WE HONOUR THE EXTRAORDINARY LIFE & JOURNEY OF REFILWE LEDWABA, UCT BSC GRADUATE, ATPL HELICOPTER PILOT, CPL FIXED WING PILOT, 2015 MBA STUDENT & FOUNDER OF THE NGO/PBO SOUTHERN AFRICAN WOMEN IN AVIATION & AEROSPACE INDUSTRY.
As the gifted child of a mother who taught in the Lenyenye township of Limpopo in the late 1980s, Refilwe Ledwaba looked around her and feared her career options were limited. “Teachers, nurses or doctors were all we were really exposed to,” she says. Yet today, Refilwe is a bright aviation star in the South African skies, one of the few female pilots in the country, a former ATPL helicopter pilot with the South African Police Service (SAPS), a CPL Fixed Wing pilot, and is the recipient of numerous scholarships, and national awards and honours for her visionary work with the organisation she founded in 2009: Southern African Women in Aviation & Aerospace Industry (SAWIA).
Financial challenges and growing up in a single-parent household with seven children, meant her road ahead would be littered with hard work, courage, focus and perseverance to achieve her dreams. After completing high school, she graduated from the University of Cape Town (UCT) with a BSc degree majoring in biochemistry and microbiology in 1999 – but her real dream, to become a pilot, seemed beyond her reach.
With determination, she set about finding out what she needed to do to achieve her dream of flying. She asked questions, sought out aviation professionals and pilots; learning more about the aviation industry she loved, and the route she would need to take to become a pilot. She was rewarded for her perseverance and blessed to receive free flying lessons from a Comair pilot that further ignited her passion for flying. She wrote letters to every company she could think of asking for support and help to become a pilot. Within days, the SAPS called her, and after selections, offered to pay for her studies.
At 5’3 with a slight build, Refilwe found there were many challenges for her to overcome: “During my training, I found there was a lack of mentorship and direction which made my life as an aspiring pilot difficult, and a conspicuous lack of female role models in the aviation industry,” she says. She solved her height and weight challenges by using extra ballast and a cushion to meet the requirements of flying a helicopter, and proactively searched for female pilots and aviation professionals to mentor and guide her introduction to the industry.
Refilwe has overcome the challenges she has faced with an iron will and determination to succeed that has earned her the admiration and respect of her peers, both nationally and internationally, and today she is charting new territory for women pilots in South Africa and leading the way for industry reform. The unique trials she faced inspired her to found SAWIA to provide a platform for information, education and networking opportunities for females in general, as well as financial support to aspiring aviators in South Africa. “SAWIA helps girls and women learn about the career opportunities in the aviation and aerospace sector and contribute to its reform. The organisation is able to offer young fliers the support, networks, mentorship and access to funding that I never had,” she says.
The success of SAWIA has led to Refilwe being the recipient of multiple social entrepreneurship awards such as: the winner in the entrepreneurship category at the inaugural South African Youth Awards in 2012, where she walked away with a R50 000 prize (and donated back to SAWIA); the winner of the aviation category of CEO Communication’s Most Influential Women in Business and Government in 2012 and 2015; and she was listed as one of Top 35 Africans Under 35 to watch by the Young People in International Affairs (YPIA) in 2014 .
In 2010 she completed her postgraduate diploma in business administration (PDBA) at UCT’s Graduate School of Business in order to help manage the business of SAWIA. “Choosing to study at the GSB was one of the best decisions of my life. Previously I thought I knew what a non-profit was, but I had no clue what needs have to be met for such an organisation to reach success. I needed to see it as a business and change the mindset of a ‘once-off’ charity in order to maximise the organisation. The PDBA showed me this, and taught me the skills to handle myself while growing every aspect of an organisation.”
Refilwe is currently studying toward her MBA at the Gordon Institute of Business Science, the University of Pretoria (graduating in 2016) to ensure she can continue to help SAWIA, and its high school educational programme Girl Fly Programme in Africa, reach even greater heights. She says that SAWIA is particularly interested in moving into a more sustainable space, to create employment and positive change in South Africa. “SAWIA aims to inform, connect, motivate and inspire; although it has made great strides already, believe me when I say the sky doesn’t have to be the limit.”