Refiloe Seseane is the Founder of 18twenty8®. She attended St. Dominic’s Convent in Boksburg from Grade 1 to 12 and held several leadership positions throughout her schooling, which she completed with distinction in English and full colours for Drama and Public Speaking. Refiloe majored in Economics and Finance in her BCom degree at the University of South Africa (UNISA) and graduated with distinction in Economics before completing her Hons BCom (Economics) degree at UNISA. She was the top graduate in the Management Advancement Programme (MAP) at Wits Business School and completed a postgraduate certificate in Financial Economics at Cardiff University in Wales. Refiloe has also completed the Being a Director programme at the Institute of Directors Southern Africa and was an auditor for the Economics of Education course at Stellenbosch University.Her financial services' career includes roles at Alexander Forbes, Allan Gray, BoE Private Clients (now Nedbank Private Wealth), EduLoan (now FUNDI) and Allan Gray Orbis Foundation. Refiloe has had lead acting roles on South Africa’s top TV soapies: Generations, Rhythm City and The Wild. She is an accomplished voice-over artist, keynote speaker, events MC and TV personality who has anchored business news on CNBC Africa. Refiloe’s list of achievements includes: serving on the Independent Schools’ Association of Southern Africa’s (ISASA) Mathematics and English Board; chairing the Carl and Emily Fuchs Foundation’s 2019 adjudication panel; being a 2017 Honorary Member of the Golden Key International Honour Society - University of Pretoria Chapter; meeting HM Queen Elizabeth II at a 2013 royal reception on Youth, Education and the Commonwealth at Buckingham Palace; participating in U.S. President Barack Obama’s 2012 Young African Leaders’ Initiative and U.S. First Lady Michelle Obama’s 2011 Young African Women Leaders’ Forum; winning the 2010 Inyathelo Philanthropy Award and the 2010 CEO Magazine South Africa’s Most Influential Women Award. https://www.18twenty8.org/directors/
Gender Equality Statistics
In South Africa, 3.6% of women aged 20–24 years old who were married or in a union before age 18 The adolescent birth rate is 40.9 per 1,000 women aged 15–19 as of 2017, down from 71.1 per 1,000 in 2015 As of February 2021, 45.8% of seats in parliament were held by women In 2016, 79.7% of women of reproductive age (15-49 years) had their need for family planning satisfied with modern methods.
In 2018, 13.1% of women aged 15-49 years reported that they had been subject to physical and/or sexual violence by a current or former intimate partner in the previous 12 months.
Women and girls aged 10+ spend 15.6% of their time on unpaid care and domestic work, compared to 6.5% spent by men.
Employed population below international poverty line. Age 15+: 6.6% (female); 6.1% (male) Unemployment rate. Age 15+: 30.5% (female): 26.8% (male) Proportion of mothers with newborns receiving maternity cash benefit: 7.6% Maternal mortality ratio: 119 per 100,000 Adolescent birth rate (per 1,000 women aged 15-19 years): 40.9 per 1,000. Literacy rate, age 15+: 87% (female); 86.5% (male) Rate of out of school children. Primary and Lower Secondary education: 8.7% (female); 11.1% (male) Proportion of ever-partnered women and girls subjected to physical and/or sexual violence by a current or former intimate partner in the previous 12 months. Age 15-49: 13.1% Proportion of women aged 20-24 years who were married or in a union before age 18: 0.9% (before age 15); 3.6% (before age 18) Proportion of seats held by women in national parliaments: 45.8% (total number of seats) Proportion of elected seats held by women in deliberative bodies of local government: 40.7% Proportion of women in managerial positions: 30.2% Proportion of women in senior and middle management positions: 33.3%
Interview with Refiloe Seseane (24 February)
I will do my best to answer all of your questions today. First, allow me to give a presentation about 18twenty8. This may address some of the questions that you have sent me.
To start, many people wonder about the name 18twenty8. When I turned 28, I reflected on the previous ten years of my life, which began when I graduated high school at 18. During that time, I navigated the world without direction or mentorship, unsure of what to study at university or how to pay for my degree. Looking back, I realized I made many mistakes and did things I'm not proud of, although I also did some things well.
