Phumzile Van Damme: A young MP with a mission Standing up for women’s rights in South Africa’s parliament

By Gayane Alikhanyan
Phumzile Van Damme
Phumzile Van Damme

Phumzile Van Damme, one of the youngest members of parliament in South Africa, is also the shadow minister for communications. She grew up in a family of strong women, and her gift for leadership was already apparent when she was a child. In the fifth grade, she called a student strike because the teacher would not allow students to go out for break. For that she earned the nickname “Big Mouth.” Ms. Van Damme became active in national politics after graduation from Rhodes University in Grahamstown, South Africa, in 2007, with a bachelor’s degree in law and politics. She joined the Democratic Alliance (DA) as a staffer. The DA is the official opposition party to the governing African National Congress (ANC).humzile Van Damme, one of the youngest members of parliament in South Africa, is also the shadow minister for communications.

Without the financial backup that other politicians had, Ms. Van Damme at some point did menial jobs.

As a black woman, people expected her to join the ANC, the party of Nelson Mandela, but she had other ideas.

“I joined the DA as a disgruntled ANC supporter who found the DA’s liberal policies more appealing to me personally. My personal politics are very liberal. I believe in the liberty of the individual, equality, freedom and democracy,” Ms. Van Damme says.

Passionate about empowering young women, Ms. Van Damme is dedicated to making sure they have the support they need to stand on their own feet. “The harder I work, the easier I make it for young women who climb up the ladder behind me, so that their struggle will be a bit easier than mine,” she says.

“It is challenging to be a young woman. You struggle to be heard, people don’t take you seriously. You have to work twice as hard [as men] to be taken seriously,” Ms. Van Damme told Africa Renewal. Despite such challenges, she says, she would never give up fighting to bring about change in South Africa.

An opportunity came in 2014 when she was elected to parliament at the age of 31, helping to break a gender barrier that once confined women to only 3% of the lawmaking body. Today 42% of all seats in the South African parliament are held by women.

Last year she further distinguished herself by bringing a case against the British multinational public relations and advertising firm Bell Pottinger Private for stoking racial tensions to keep the ruling ANC in power. The firm was subsequently expelled from South Africa’s public relations and communications association.

Nevertheless, it is still a turbulent ride for women who choose a public service career. Phumzile has been disappointed by many developments in her field, but says, “Each time, I believe I learn from that disappointment and I become stronger.”

Her message to young women is, “If breakdown happens, you must never, ever think that it’s a sign of weakness or it’s a failure. Do not give up hope. Keep trying. Knock on every door. Work hard, have a balance and take care of yourselves.”

Africa Renewal