If you’re a history buff, then you no doubt know what the 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution that was ratified in 1919 provided for. The landmark amendment granted women the right to vote, and more importantly “equality” with their male counterparts. This continued well into the future with the 1965 Voting Rights Act that once again reaffirmed the 15th Amendment, guaranteeing the right to vote regardless of “race” and “gender.”
Fast forward to the present, we’re now witnessing South Africa mirror our own checkered history regarding civil rights, thanks to females like Refilwe Ledwaba, South Africa’s first black woman helicopter pilot to have flown for the South African Police Service.
Ledwaba is now teaching African girls as young as 14-years-old how to become pilots while also competing within a male dominated culture.
Teenager Paballo (Pabi) Leqhotsa stands on the runway at Africa’s Grand Central Airport after taking control and landing the four-seater Cessna monoplane for the first time. Giddy with delight because of her accomplishment, the teenager happily exclaimed, “It was amazing. I felt like I was in control, do you understand?” Piloting an aircraft was something the young woman from Soweto, a township just outside Johannesburg, had dreamed of doing since she was a little girl.
South Africa helicopter pilot Refilwe Ledwaba is teaching young girls to fly! 🚀❤ pic.twitter.com/ExGsN9vtsF— Ulrich Janse van Vuuren (@UlrichJvV) September 26, 2018
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Besides being the country’s first black female helicopter pilot, Ledwaba is also the founder of the Girl Fly Program in Africa Foundation (GFPA), a non-profit organization empowering young girls like Paballo to take up science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) subjects.
Each year she organizes a flying camp for girls where they learn about robotics, coding, and aviation. Then, each of the girls gets a free flying lesson at some point during the year. “I want the girls to be successful,” she said. “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.”
Dressed in her pilot’s uniform, Ledwaba stands on the runway, watching each teenager take their turn to fly. Her passion in developing South Africa’s next generation of female aviators is evident, as she instructs each girl on how to master the complexity of the controls and, ultimately, the aircraft.
The 43-year-old aviator grew up in a single parent household with six siblings, and had never even been near a plane until she was 17. She had planned on a career in medicine, until that fateful day when she took a flight from Cape Town to Johannesburg and discovered the pilot flying the aircraft was a female. From that moment on, everything changed. Ledwaba was determined to become a pilot.
However, before her dream could be accomplished, she needed to work in order to support her private flying lessons.
“I wrote about 200 letters to every company I could think of in South Africa,” she said. Eventually, her persistence paid off with three companies offering her employment, including the South African Police Service who also offered to pay for her training as a helicopter pilot and to support her plan to get a commercial pilot’s license.
Refilwe Ledwaba is South Africa's first black person to fly for the police but she's not content with being the first. She wants to empower thousands more girls to soar. https://t.co/C9Edb8hU5K— CNN (@CNN) January 13, 2020
Limpopo has since left the police and now spends her time as an instructor, focusing on getting girls interested in the aviation industry. The teenagers who are fortunate enough to attend the week-long camp are all academic achievers.
Today, the acclaimed aviator queries hundreds of applications from young girls, both black and white, dreaming of becoming pilots and being accepted to the week long camp. The aviation camp usually totals about 100 young teenagers between the ages of 14 to 18, most of who are from South Africa and Botswana (located in the Magaliesberg mountain range).