I decided that I didn't want other 18-year-old girls to go through the same challenges, or mistakes, as I. I wanted to share my experiences and provide support to other young women between the ages of 18 and 28. This name is personal to me because it represents that reflection on my past and everything that happened to me during that 10-year period.
In 2021, we celebrated our tenth anniversary and 18twenty8 continues to focus on providing support to young women in this age group.
For 12 years of my life, from the age of six to 18, I attended St. Dominic's Convent, a typical Catholic girls' school administered by strict Irish nuns. What I remember most about my time at St. Dominic's is the emphasis on feminine leadership and girls taking the lead. The best in every activity was a girl – whether it was music, athletics, chess, swimming, baseball, water polo, drama, tennis, debating, hockey, public speaking or academics. For obvious reasons, I grew up firmly believing that girls ran the world. Although we had a brother school for social interaction, we rarely sparred with them intellectually, on the sporting field, or in cultural activities during my time at St. Dominic’s.
Then I went to university and had my first encounter with boys across all areas. They seemed to think that they ran the world and knew everything, but I disagreed. I thought that they needed to take a back seat and let me show them how things were done.
St. Dominic’s played a vital role in shaping my concept of leadership.
This is the foundation of the work done by 18twenty8 and why women and leadership are so essential to us. We are fortunate to be one of the leading organizations in women's empowerment in the country, having won awards and recognition for our efforts. We are grateful for the support of our partners worldwide, including, TCU and our partnership with Juan Carlos, which will enable us to continue our work of empowering young women and expanding our impact.
Our vision for South Africa includes educated girls and young women who are empowered to lead. But what makes this vision so compelling? What necessitates it? Let's examine the reality faced by young women in South Africa. As an organization that aims to facilitate access to higher education for women of color, we understand that having a university degree does not guarantee employment. However, it does mitigate unemployment and increases the likelihood of finding a job. With this in mind, we instill an entrepreneurial mindset, encouraging women to create employment opportunities for themselves rather than relying on the government, private companies, or civil society to provide them. Our country has a significant youth unemployment issue and black women are particularly affected, with an unemployment rate of 40.6%, compared to the national rate of 34%. Many people become inactive because they are unable to find work that matches their skills or the areas in which they live. This is due to structural issues and a lack of skills in our country, making it challenging to match people with employment opportunities. In my opinion, entrepreneurship is the key to fundamentally addressing this issue for young black women and all young women, generally, in South Africa.
We envision a South Africa in which girls and young women are educated and empowered to lead. At 18twenty8, we bring this vision to life through various programs, including life-skills workshops offered to girls in marginalized communities in grades 11 and 12, in consultation with Life Orientation teachers.
The aim of these workshops is to encourage girls to consider higher education after grade 12. Many of these girls are the first in their families to complete high school and consider university, so we provide opportunities for them to attend university, submit applications on time, get funding for those applications, and ensure they get into their desired degree programs and universities of choice. We work with grade 11 and 12 learners because of our higher education mandate, in order to make it easier for girls to transition from high school to university.
We don't come in as Life Orientation teachers but to augment the existing curriculum. Using school resources, school time, and the Life Orientation period, we equip the girls with life-skills that will help them succeed in university and beyond. The life-skills workshops are our only intervention at high-school level.
All of our other programs are specifically designed for university-level girls. For example, we offer a leadership development camp that brings together girls from different university campuses across South Africa for an offsite weekend experience. We were fortunate enough to have our inaugural camp in 2019 before the COVID-19 pandemic, where we provided university girls with the opportunity to share their experiences and learn about issues related to leadership, personal branding, financial fitness, and career pathing. We also discussed what happens after graduation as they begin to think about starting their careers. We spent a lot of time emphasizing the importance of social media positioning and ensuring congruence between their real-life persona and their virtual ones, especially when potential employers, business partners, or investors are assessing their profiles before meeting in person. It is crucial for these entrepreneurially-minded students to present themselves authentically and make a positive first impression on potential collaborators.
Inevitably, when a group of girls comes together for a weekend experience, friendships are formed, partnerships are established, and a real sense of sisterhood is developed. The sense of isolation is also reduced.
Many young women tend to believe that they are the only ones facing certain issues and that no one else can understand them. However, by sharing with other students from different campuses or universities, they realize that they are not as alone as they once thought. This realization is truly beautiful.
