Sylvia Muzila broke the glass ceiling in 2014 when the former cop became the first female Mayor of Francistown since Botswana’s Independence in 1966. Staff Writer GOSEGO MOTSUMI caught up with the retired civic leader
In the political arena, the Setswana adage, “Ga di etelelwe pele ke manamagadi,” which loosely translates into “The female of the species is not to lead,” is often cited when a woman aims for a prominent decision-making position in public affairs.
Questions about her marital status, family and educational background often arise while her aspirations and capabilities are ignored simply because she is a woman. Born Sylvia Tabitha Muzila nee Nlea in a small village called Dombodema in Zimbabwe, she developed a passion for public service from a tender age and went on to prove that women can break barriers and lead.
She ticked all the boxes for a capable leader with a strong educational background attained in Botswana and a Master’s of Social Science degree in Development Administration from the University of Birmingham in the UK in 1989. “Immediately after high school I joined the Botswana Police Service in Francistown and was among the first eight women who joined and were posted in 1972,” she revealed.
“I was quite young but the thought of service and bringing peace to my community brought me much joy. I wanted to work with people. The Commissioner of Police at the time, Simon Hirschfeld, wrote a letter to introduce us to the police service and we were treated with respect and fairly in our job. But I needed to secure funds to further my studies, so I left the police service in 1978 and joined Selibe-Phikwe Town Council.”
After completing her Master’s degree, Muzila was posted to the Ministry of Local Government where she focused on housing and policy development. At one point she created the housing department within the ministry with Minister Eric Molale. In 1996, Muzila rose to become District Commissioner, first for Gaborone, then for Kweneng, the North East and Francistown, until 2008.
The year 2008 was a landmark for her because that is when she decided to go into active politics under the Botswana Democratic Party because she was still passionate about public service at the grassroots level. But despite her achievements developing and implementing housing projects in support of the National Housing Policy, 36 years of experience in the civil service and a strong educational background, she lost elections twice which, in her view, was simply because she was a woman.
She lost the race to Parliament for Francistown South to the Umbrella for Democratic Change (UDC) in the 2014 General Elections. “I would go around villages appealing for votes and the feedback was that Parliament was a no-go area for a woman. I should at least try the council, the word went, often blatantly to my face. I would like people to change this perception,” she says.
Nevertheless, Muzila would make history by becoming the first female Mayor Francistown beginning in 2014, emerging as a symbol of empowerment in a male-dominated bastion. She rose to the mayoralty during a special full council session when she was unopposed after the six opposition councillors failed to nominate a candidate. “Immediately after starting work, my challenges began as a woman among men aspiring for my position,” she says. “I knew it would be a big challenge, but I was skillful and ready to fill those big shoes.”
Muzila soon proved her mettle as a strong character, witness her name is today still synonymous with the City of Francistown because she put in enough work for its economy reach a new level of prosperity. She had a dream to turn Botswana’s second city into an economic powerhouse of the North and began with maintenance of its infrastructure.
“I came in at a time when the ‘spaghetti’ project was approved and had to embark on it with the ministry,” she recalls. “I had to prove myself more and push harder to show that women are even more than capable. I challenged myself to attract investment to revitalize the city and make it a destination of all things precious.”
The Obed Itani Chilume Stadium was constructed during Muzila’s mayoralty. Understandably, she beams with joy when she looks on the legacy she has left. After her term as Mayor, Muzila – who is currently based in Francistown – is still active as her zeal for public service has not ebbed. Although she has retired from active politics, her presence is still felt in identifying development projects to improve the city further. She was one of the panelists in a recent dialogue to mark this year’s 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence that took place at the Three Dikgosi Monument in Gaborone.
During her tenure as Mayor, Muzila also prioritized women empowerment and created opportunities for that in Francistown. In 2018, she signed a Statement of Commitment with Gender Links to contribute towards achieving the SADC Protocol on Gender and Development by ensuring gender balance and that women in the council and the community actively participated in decision-making.
“If you aspire to lead, you have to have the heart to work for the people,” she says. “It should be inbuilt so that it is sustainable over a long time.”