Ilhaam Ely’s job is to fix the city’s roads, but the work, which she hopes will one day help her afford a house for her family, is also breaking something else at the same time – the barrier that stopped women from doing certain jobs reserved for men.
Ms Ely, from Manenberg, is one of 24 women on the City of Cape Town’s four all-female road repair teams, who have been honoured by mayor Patricia de Lille for their pioneering work in the transport industry.
Speaking at the event held at the Cape Town Civic Centre banqueting hall on Wednesday July 6, Ms De Lille said the nationally recognised programme empowered the women and taught them new skills.
In May, it was named the Most Innovative Women Programme at the fourth annual Women in Construction awards ceremony in Johannesburg.
The City established the all-women road repair teams last year. They are based at Transport for Cape Town (TCT) depots in Heideveld, Ndabeni, Fish Hoek and Kuils River, as part of the Expanded Public Works Programme (EPWP).
The women, who all registered on job seeker databases at their local sub-council offices, were selected after undergoing assessments at the four depots. Ms Ely is on the Heideveld depot’s team.
Kashiefa Beck, from Manenberg, who also works on the Heideveld depot project, said the six women on the team had been chosen from 30 who were originally called in to be assessed.
A proud Ms Ely said it was hard work but the pride she saw in her children’s faces motivated her to keep going. Both she and her husband are contract workers, and she hopes her experience as a community liaison officer and supervisor on different projects will help her find other work, possibly even a permanent job, when her contract ends.
“My husband and I are almost 40 years old, and we need some stability now. I think God made me part of this project, so that my husband and I can fulfil our dream of giving our three children a home.”
Another Heideveld team member, Joyleen Melton-Gordon, said because her team was all-women, they “get the job right the first time”.
“The men feel a bit intimidated by us, I think. They call us the celebrities. The job is very challenging, but we enjoy ourselves,” she said, adding that the job was not without its risks.
“Recently, in Hanover Park, a man ran towards us and threatened us with a gun. But we managed to keep our calm and dealt with the situation. Residents are also scared to allow us to use their toilets, and one can’t blame them, because there are so many things happening out there. If we need a toilet, then we must ask a colleague to drive us to the nearest one,” Ms Melton-Gordon said.
Akeelah Abrahams, from Heideveld; Pumla Mfana, from Crossroads, and Nomzamo Feni, from Gugulethu, make up the rest of the Heideveld team.
Ms De Lille said the all-women teams had been established to change perceptions.
“Not too long ago, it would have been unthinkable for women to wield heavy tools and repair our roads. But we wanted to empower women, achieve gender transformation and show that women are equal to men in the workplace,” she said.
“You have shown that women can compete with their male counterparts in physically demanding jobs, such as repairing potholes, laying kerbs, cleaning stormwater infrastructure and building sidewalks. I know that our city is full of hard-working women who are valuable members of their respective teams. Women all over our city – women like you – are the heroes in their families and an example that young girls can look up to.”
When Ms De Lille announced that the women’s contract would be extended and that more teams would be recruited, with the hope of creating permanent jobs, there was a loud cheer from the audience.
Kindness Mpofu Ndyalvan, from the Fish Hoek team, said it had been daunting when they first started, as they had to get used to picking up 30kg bags of cement, wielding a pick and climbing on huge trucks. ”It also made us want to learn more. Now is the time for us women to take centre stage in this male-dominated industry.”