We had hoped to hold the camp again, but unfortunately, our plans were derailed by Covid. We are now looking towards the end of this year to see if we can bring the girls together for another camp experience. Our focus will be on leadership development, empowering the girls to speak up and address issues they see in their home communities, on campus, and in broader South African society with confidence.
The second program is a mentoring initiative called the Big Sister Network. Essentially, it matches our university students with middle and senior management women for mentorship, career guidance, psychosocial support, and exposure.
Our girls are often the first in their families to finish high school and attend university. Without a role model who understands their journey, it can be difficult for them to see the link between their studies and their future careers. A Big Sister is someone who is already in the profession that the student aspires to enter. It is not a financial or personal relationship, but rather someone who can open doors by providing exposure to job opportunities, internships, and even postgraduate studies. The Big Sister Network is designed to help students become more career-oriented and gain the right exposure, not just in terms of professional etiquette and expectations, but also in terms of social etiquette and learning how to position themselves for success through mentorship.
This program is especially important because the lack of role models and mentors in our homes and communities can make it difficult for students to present themselves with confidence, no matter how academically competent they are.
The Big Sister Network is a platform for mentorship and empowerment for women. While we usually think of mentorship as a one-way transfer of knowledge from an older woman to a younger one, reverse mentorship has also emerged as a valuable concept. Our Big Sisters often learn a lot from their mentees, and we encourage peer mentorship between girls and older women in different industries.
Our annual Big Sister Network seminar is an intergenerational gathering where women can share their stories and journeys.
Our fourth program is financial assistance to minimize the cost of university education in South Africa, where it is prohibitively expensive. We fundraise from different organizations, foundations, and companies to support young women in any university degree at any accredited institution in South Africa.
We believe in empowering girls and young women to lead across sectors, so we don't prescribe specific degree streams. We want to make sure that girls are not burdened with financial strain and can focus on their studies.
Unfortunately, two years ago, one of our students was attacked on her way back from the mall. It appears that the attackers' intention was to get her into their car, potentially with the aim of hijacking, raping her, or worse. Fortunately, there were people around who saw the struggle and heard her screaming, and they came to her aid. The three men fled the scene in their car. Despite this, she still felt targeted and anxious about her safety, both on campus and in public areas like the library and the mall.
Earlier, I mentioned some of the issues that girls face even before entering university, such as financial constraints, being the first in their family to attend university, and a lack of mentorship. These issues are multifaceted and can compound existing anxieties about campus safety.
Now we are going to address the issue of gender-based violence (GBV).
It can be a constant struggle to feel safe in a place of learning, where people should treat each other with decency. GBV just makes things even harder. As an organization, we recognize that this is not a unique experience for just one student. It is a concern and a threat to young women across the country. We hear statistics about GBV, physical/sexual assault, and violence, and we know that we need to respond. We cannot empower girls and women, shame GBV, and end it, without focusing on initiatives for boys and young men. Sadly, a lot of GBV is perpetrated by boys and men.
We are not saying that boys and men have not witnessed or experienced GBV themselves; of course, they have. When they become older, those who witnessed or experienced GBV are more likely to perpetuate it in their own intimate partner relationships. So, how do we deal with wounded boys and men who have normalized verbal, physical, psychological and sexual violence?
For us, the answer was in the classroom. We went to high schools and had conversations to find out what we can do. Our Boys And Men (BAM) forum aims to address the issue of how to deal with boys who have witnessed and experienced GBV themselves. We want to ensure that they are adequately equipped to support and champion girls’ and young women’s safety.
This involves mentorship, shifting the toxic masculinity narrative, and making sure that when they graduate from high school, they won't see physical and intimate partner violence as a means of expressing themselves or wanting to remain dominant.
We believe in the power of partnerships and opportunities. We don't believe in reinventing the wheel, so we want to thank Juan Carlos for reaching out to us last year and offering us the opportunity to share our work, as well as the experiences of young black women in South Africa, and the student experience in general. Partnerships and opportunities like these provide our girls with the chance to network, build self-confidence, develop social etiquette, and expand their networks over time. We are grateful for these opportunities, including those we have received from TCU, that enable them to continue growing on their journeys.
