Refilwe Ledwaba
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Refilwe Ledwaba Biography

Bio Synopsis

Refilwe Ledwaba, born and bred in Lenyenye, a semi-rural township in the Limpopo province of South Africa, found herself at her wits’ end when she could not pursue a career in science due to outstanding university fees. By breaking cultural and social barriers in aviation at the grassroot level, Ledwaba aspires to make aviation a norm for women through the Girls Fly Programme in Africa foundation. Read more

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Refilwe Ledwaba Early Life

Refilwe Ledwaba was born in South Africa. She grew up in Limpopo, a province in the northeast of South Africa. Her mother, a teacher, raised seven children alone. She says her upbringing influenced her chosen path.

“I don’t know how she (her mother) did it, she sent us all to university. So, from a very young age, I always thought I could be anything because I looked at her and I’m like ‘Oh, there’s a superwoman,'” she said.

Refilwe Ledwaba said further: “As a young girl, I had the privilege of growing up surrounded by powerful women, one of them my neighbour who was a Doctor. She built a health community centre and encouraged women to have small vegetable gardens. It was my first experience of how women can empower other women.”

“Even though I was incredibly young, I never forgot her white coat and how stylish she was. It was the first time I encountered a female doctor (a black female doctor) and I think that is when I decided early on that I was going to be a doctor.”

“I pictured myself being a doctor because I saw someone who looks like me as a doctor and most importantly that person was helping the community. I went on to study science and it was during that time that I also got exposed to aviation.”

“Even though I did not become a doctor, I went on to break boundaries in the aviation industry and most importantly I continue to make a difference.”

Refilwe Ledwaba Biography and Profile

Refilwe Ledwaba, born and bred in Lenyenye, a semi-rural township in the Limpopo province of South Africa, found herself at her wits’ end when she could not pursue a career in science due to outstanding university fees.

Refilwe Ledwaba
Refilwe Ledwaba

Today, as she soars the African skies as a contract flyer for various charter companies on the continent, her distant past keeps her grounded.

By turning challenges to opportunities, this University of Cape Town and Bachelor of Science candidate, ended up at an interview for a position in an industry she knew nothing about.

“I think that it was one of my down moments because I am thinking that I worked so hard. I did well at university. I am supposed to go to medical school but I can’t go now and now I have to become an air hostess. You think life dealt you another blow, but that is when everything changed,” she says.

Ledwaba initially planned to become a doctor, and to help fund her studies, she got a job as a flight attendant. She later realized she was interested in learning to fly so she began taking private flying lesson.

Her unique passion for aviation grew over time; she gave in to the persuasion from instructors at the Comair training center and eventually trained as a pilot. After many years, Ledwaba has gained experience flying a range of choppers and airplanes.

Breaking Cultural and Social Barriers in Aviation

By breaking cultural and social barriers in aviation at the grassroot level, Ledwaba aspires to make aviation a norm for women through the Girls Fly Programme in Africa foundation.

This, she believes, can be achieved by exposing young girls to the industry at a young age, with hands-on training courses and life skills in aviation.

“Limitations are not imposed by the community, they are created structurally. There are limitations imposed as to what you can be, you become what you see. If you are surrounded by teachers and doctors, that will be the limit in terms of what you will be,” she says.

Refilwe Ledwaba
Refilwe Ledwaba

By documenting the untold stories of African women in aviation, she hopes to highlight the fact that women have proven themselves capable in male-dominated industries for years.

“It is almost as if have we regressed. We no longer have women’s flying clubs. You hardly hear that women are competing now. But they did it back in the 1940s, that is why I feel it is important to touch that history. It needs to be in the museums, we need to go to museums and read these stories about the women so that it is no longer an event that women are flying,” she says.

Refilwe Ledwaba Career

Refilwe Ledwaba is a helicopter and fixed-wing pilot, a flight instructor, an advocate for women’s rights and a Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation goalkeeper who made history by becoming the first black female pilot to fly for the police service in South Africa.

Ledwaba says she’s on a mission to improve the numbers — starting in Africa. She teaches young pilots in training how to operate aircraft.

“For a long time, I was the only black female that was holding the highest license for helicopters. But being the first for me is not important. The important is the 20th person, the 30th person, then we can start talking,” she said.

GFPA Foundation

In 2009 Refilwe Ledwaba founded Southern African Women in Aviation and Aerospace industry (SAWIA). Though formally established in 2009 and registered as an NPO in 2011, SAWIA was conceived in 2007 when we recognised the need for an organisation to represent Southern African women and girls in the aviation and aerospace industry in the SADC region.

The organisation established GFPA. We wanted to create a platform that educates girls about aviation and aerospace at a grassroots level.

Girls fly programme in Africa (GFPA), a non-profit organization is an information and educational Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics (STEAM) programme for primary, high school and Post-school learners with a focus on aviation and space.

The programme includes the use of design thinking, technology, and innovation to shape, empower, enable and support the next generation of makers and problem solvers in the aviation and space industry in Africa while entrenching the spirit of Ubuntu.

We also wanted to empower them with information and access to other women in the field addressing one of the enablers of gender equality in the STEAM field. With the success of GFPA, our focus shifted from SAWIA and we registered GFPA independently as an NPC and PBO.

The Foundation is currently operating in Botswana, Cameroon, Kenya and South Africa. In 2020 we established a global fund, an independent trust to support our operations and programmes in Africa.

Refilwe Ledwaba Awards

Refilwe’s entrepreneurship journey started 8 years ago when she established Southern African Women in Aviation and Aerospace industry(SAWIA).

The success of the 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,
  • the winner of the aviation category of CEO Communication’s Most Influential Women in Business and Government in 2012 and 2015;
  • she was listed as one of Top 35 Africans Under 35 to watch by the Young People in International Affairs (YPIA) in 2014

Refilwe Ledwaba Education and Training

Refilwe Ledwaba is a qualified rotor wing and fixed wing pilot. She holds the highest-flying license in helicopters and a commercial license in fixed wings. She is also a qualified fixed-wing flight instructor.

She holds a Bachelor of Science degree (Microbiology and Biochemistry) from the University of Cape Town (UCT), A Post Graduate Diploma in Business Administration from UCT graduate school of business and an MBA from the University of Pretoria’s Gordon Institute of business science with a focus on Airline strategies.

Refilwe Ledwaba words of advice

South Africa’s first Black female helicopter pilot Refilwe Ledwaba has some words of advice for anyone who fears discrimination will prevent them from achieving their dreams. Instead of focusing on those who seek to do you down, find some of the many people who would be happy to see you doing what you love and join forces with them.

Growing up in apartheid South Africa with six siblings and a single, working mother, Ledwaba was very close to her local community but under no illusions about the outside world.

“When you are a female and a Black person, it is a double whammy,” Refilwe Ledwaba said. “If you don’t have the right people, you could be (Albert) Einstein, but you will never make it.”

Reflecting on her career, she said she has always favoured optimists over cynics. The “number of people who are not happy to see you there are far less than those who want you to be,” she said. “Partner with them.”

Refilwe Ledwaba
Refilwe Ledwaba
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