Lesotho-born Rhodes Scholar and Oxford University PhD student, Sebabatso Manoeli, researches African histories and politics. Her current research focuses on the Sudan People’s Liberation Army/Movement. Prior to the PhD, she obtained an MSc in African Studies from Oxford University, where she was awarded the African Studies Prize for her dissertation. For her undergraduate degree, she received the Mandela scholarship at Amherst College where she majored in Political Science and Black Studies. It was at Amherst where she also had the opportunity to study abroad at the American University in Cairo, Egypt.
While working at the Oxford Martin Commission for Future Generations as a research assistant, her work included analyzing the strategic challenges to achieving the Millennium Development Goals and to combatting the HIV/AIDS pandemic. She was awarded the Machel-Mandela Internship at the Brenthurst Foundation in 2012 where her research focused on Lesotho’s textile industry and the experience of Chinese traders in Africa. She has also worked as a research assistant for international political commentators including Roger Cohen and Jonny Steinberg.
In addition to her commitment to applying her mind to the intractable and complex problems of our time, Ms Manoeli is also passionate about social justice and Africa’s political transformation. Subsequently, she has hosted a weekly radio show focusing on African current affairs on Oxford University’s student radio station. In 2011, she was a speaker at the 55th Session of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women hosted at the United Nations Headquarters in New York City where she addressed the challenges to women’s engagement in the political space in Africa. She worked at the African Leadership Academy as the External Relations Analyst. In 2010, she led an anti-human-trafficking campaign through several South African cities during the World Cup. She is also a 2009 Senior Fellow of the Moremi Initiative for Women’s Leadership in Africa. Currently, Ms Manoeli currently serves as the 2013-14 President of the Oxford University Africa Society.
- Why did you pick the career path that you did?
There are three reasons. Firstly, for about ten years, I have been acutely aware of the global asymmetries of power and I have desired to help correct them. As a teenager, I was specifically concerned by the scarcity of African women in decision-making positions on an international stage. I decided then that I wanted to become one.
Secondly, I was born in the country affectionately called “the Kingdom in the Sky”, Lesotho, which is rich in beauty and tranquility. However, the economy of my home country led my family to work in the greener pastures of South Africa when I was a child. It was as a high school debater in the post-1994 South Africa, where I became fascinated with the possibility of critically engaging with the issues of our day to refine our democracy and empower the disempowered. Growing up in open societies that were also multicultural, gave me an appreciation for diversity and I sought to harness its power. I therefore aim at becoming the kind of leader who values the multiplicity of cultures and perspectives of the people she represents.
Finally, coming from two African countries helped me gain a sense of connectedness to the whole continent, thus I knew that I wanted to serve Africa in the realm of policymaking. In order to best serve Africa, I decided to devote myself to the study of the continent, to apply my mind to the challenges that it faces, to understand it so as to best serve it. Hence, I have aimed to become an expert with deep knowledge of the continent I deeply love.
- Who and what are some of your influences?
I have been greatly influenced by my Christian faith. I have thus grown to see the unseen, to believe in the transformation of the African political landscape, where freedom, justice and equality are guaranteed for every person in Africa, to see the revitalization of the continent’s economies and the restoration of dignity to the people of Africa. It has influenced my ability to have faith for a better future. I have also been influenced by the close and careful mentorship of many women and men who have spent hours with me, encouraging, teaching and advising me.
Do you wish you could have done things differently if given the chance?
I would have started reading meaningful books at a younger age. I believe that it would have made me a more interesting person and given me more of a competitive edge when applying for opportunities.
- What and who inspires and motivates you?
My family motivates me to become all that I long to be. I am also fortunate to have a several close friends who believe in me and challenge me to grow. Moreover, I am inspired by the concept of love, and I wish to make it the foundational principal in the way I engage with power and leadership.
- What do you count as your greatest achievement?
It is difficult to say because what one considers as her greatest achievement is a reflection of how she defines success. Personally, I aim to define it by how much I am growing in love, humility and excellence. That makes it a “thing” of character. Since it is so hard to quantify, I believe that best way to perceive it would be by reflecting on the difficult moments of life that become tests of character. Ultimately, while this form of success will remain unquantifiable on a resume or a CV, I believe this strength of character will manifest in the authority and honor that a person receives from those with whom she is closest and those she leads.
- What are some struggles you faced in your life that came about because of your gender?
There are two types of struggles that particularly affect me. Firstly, the double invisibility that comes from being a black female in male-dominated settings. In those settings, the men with whom I walked would be greeted and I would be ignored, their views considered and mine marginalized. Often it comes from well-meaning people who do so unwittingly because they have been socialized to value the voices of men and other majority groups. The second is the struggle to be seen as an equal and taken seriously rather than a potential romantic partner to men in male-dominated environments.
- How have you overcome these struggles and/or insecurities?
Firstly, I became aware of the problem. This means I did not interpret being ignored as the result of any personal inadequacy, instead I interpreted it as a systemic vice, a flaw in the way power is organized in our present day and age. Women are not seen in certain environments, because to be male is to be “normal,” and women of racial minorities experience this more acutely.
Secondly, I have had to learn to speak up and be bold. For example, I will be the one to greet if I have been ignored, so I stretch my hand and offer a firm handshake. I look people in the eye with a confident look that silently speaks that I am present and should be seen and heard. I think our body language as women can empower us if we are aware of the subtle but powerful gestures we can make to be made “visible.”
Thirdly, I seek to be as professional and excellent as I can be. That means I do not give sexist people an opportunity to “prove” their prejudices by looking at me. I try to show up on time, work hard and keep clear boundaries with male colleagues in professional settings.
- How important is family especially in light of your career and professional life?
I would like to have a family of my own therefore I plan to make room in my life for that. This will require sacrifice and commitment, and I hope when the time is right, I will be ready to give myself to those important tasks. If I do have one, I will have to think carefully about how I wish to sequence my ambitions.
- Do you believe it is important to share your story with other women?
Yes, I believe we, as women, should be sharing our stories with each other, to inspire and help each other.
- In your experience, what do you think are some prevalent issues women face in everyday life? Professionally?
In poor countries like mine, women continue to bear the brunt of poverty and disease. Life is hard and women are making difficult decisions everyday to survive and to help their loved ones survive. These women work in illegal vocations like prostitution or legal ones like domestic service. In their daily lives, they have little to no options to gain dignity and engage in the formal economy like men. Legislation regarding inheritance, domestic violence and sexual abuse in many countries continues to leave women vulnerable and disenfranchised. These policy decisions have implications of the daily lives of women.
- What do you think needs to be done to address these issues?
Much can be done to address these issues. To name a few, for sustainable gender justice on a macro-level, I believe it is imperative to have ethical political leadership; develop healthy economies and we should promote a culture of open opportunity. On a micro-level, each individual can and must commit to promoting equality among women and men, and to inspiring the women in our lives to believe that they, too, can (and should) aspire to greatness.
- What would you tell another young woman who wants to go down the same path that you have chosen?
I would encourage her to have confidence in her gifts and vision. She does not need to conform to what is socially expected of her. She should muster the courage to be heard. I would encourage her to develop holistically as a human being – which means in addition to advancing her career, she should, for example, develop emotional intelligence, nurture her own spiritual growth, and lead a healthy lifestyle.
- What do you do to give back to your community?
I give back through remote mentorship and I give talks to young people. Further, my work focuses on Africa and I have had the privilege to make policy recommendations to people currently in positions of power.
- If you could tell young women 1 thing, what would it be?
The world needs you, therefore become yourself – fully, freely.