You can find us on social media under the handle 18twenty8, and our website is 18twenty8.org. Thank you for listening.
Wiser's dictionary mentions that 18twenty8 aims to help women succeed in various aspects, including their emotional lives. In South Africa, how is mental health, as well as a woman's voice, perceived? How has this contributed to the emotional dimension of the organization?
The state of mental health in South Africa is quite complex. Let's start with the de jure and de facto biases. While there is impressive legislation in place, mental health is governed by the Mental Health Care Act, which aims to provide care to those who suffer from mental health issues. However, the legislation provides little guidance to mental health practitioners, resulting in confusion during implementation and a lack of support. This leads to mixed success in terms of our mental health outcomes and addressing the issue. While the legislation has good intentions, the experiences of mental health patients and practitioners often do not align with it, posing a huge challenge.
Another issue is stigma. People rarely openly admit to having a mental health issue. Depression and other issues can easily spiral into substance and drug abuse, and individuals are often reluctant to talk about what is really going on. This may have to do with cultural nuances and traditions. For example, black people in South Africa may not always seek therapy or acknowledge such issues due to the fear of bringing shame to their family or community.
Additionally, the current state of the country has the potential to impact people's mental health. For instance, the issue of load shedding and rolling blackouts can be frustrating and stressful, as power cuts happen four times a day for up to four hours at a time. This can make it difficult to maintain businesses, work, or study, and cause traffic congestion and accidents due to malfunctioning traffic lights and poor road infrastructure. All of these factors can contribute to pent-up frustrations and eventually lead to mental health issues.
To address these issues, 18twenty8 has partnered with a company called ICAS, which provides wellness services to our staff and beneficiaries through a 24/7 hotline that they can access free of charge. Qualified counselors are available to speak with individuals around any issues they are facing, and the conversations are confidential. ICAS also offers a call-back service and provides resources such as podcasts and videos to help individuals deal with mental health issues.
It's important to acknowledge that mental health issues are a reality in South Africa and can have a specific impact, especially on women, in a fundamental way. Let's not make the issue worse and instead work towards finding solutions and support for those who need it.
It seems that in patriarchal societies, women sometimes internalize and impose misogynistic principles on themselves and other women. This is especially prevalent in older generations. As 18twenty8 aims to empower young women, have there been any criticisms from older women who disagree with the progress of their gender in society? How have women, in general, responded to the efforts of female-oriented organizations like yours?
It's our commonalities around the feminine experience that unite us, not our age differences.
Earlier, I mentioned our mentoring program, the Big Sister Network. Despite our name being 18twenty8, we do not exclude women who are older than 28. Our Big Sister Network benefits because of the involvement of older women. The Big Sister Network relies on our mentors, and we hold seminars where we share the progress we're making in our mentoring journeys and relationships. This platform encourages intergenerational dialogue among women from various sectors and life experiences. I also discussed peer and reverse mentorship.
We haven't encountered any issues with older women feeling excluded or being unsupportive of our work. It's essential that we remain accessible and open to anyone who wants to support our organization. After all, we wouldn't have a Big Sister Network without Big Sisters.
Dr. Juan Carlos Sola-Corbacho
Based on your experience living in South Africa, what do you consider to be the most challenging issue in South African society? How does this differ from your experiences in the Western world? Additionally, we would like to know if it is more difficult to be a woman, a black woman, or an African woman in South Africa, and how these challenges compare to those faced when living in the Western world.
In South Africa, I would say that being a woman is the biggest challenge. After apartheid, affluence de-racialized, and black people were able to improve their economic positions. However, poverty remains a predominantly black issue. For me, that's the best way to put it.
Globally, I think about my race first, rather than my gender. This question is difficult to answer because both race and gender are key identifiers of my experience. I am constantly reminded of my gender, with people telling me what women can and cannot do. Similarly, with race, people treat me in a certain way because of the color of my skin. It's a difficult question to answer, but I am constantly navigating both aspects of my identity and responding as best as I can.
Hi, thank you for joining us today. My question is about the hyper-masculine culture in South Africa. What challenges did you face when founding your organization, and what is one of your most memorable experiences working with these women leaders?
Thank you, Kiana.
