‘Unless you fight for it, it’s not worth it once you get there’: Exclusive podcast with South Africa’s cabinet secretary Phindile Baleni

By on 30/03/2023 | Updated on 04/07/2023
South Africa's secretary of the cabinet and director-general of the presidency, Phindile Baleni.

Series 3 of Global Government Forum’s Leading Questions starts off with a bang – our first interview for the podcast with a serving cabinet secretary: Phindile Baleni, South Africa’s secretary of the cabinet and director-general of the presidency.

An attorney by background, Phindile moved from the private to the public sector in 1994 just as the country was moving from the old apartheid regime to a new democratic order. Having watched a televised debate between a minister and a provincial counterpart on constitution that turned into an “untidy” argument, Phindile decided she wanted to play an active part in South Africa’s transition. She “raised her hand”, offering her services as a legal adviser to a provincial government “and as they say, the rest is history”.

Raising her hand and volunteering for work beyond the job description has been a theme throughout Phindile’s career and is – as she explained during a panel session on leadership at GGF’s Innovation 2023 conference in London on 21 March – what got her noticed, and eventually appointed the most senior public servant in the land. “Make sure people know what you are capable of, and when you are given that opportunity, embrace it – do not step back,” she says.

She had a solid foundation on which to build a distinguished career, crediting her parents with giving her and her siblings “confidence by design”. But it hasn’t been without struggle. Indeed, she describes her public service journey as like “navigating an obstacle course”, not least on account of her race and gender.

From a magistrate describing her as a “little girl” and refusing to address her in the courtroom to coming up against lawyers in the public service who excluded her by speaking Afrikaans, Phindile has faced discrimination with strength and grace – sometimes working to educate bigots and when necessary “fighting fire with fire”.

She describes the “harrowing” experience of transforming a public service built on apartheid – to serve four million of a population of 54 million – into a democratic system capable of serving all South Africans. “We were up against a whole nation full of laws blocking the ability of the new government to do anything,” she explains, adding that at that time municipal governments – which act as the government’s implementation arm, delivering frontline services – “didn’t want black people in white towns and didn’t want black people doing business”.

On gender, she has fought for her colleagues as well as for herself, railing against the idea that “women type up the minutes of the meeting and make the tea”.

As Zukiswa Mqolomba, deputy chairperson of South Africa’s Public Service Commission explained in an interview for GGF’s Women Leaders Index, though the number of female senior leaders now nearly equals men, they do not enjoy the same influence and respect as their male counterparts.

“We have gone from no opportunity to some opportunity but now we need to be talking about the quality of the opportunity that we give to women leaders,” Phindile says in the podcast. “Lots of things in the work environment that are not conducive to women’s growth.”

This, she explains, has been shaped by a male culture that sees emotion as playing no part in good leadership. “Bring your emotional intelligence to work and you will have a team that works differently,” she counters. “Human beings are human beings.”

Using her experiences and leadership prowess to support others – Phindile subscribes to the idea popular in Africa that “a star shines because the other star gives you the light for you to shine” – she has also worked to help talented colleagues get over crises of confidence, pushing them out of their comfort zones so that they can achieve their best. 

Touching on everything from planning for the unknown and “joining the dots” with data, to “prising open” space for people to be creative even if that means they make mistakes, Baleni shares her lessons in resilience and never giving up in this engaging interview.

This is the first episode of Leading Questions Series 2. Episodes in Series 2 include:
·      Australia’s governance chief Stephanie Foster who discusses stepping into the unknown, and embracing her strengths – and flaws – as a leader
·      UK civil service stalwart Sir Suma Chakrabarti, who talks of staying sane while
managing change

·      Canada’s former cabinet secretary Michael Wernick on taking the good with the bad
Listen to all episodes of Series 1 & 2 here: Leading Questions podcast: civil service leaders share what they learned from their time at the top.

We are searching the globe to find the best examples of public sector leadership for Leading Questions Series 3. If you’d like to recommend someone to feature in a future episode, please get in touch.

About Mia Hunt

Mia is a journalist and editor with a background in covering commercial property, having been market reports and supplements editor at trade title Property Week and deputy editor of Shopping Centre magazine, now known as Retail Destination. She has also undertaken freelance work for several publications including the preview magazine of international trade show, MAPIC, and TES Global (formerly the Times Educational Supplement) and has produced a white paper on energy efficiency in business for E.ON. Between 2014 and 2016, she was a member of the Revo Customer Experience Committee and an ACE Awards judge. Mia graduated from Kingston University with a first-class degree in journalism and was part of the team that produced The River newspaper, which won Publication of the Year at the Guardian Student Media Awards in 2010.

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