She is Botswana’s poster child, having lived the majority of her 23 years in the spotlight, modelling true patriotism though her philanthropic work.
Gogontlejang Phaladi is no stranger to many, both locally and across the globe, as attested by the numerous awards she bears.
However, the eloquent youth is quick to point out that though she is humbled and proud of her journey this far, it is not the accolades nor the celebrated giants of the world she wishes to dwell on.
“I could mention the many I have met and interacted with but truth be told, that is not what moves me. I find that I’m inspired by those who, despite the odds, commit to do and be great every day. Men and women who seek to better their lives irrespective of where they are in life. These real stories rejuvenate and I find that I continue to grow learning from them.”
One would assume having had the kind of audience she has had, Phaladi’s life would read like a bestseller but she reveals life has not always been rosy.
“I have had to make difficult decisions and at a point I have found myself quite frustrated. I have never been one to shy away from speaking my mind and this has repeatedly meant rubbing some folks the wrong way. In a society that still believes children cannot question or even meaningfully engage in issues and compounded by patriarchy I have had my share of judgement,” she observes, her passionate words reflected in her intelligent eyes, which burn bright with indignation.
Phaladi reveals she often got into trouble at school for standing up for herself and fellow students, resulting in a toxic environment that led to her quitting.
“I felt I would be better suited studying at home and luckily my parents were extremely supportive and accommodating.”
It would prove to be an inspired decision as soon after she was sponsored by Maruapula School to study there.
“I was humbled as it is one of the best schools in Southern Africa. Unlike Government Schools, there is a huge drive to match one’s interests, which then contribute to one’s overall assessment. So students are adequately guided and supported in these areas. It contributes to well-rounded individuals who don’t then struggle with foreign concepts later in life.
“Social responsibility becomes a crucial part of one’s learning. Unlike in other places I am saddened by how lax we can be as a society. We do not have a strong civil society and I believe it is because we have not inculcated exposure to issues and aligned our education system to the realities of life hence we don’t tackle issues thoroughly.”
Phaladi points out that not enough young people are well versed with their rights and the role they can play in society.
“I had to give up my Political Science studies at the University of Botswana (UB) as I was given an ultimatum to choose between my work and my studies. I couldn’t understand why I had to, though I was aware my government sponsorship dictated this. One wonders how students will then be able to gain experience while building networks, and for some pay for their tuition – I find this to be backwards!”
Phaladi says at the time she tried to engage relevant authorities so as to argue her case but her pleas fell on deaf ears.
“So I lost two years of my life as I chose to walk away!”
Fortunately Phaladi’s parents stood by her once more.
“Education is extremely important and to be honest I was surprised when my parents did not get upset. My sister and I were raised to be independent thinkers with an opinion that was always encouraged.
“Growing up we were encouraged to read extensively and we watched the news and were then allowed to fully engage in what we had seen. For the longest time I assumed this was the case in other homes but I must admit, my family is special. There is neither topic nor issue that we don’t talk about. Even when younger, my parents would share, for example, how much they earned and we would as a family decide how we would spend it amongst the family needs.”
Phaladi explains this instilled a sense of responsibility and encouraged her to have a healthy relationship with money.
“I learnt that if I wanted something I would have to work for it. My parents were also clear that at a certain age we were expected to leave home and fend for ourselves. Staying past this age resulted in having to contribute financially to the household. It amazes me how wasteful some young people can be yet at the same time be embarrassed to work, especially if it is jobs they consider are beneath them. This is a flawed mentality! One must always be willing to do what needs to be done to better themselves – as long as they don’t steal or do anything illegal!” she laughs, a sound that is a constant backdrop throughout the interview.
In addition to her humanitarian work, Phaladi has since enrolled with Unisa (University of South Africa) pursuing a law degree and also runs a mentorship programme for young women.
“The UB debacle hurt but I learnt you win some and you lose some,” she shrugs with an indifferent grin.
Of her appointment to the 2036 vision council, Phaladi says with a maturity that belies her tender years, “I have accepted that maybe to see the change I desire, I must work within the system. I am mindful of the impression some people have of me. I cannot always seem to differ with the status quo but seek ways to get my message across in a manner that is inclusive and not viewed as divisive!”
Even at 23, Phaladi says she is often confronted by situations that undermine her.
“It is still an issue for some to understand that a young woman can hold her own and they use the age factor to discredit her.”
It is this reason Phaladi feels strongly that there ought to be concerted efforts to grow the number of women leaders.
“We need to have more so it becomes a norm. This does not in any way suggest women must be given roles they may not deserve just to tick boxes. Representation that is not tokenistic but deserved. There are competent women that can adequately deliver on any front and government and the private sector can take the lead by providing genuine empowerment opportunities. It really can be done and this in turn will also have society get used to the fact that women are indeed capable,” she stresses, a sense of urgency creeping into her voice.
Phaladi candidly points out that women can sometimes be their own worst enemies, reflecting sadly, “There is an unhealthy tradition where at times women who make it to the top thrive on being the only women there. Perhaps our socialisation has aided this, that being the only woman amongst men is a sign of strength. However, this robs us of the chance of realising that there is power in numbers. If we can have more women ascending to leadership positions then we can achieve more.
“Though strides have been made, it can at times feel like a talk shop when one realises that even today the plight of women is still engrained in many societies.
“Women need to be more supportive and be deliberate in pushing our agenda. Any woman that has a seat in the ‘boardroom’ has a responsibility to bring other women into that environment. She needs to let down the ladder for others to climb as well. We need to expose opportunities to others, mentor, support and even aid financially where needed, just so we are no longer comfortable with just few women making it.”
Warming to her theme, she goes on to say, “It is awkward that at some point we had women leading as speaker of the national assembly, governor of Bank of Botswana, the Attorney General and there were quite a few making a mark in the international space, ie the appointment of a Motswana woman to the ICC, but we can’t even get to 10 women in parliament or show a constructive and deliberate succession plan.
“After them, who? Are we grooming other women to follow in their footsteps, are we capacitating them to ensure there is no gap once they leave? Women are standing for positions but we are not electing them at primary elections and many a time one realises that it is not so much that our male counterparts can do a better job but they have access to resources to buy tshirts for electorates for instance.
“How are women in influential positions with access ensuring that other women get a fair chance? How are they using their power to influence policy and push women’s agenda?” Phaladi queries, her unanswered questions hanging heavy in the air.
Despite her hectic schedule, like most fun-loving 23-year-olds, Phaladi enjoys spending time with friends and listening to music.
“I really like to have a good laugh,” she ends, her words echoed with a perfectly timed throaty chuckle.