Refilwe Ledwaba is the first black female pilot to have flown for the South African Police Services (SAPS).
Her success is a great boost both for the country and for its women, with aviation being a seriously male-dominated industry.
According to the International Society of Women Airline Pilots there are fewer than 7,500 female airline pilots worldwide — with women accounting for just 5% of pilots at 34 leading airlines.
But through her nonprofit, the Girl Fly Programme in Africa Foundation, Ledwaba is working to empower and inspire young women and girls to take up science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) subjects — by showing them that there is a space for women in science.
"I want the girls to be successful," Ledwaba told the BBC. "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."
Our Woman Crush Wednesday is Refilwe Ledwaba, the first black woman to fly helicopter for the South African Police and founder of the South African Women in Aviation (SAWIA). #WCW#SouthAfrica#Aviation#Police#BlackExcellencepic.twitter.com/jLZgAnlDaT— Dumela South Africa (@DumelaSAfrica) February 7, 2018
Ledwaba’s own personal journey with aviation began at the age of 17, when she travelled in a plane from Johannesburg to Cape Town — and discovered that the pilot who had flown the plane was a woman.
This discovery was life-changing for her, a young woman from the Limpopo province, and helped her believe that she too could fly all over the world. Ledwaba then swapped her dream of becoming a doctor for instead dreaming of becoming a pilot.
Now, Ledwaba is 12 years into her aviation career — but it hasn’t come easily.
Ledwaba worked as a flight attendant for South African Airways, in order to earn enough money to pay for private flying lessons. Never taking her eye off her dream of becoming a pilot, she then contacted 200 companies looking for assistance.
The SAPS was one of the few organisations that got back to her and offered their support — and it was this decision that directly led to Ledwaba becoming the first black woman to obtain an Airline Transport Pilot licence for helicopter in South Africa.
But Ledwaba has also taken her struggles on board, and is now working to pave the way for others girls and young women — to help make their dreams easier to achieve.
She wants to support all young women and girls in taking up STEM subjects, and is working to make sure girls are aware of all the diverse careers that are open to them.
The Girl Fly Programme organises a yearly camp for about 100 young women aged between 14 and 18, where they can learn about robotics, coding, and aviation.
And through their attendance at the camp, each girl gets a free flying lesson.
The initiative girls young women the chance to prepare for their futures, and dream big, by exposing them to different opportunities at a young age.
Ledwaba hopes to see the camp become a contributing factor in empowering young women to become leaders of change, working to break the cycle of poverty in their communities.
“It is important that we are 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,” Ledwaba told the BBC. “Perhaps they will go back and help their communities to break their cycle of poverty.”
“In the long run that inequality gap might perhaps start narrowing down a little bit,” she added. “That’s why we do what we do.”
The Global Citizen Festival: Mandela 100 is presented and hosted by The Motsepe Foundation, with major partners House of Mandela, Johnson & Johnson, Cisco, Nedbank, Vodacom, Coca Cola Africa, Big Concerts, BMGF Goalkeepers, Eldridge Industries, and associate partners HP and Microsoft.