International Women’s Day (8th of March)is a global day celebrating the social, economic, cultural, and political achievements of women. This year, we would like to shine the light on South Africa’s first Black female helicopter pilot, Refilwe Ledwaba.
Growing up during apartheid in South Africa with six siblings and a single, working mother, Ledwaba was very close to her local community but under no illusions about the outside world.” When you are a female and a Black person, it is a double whammy. If you don’t have the right people, you could be (Albert) Einstein, but you will never make it,” said Ledwaba.
It was while training as cabin crew to help pay off the student loan that she found she felt more at home in the cockpit. Her colleagues encouraged her to become a pilot. One of the pilot’s offered to train her for free if she covered the cost of the fuel.
In 2005, she got the chance to learn to fly helicopters at a government school outside Durban, where she struggled with nerves and the idea women must always sit with legs together, something you cannot do while operating the controls.
Once again, she was encouraged by someone who believed in her, not to give up. The moment she flew solo, it dawned on her that she had broken the race and gender barriers in one fell swoop.” Flying solo is one of the best moments in your life,” she said. Months later she became the first female Black helicopter pilot to join the South African Police Service.
She had some words of advice for anyone who fears discrimination in their chosen careers. Reflecting on her career,Ledwaba said she has always favoured optimists over cynics. “The number of people who are not happy to see you there are far less than those who want you to be, partner with them,” she concluded.
Now a certified flight instructor, Ledwaba has run her foundation, Girls Fly Programme in Africa (GFPA), for over a decade, training hundreds of young women in aerospace and aviation. The foundation operates in four African countries but Ledwaba also has her eye on other countries.