It was a mid-1990s Bona article on a black woman engineer that stopped the young Dr Rethabile Melamu in her tracks. A schoolgirl from Lesotho, she had no idea women could become engineers. But in that moment, she glimpsed her future self. Here, on the magazine pages, was a role model.
Fast forward several decades to see how that early encounter played out. In May this year the University of Cape Town (UCT) alumna in chemical engineering was appointed chief executive officer of the South African Photovoltaic Industry Association (SAPVIA), the first black woman in the job.
Recognised as one of the “Women Who Are Changing South Africa in the Public Sector”, Dr Melamu has been described as a thought leader in the green economy and energy sectors. She is also a proponent of innovative smart technologies to mitigate climate change and is keenly interested in the potential of renewable energy to fuel Africa’s sustainable development.
Meaningful implementation, just transition
With the energy crisis hobbling the country and many parts of the world, especially in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, there’s no better time to be in the sector, she said.
In South Africa, there were warning signs of an electricity crisis as far back as 2000. There is no doubt that the country should have planned better, she added. Corruption and delays in developing and implementing an integrated energy plan have not helped either.
“And when the National Energy Act came into effect in 2008, it was an attempt for us to plan more holistically, instead of just focusing on electricity, and consider gas and liquid fuels … energy is much broader than electricity. But it’s a huge opportunity for the renewable energy sector. We can use the crisis to have a meaningful implementation of a just transition.”
And renewable energies and solar photovoltaics (PV), specifically, are quicker to deploy, compared with coal-fired stations such as Medupi and Kusile, which took almost two decades to implement, she said.
“There are 600 million people on the continent who still do not have access to clean energy.”
“Because solar and wind are modular, you can bring multiple projects online within perhaps a quarter of the time that it will take to roll out large-scale, decentralised energy systems. It’s an opportune time for those of us who are in the sustainability space, those in the solar and renewable energy space, to drive the deployment of these because they concurrently address climate challenge, a major problem that we face.”
If implemented well, they hold immense social-economic benefits. It’s also a good solution for the continent, which is in dire need of energy access, she said.
“There are 600 million people on the continent who still do not have access to clean energy, electricity specifically. And that’s why I’m passionate about the potential.”
Paying it forward
Like the Bona magazine engineer who opened her eyes to possibilities, Melamu has become a role model for others.
Hers wasn’t a rags-to-riches story. Without tenacity and chutzpah, she may not have become a chemical engineer. At school she was among the top-O-level students in her home country. But she didn’t feel called to study medicine (her father’s recommendation). Hospitals depressed her. Because she loved chemistry and geography, she applied to study chemical engineering instead.
Being turned down by UCT and the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) left her reeling.
“I was so confident of getting in [that] I didn’t apply anywhere else.”
“I’m so grateful to that lady. Had she not given me an ear …”
Though she was later accepted by UKZN (their rejection had been a technical glitch), she wanted UCT.
In a small MTN container fitted with public phones, she called UCT and asked to speak with the dean of Engineering & the Built Environment, then Professor Cyril O’Connor. He’d sent her a rejection letter, she explained to his bemused assistant, but he’d made the wrong decision.
“I told her I had a pretty good case why they should accept me.”
Nothing doing. Tiring of her persistence, staff would put the phone down in her ear.
“They thought I was a crazy girl.”
One day someone new answered. She listened patiently to Melamu’s now well-tread story and then asked for her documents. She would take them to the faculty board meeting that discussed special cases. No promises.
But whatever happened at that meeting, Melamu got in.
“I’m so grateful to that lady. Had she not given me an ear …”
Things fall apart
It wasn’t plain sailing. In her third year, her father died suddenly, and everything fell apart. Deeply depressed and far from home, she had to repeat courses the following year.
“But things have a way of working out,” she said. “One of the people who have had a tremendous impact on me, and my career, is Professor Harro von Blottnitz. He’d had to break the news of my father’s death to me. He guided me through a master’s degree, bootstrapping to secure funding where there was none. He generously shared his networks with me. And he’s played a mentorship role ever since,” said Melamu.
She spent 14 years in UCT’s Department of Chemical Engineering, doing her PhD part-time while working on the staff, “part of the furniture … a fossil” to the graduates who came and went.
“They became my family and remain part of my family today.”
In 2014 she left UCT for an appointment at Green Cape and a year later as Director: Green Economy and a few months later as an Acting Chief Director: Sector and Industry Development at the Gauteng Department of Economic Development. Here she led the development of 11 economic sector strategies to transform, modernise and re-industrialise the province. She also led engagements with private and public sectors, locally and internationally, to stimulate the province’s green economy growth.
Next was a post as general manager of green economy at The Innovation Hub, managing a portfolio of 40 green economy start-ups. And from there CEO of SAPVIA.
Systemic challenges to women
With the focus on equality in Women’s Month, Melamu said that gender disparities had played less of a role in the energy sector. She’s never been held back by men. Rather, it was restrictive and outdated systems and structures that still don’t accommodate women. These need urgent revision, Melamu said.
“Most of the policies and strategies of organisations, including government, were designed without any gender sensitivity because they were … created by men.”
In the more conducive environment of 2022, she urges women to “allow themselves to dream and do”.
“If we spend more time on what is doable as opposed to what can’t be done, we can go a lot further … Let’s open our eyes wider. Let’s learn from everybody: juniors, seniors, and our peers. And as women in the energy sector, let’s learn from different fields.
“Let’s open doors for others and repay the heroes … the people who may not have gotten chances.”
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