highlightS the impact that both Refilwe and the foundation have had on her life.
“I met Refilwe at an event hosted by the Aeronautical Society of South Africa,” recalls Linda. “When she spoke, I thought to myself, ‘I want to be her’, and ‘how do I become her’. Ever since then, she’s been a role model to me. But also, it helped me realize the importance of having someone that I can look up to, and that I can be that same person for other young girls and women who want to come into this field.”
Linda adds: ‘We [Women] are constantly made to feel like imposters in this field. When I graduated, I didn’t feel like I could claim or prove a claim or fully celebrate being an aeronautical engineer. And I don’t think that’s fair. And I don’t think it’s fair for anyone or for any other girl who’s in this space, who has worked as hard as anyone else to achieve what they’ve done. So, without the GFPA, I wouldn’t have felt like I deserved it. and that’s the sort of home that it gave me. It gave me the confidence of knowing that you belong here, you are capable, you are enough, there’s nothing more, there’s nothing less than you can do because you’ve done so much already. If you think about the stats of the number of female aeronautical engineers, they are not just in Africa, but throughout the whole world, and for them to be able to claim and say, it was through the inspiration of the GFPA Foundation, through seeing someone who looks like me, that is absolutely incredible. And I want the same belonging that I feel right now for so many other young girls who are going to come after me.”