Forging a stronger voice for women

The outspoken Janine Myburgh is a fine example of a boardroom pioneer making a difference


The outspoken Janine Myburgh is a fine example of a boardroom pioneer making a difference. She is the first female President of the previously male-dominated Cape Chamber of Commerce in 214 years and has become the voice of business in the city.
Myburgh was admitted as an Attorney in 1996 after completing her two-year articles at Malcolm Roup and Associates Attorneys. After a brief stint at the Road Accident Fund (in 1996), she was employed as a Professional Assistant at two law firms before she commenced to practice for her own account under the name of Myburgh & Associates Attorneys in 1999.

A hands-on leader, she is very involved in her community, organised business, the legal profession and civil society, which is noted by the numerous leadership positions she has held or still holds on the boards of several community and professional institutions.

Myburgh has been the President and Chairperson of the board of the Cape Chamber of Commerce since 2012 and was the first female President elected in the Chamber’s long history, ruffling a few feathers along the way.

You come from a relatively humble background, what ignited your passion to start your own business and lead?

I come from the Northern Suburbs in Parow. My father worked on the railways and I’m the first person in my family to go to university. When I finished Matric, my father said I could choose, I could go to university or I could get a car. My mother wanted me to go and work straight away but I knew what I wanted to do and I followed that mindset.

What have been some of the challenges and highlights during your time as President?

Some of the highlights are the successes we’ve achieved at the Chamber, for example, we got the government to change their minds in terms of reducing or not increasing the rates as they wanted to do. It’s very much been a collaborative environment at the Chamber, with all hands on deck. Another highlight is, initially, when I got to the Chamber, it was very much male-dominated and male-orientated. The fact that they took a chance on me and believed in me at such a young age was a highlight.

Did you have any challenges at the beginning with the male-dominated board?

Yes, very much so. It was believed that you were competent but that you still had to listen to what they had to say—there was a battle of the wills, initially. At the end of my two-year stint, I gained 30 kilogrammes and suffered from a bleeding ulcer, but you learn. I would never be sorry that I went through that experience.

Are more women entering those top executive positions?

No, because women are still underrepresented in positions of authority, especially in South Africa. Women make up 51% of our population, but we remain relatively underrepresented in positions of authority and power, the advancement of women in authority is slow.

What are some of the key skills that women bring to the table that men might not necessarily have?

It could count against women and it could count for them, but research has been conducted by various countries that suggests that businesses with a higher representation of women at the most senior levels deliver stronger organisational and financial performances as well as better corporate governance. A lack of women in leadership would mean that we are wasting our human capital and there are many, many factors that contribute to the gender gap. It’s a sexual stereotype that leads to the resistance to women in leadership, which, unfortunately, we still find.

There are several assumptions that come to the forefront when a woman is in a leadership or management position. You’re often tagged or named as being pushy, aggressive, abrasive or self-serving. Then there are also the challenges with our style, our female traits and our leadership qualities—we are more collaborative, and I know my leadership style is very much a collaborative one. For some, this is viewed as being untrustworthy, as you are unable to make decisions, or that you are unable to lead. Then, there’s also the challenge of family and the demands of family life—we all know that women are still the primary caregivers and we are often expected to interrupt or sacrifice our careers for our families. Women in positions of power are either childless or they’ve waited for a very long time to start families because there’s a perception that women with families need to give up their time to be at home in the evening and can’t undertake work responsibilities.

Is it true that in Scandinavia, parents receive proper maternity and paternity leave, and that a substantial amount of thought goes into allocating time for childbirth?

Very much so. I’ve just recently taken in a foster daughter, she has been living with me for the last two years and it’s really changed my life. I can’t simply stay at meetings until they finish, I can’t just have meetings or functions at night because I have to decide which is more important, to go to the function or to spend time with her. I don’t think the South African market caters for that, and even if you are in a woman in that position, until you have the responsibility of a family, you almost look down on those who leave early due to family responsibilities.

What advice would you give to young women looking to follow in your footsteps?

They must believe in their abilities. Some people used to say to me, “Fake it until you make it”, and I think that was the case when I started. You must have faith in your abilities, you can’t expect others to consider you a leader unless you have solid faith in your own ability. It’s important to be a good communicator, listening to others and also to lead by example, you can’t expect people to do things which you aren’t prepared to do. Then, unfortunately, being the leader is not always being the popular one, it’s not a popularity contest, it’s having to make the difficult choices and taking responsibility for things that are not necessarily your mistake. If you are in a position of authority, you have to make the difficult choices and take the flack for it.Young women must be courageous and, most importantly, have integrity, humility and a clear aim of what they want to do. They must lead by having a positive direction, making it better for women and everybody around them.

What is your general outlook for the Cape Town economy? Is it still vibrant?

Yes, very much so, it’s a beautiful place to live in and we’ve got a huge advantage in Cape Town but as Capetonians, we must remember we are so much more than just our beauty. I’ve been outspoken in the press regarding Cape Town. For example, the recent drought is one that should not have taken the government by surprise, but I hope that lessons have been learnt and if these lessons are applied, the whole concept Day Zero will disappear.

We also know that government grants in local authorities have been reduced and income from the sale of water and electricity is down as people have found ways to use less power and water, so we’ve got the challenge of a city hungry for revenue and they are hitting the property rates. This is further exacerbated by the problem of the high cost of running the city. For dozens of years now, we’ve had salary increases that were way above inflation for the staff of the city and I believe the way to fix this is to reduce the administrative costs and not bleed the property owners, the people who have been saving electricity and water.

It’s no secret our rail system is in chaos—it should be the backbone of our commuter transport system, it should be the backbone of any city but it leaves much to be desired. We desperately need more rolling stock. Theft of the infrastructure needs to be addressed and then, for example, in 2000, we said there are serious problems with the CBD and people were moving into the suburbs. At the initiative of the Chamber, the City Improved District was formed. They improved the district immensely, businesses came back and it was the place to be to settle for business purposes.

However, recently, we’ve had complaints that it’s difficult or not safe to travel in the CBD in the evenings, so we must be careful not to rest on our laurels and then it comes back to bite us.

I’m very pleased to see that the city and the province are making concerted efforts to start marketing Cape Town as a business destination because people know about our mountain, they know about our beaches but they don’t know that this is an excellent place to do business as well and this is a message we must get out to the rest of the world.

Philippi is the hotbed of agriculture and a vital breadbasket, how can we protect that food security in light of the ongoing unrest and disruptions in the area?

It’s terrible because we had members contacting us recently because they were having problems—they contacted the police, all the protection services and no one was helping. The government doesn’t seem to be taking it seriously, so this must be protected. It is to the benefit of our area, it is the benefit of our people and there must be a concerted effort, and that’s what the Chamber does— we try to highlight the talents in order to draw attention to them and in order to address the challenges.

Finally, what would you like your legacy at the Chamber to be known for?

I think we brought in a unified Chamber, we created a lot of chapters that weren’t there and changed the narrative about it being this cold place full of elderly men. It’s now for all members of society and we do make a difference. 

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