The Importance of Firsts’

By Tsepiso Theko

When Prof Puleng Lenkabula was appointed principal and Vice-chancellor at UNISA, I dragged writing anything. I thought I didn’t want to sound like I was happy only because Prof Puleng Lenkabula was a woman. I worried my article would be the ‘halala first black woman’ read buckled in clichés. But that really was the point of my article, that she’s the first woman to hold that office. I don’t know if it’s because we’ve grown to have many women firsts that it has become normal and unnecessary to hype or it was the fear of being viewed as overly popular or woke with my gender.

But to be honest, Puleng Lenkabula becoming the first black woman to be appointed as Vice-chancellor of UNISA does make me proud. And happy. And maybe overly popular with my gender.

When Nelson Mandela became the first black president, he inspired a lot of young black male leaders across the globe. Barack Obama was also inspired by Nelson Mandela. It was after him that it was possible for every other South African black man to even dream of being President.

This is the same with Prof Lenkabula. Her becoming the first woman to hold the position is a big deal for women. It is an indication of possibilities and change.

 Just like Kamala Harris who became the first woman to hold the USA vice presidential office. And also who said eloquently on her speech “I am the first but definetly not the last”. She inspired a lot of young girls and women because there was never a female Vice president before in USA. It is not easy to dream of something you haven’t seen before.

Firsts are significant especially to those previously marginalized; The First Woman, The First Black Person, First Black Woman, First queer woman. I had to remind myself that it is a big deal,  that we still live for these firsts and that they keep us going. Do you ever wonder about the first female president Vigdís Finnbogadóttir? Who dared her to even consider running for a seat that had always belonged to men? She had to go first for Liberia’s Elen Johnson to go next, the first female African president who recently said on a speech “We’re creating this wave of women who are ready to take high-level leadership positions in society, and they’re going to do it unabashedly, they’re going to go for it intentionally”.

The intention is to be first so there can be more. A first must and should happen for others to follow. Firsts are the ones who make it easy for those that follow. Firsts mean there was never one like you before, therefore all the policies in place may not necessarily favour you, but you’ll be the first to make it work. Firsts are there to bring about change.

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