Refilwe Ledwaba, South Africa’s first black woman to have flown for the SAPS is now taking young girls under her wings and teaching them to fly too
Refilwe Ledwaba is an inspirational South African woman who is working to close the gap for women in STEM fields of study and industry. In an industry dominated by men, she has become the beam of shining light, training young women to become pilots and take interest in other airspace fields. Just 5% of the world’s pilots are women…
Refilwe’s story began in Limpopo, where her single mother raised her and her 5 siblings. She was diligent and hardworking at school, determined to become a doctor someday. When she was 17, she took a flight from Joburg to Cape Town and learned that her pilot was a woman. This struck her as an important moment because she didn’t know women could fly planes.
She realised that this was something she wanted to do so she became a flight attendant for SAA and started taking private flying lessons when her money would allow it. She was desperate to fly and so she got in contact with 200 companies, asking for assistance in her dream.
The South African Police Service was one of the organisations that responded with a big fat yes! Her dreams just took off from there. The SAPS offered to pay for her training as a helicopter pilot and to support her plan to get a commercial pilot’s licence. She became the first black woman to have flown for the SAPS.
Knowing she needed to do more, she became a trainer and set up a non-profit organisation that works with young women, helping them realise their aviation dreams as well.
Every year, she hosts a flying camp and young women from all walks of life come through to learn as much as possible. Each of the young women has an aptitude for sciences and mathematics, earning high marks to be able to attend the camp.
The camp consists of flight simulators, making electronic gadgets from scratch and engaging with inspirational guest speakers. They also have fun with songs, dance, bonfires and building life-long friendships.
“It’s important to encourage young women to not only enrol in science and technology but to also stay the course. We are just not seeing enough young women and girls succeed in the sciences and that needs to change.
“Black women especially are marginalised, and with so few of us in the field we need to encourage more to apply and then provide the necessary support to ensure their success,” – Prof Debra Meyer, Executive Dean of Science at Johannesburg University
Refilwe’s goal is not to make more female pilots and aviation experts, but to inspire young women to take up STEM subjects and to completely diversify the fields which are lacking in female representation. She hopes her girls take that away each year once camp is over.
“I want the girls to be successful, not necessarily to choose to become pilots but to become confident young women who can contribute to society, our economy and give back to our communities.”
“Women account for more than 50% of the world’s population. If you are not going to prepare women for those jobs in the future, then we are lost! It’s important that we’re not only focusing on aviation and space but STEM as a whole because this will set these girls to be very competitive for future jobs. Perhaps they will go back or help their communities to break their cycle of poverty.
“In the long run that inequality gap then might perhaps start narrowing down a little bit. That’s why we do what we do.”
Refilwe is an inspiration and she was even featured on BBC which you can watch below.
This is what happens when you teach African teenage girls to fly. ✈️
— BBC World Service (@bbcworldservice) September 25, 2018