Believe it or not, the challenges were not related to masculinity. I have never had to contend with men who were not feminists, in founding 18twenty8. Frankly, it would not make sense to associate with men who are not feminists, given our work. In my personal and professional circles, the men are feminists. There have been challenges and mistakes, but also a lot of stories and lessons.
One challenge was accepting help from people who lacked the time and capacity that I needed to run and grow 18twenty8. The challenge was that some people were not right for the organization, and I put in my all, as opposed to those who saw it as a hobby. It became problematic because our respective levels of commitment were not aligned.
From a personal perspective, making the transition from stage and television acting to the financial services world and private banking, because my education is in economics and finance and my postgraduate degree is in business, was a major challenge.
I have gone from stage, television, radio and financial services to the nonprofit sector. I quickly realized that I didn’t know anything about the nonprofit sector, that I wasn't prepared to learn. So, I knew that I didn't know, and I knew I was prepared to learn what I didn’t know, but that transition was very difficult to make.
I'm grateful my mom was there. I'm sorry to lie to you all, but she is the actual founder of 18twenty8! She believed in it more than I did sometimes, in ways that I could not have. She was the one who kept it going when I didn't believe.
My challenge was in wanting a certain level of comfort and significance. I abandoned everything that I had achieved in my entertainment and financial services’ careers just to move back home, at the age of 28 no less, to sleep in the same room that I slept in as a teenager. I had no sense of purpose, was fending off creditors and felt like a real loser in my mother’s house.
Having to contend with a lot of self-doubt and a lack of accomplishment were my biggest personal challenges.
One of my most memorable experiences, in the early years of founding 18twenty8, took place at a leadership camp where we were mentored as young people in the nonprofit, and various sectors, by different CEOs across South Africa. I will always remember what one of them said to us: “As a leader, do not expect anyone to do anything you cannot do, have not done, or will not do." That really stuck with me. Authenticity in leadership requires rolling up your sleeves and being in the trenches.
Earlier, you mentioned dismantling patriarchal norms in smaller cities where women in power are not as prevalent. In your opinion, what is the most vital first step to achieving this? Additionally, does gender equality in these smaller cities depend on changing the attitudes of both older men and women?
I mentioned earlier that women in rural areas need autonomy in four key areas: reproductive autonomy, which includes primary healthcare; economic autonomy; intellectual autonomy and technological autonomy.
Reproductive autonomy involves ensuring that women have access to contraception and family planning services so that they can make informed decisions about having children. Women in difficult positions should not be forced to have children if they are not ready.
Economic autonomy means giving women access to markets and employment opportunities so that they can earn a living and start their own businesses when they are ready. Skilled women can generate income for themselves and contribute to their communities.
Intellectual autonomy involves providing skills training and development opportunities so that women can use their minds to pursue their interests and reach their full potential.
Finally, through technological autonomy women in South Africa’s rural, and other remote areas, can take charge of their lives, achieve their goals and reach wider networks of support.
What has the government done to address gender inequality and the disparity in representation of genders in politics? Furthermore, how can citizens hold the government more accountable for taking a stand on these issues?
Our government consists of 28 ministries, with an equal split of 14 male and 14 female ministers. While this may seem like an achievement for gender equality, it is a simplistic way of looking at the issue. When we include the president and deputy, who are both male, the number of cabinet positions increases to 30, and the gender balance becomes less clear. In reality, men are more likely to hire other men and maintain their power in their respective ministries.
South Africa has legislation to address gender representation. We also have a Commission for Gender Equity and an annual Presidential Summit to deal with gender-based violence. We held the second summit in 2022 in response to what has become a national crisis. We have a National Gender Policy Framework that exists across different sectors of our country.
While we can continue to hold the government accountable through conferences, summits, policy documents, and more, the real work lies in holding them accountable, as South African citizens, who want to see these policies upheld and mainstreamed.
Dr. Juan Carlos Sola-Corbacho
Imagine you wake up tomorrow and find out that you are the new President of South Africa. What would be the first thing you do?
While I appreciate the offer, I don’t have any political aspirations, and even if I did, I would defer to someone more qualified. I understand your line of questioning, and you may be wondering what changes or improvements I would make. However, I am content with my current role at 18twenty8 and prefer to leave the governance of the country to those who are more interested, and qualified, to do so.