Despite recently turning 23, Gogontlejang Phaladi is already one of the country’s longest serving human rights activists.
At the age of five, the Maunatlala-native founded humanitarian organisation the Gogontlejang Phaladi Pillar of Hope Project (GPPHP) – setting a precedent she has more than lived up to.
The non-profit making organisation has a broad mandate that focuses on philanthropy, humanitarian work, community building, human rights advocacy as well as issues of child protection and violence against women and girls.
This February, the selfless young woman was recognised for her dedication to help others, receiving a 10th Commonwealth Point of Light award from Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.
The honour rewards inspirational volunteers across the 52 Commonwealth nations for the difference they make to their communities and beyond.
Voice reporter Portia Ngwako-Mlilo caught up with the golden girl turned wonder woman through the week to discuss her recent award as well as her passion for charity work.
Q. How do you feel about receiving this prestigious award?
A. This award is a source of encouragement and I feel highly honoured.
I didn’t expect it.
I received an email when I was attending the Economic and Social Council for the United Nations meeting in New York so it was really a humbling moment.
The award recognises people who do voluntary work – I am where I am today because I started as a volunteer and fulfilling my social responsibilities as a citizen.
Q. What motivates this voluntary service?
A. I have always said you cannot change the whole world by helping one person but change the world for that one person and inspire others to do the same.
Collective efforts are ultimately what change the world.
When I started doing charity work not many people were into charity things but today I am happy that private and government departments have many out reach programmes and are empowering the less privileged rather than just giving them food hampers. Leadership should start within!
Q. What are the challenges you face in your volunteering work?
A. At a personal level, because I am young and female I think we are still perceived to be people without valuable contributions or opinions worth hearing.
We are the majority of the population across the world yet we are still largely marginalised and left out of decision making.
A lot of the time I find I have to prove myself and show that I am competent and capable, even to those who know my track record.
I sit on boards at national and international level but age and gender issues are still a bit of a challenge.
But we strive to prove that we can turn challenges into opportunities.
If you are in the space of leadership it is not easy to balance it with your personal life but I always make sure that I give my family attention.
Q. There is a perception that women in leadership positions need ‘special treatment’ – your take on this?
A. When we say we want space it is not because of our gender but because we are competent.
Sometimes we misinterpret this issue of wanting more women in leadership and people think we want special treatment.
We are qualified, it is just that our society does not easily allow space for us.
We have a voice, what we lack is opportunities.
Q. Do Civil Society Movements play their role in governance?
A. One of the Civil Society’s roles is to hold leaders accountable but we are so afraid to do that.
If a leader does not fear losing their job they have absolutely no reason to deliver and no need to account to anybody.
Those people are there because we voted for them and entrusted them with public funds and our national vision – we have to keep them in check.
They need to rise up and play a role in holding our leaders accountable.
The calibre of the leadership we have needs to transform and be committed to deliver.
Q. Our leaders are frequently implicated in corruption cases, most recently the misuse of the National Petroleum Fund (NPF) – where are we heading as a country?
A. African Union has this year declared a focus on corruption.
If Botswana is conceded to be the least corrupt country by various reputable indexes, yet we see newspaper articles every day publishing stories on corruption and economic crime, it becomes scary.
If we are considered to be the least corrupt, then how rotted is Africa?
The biggest mistake we made is to have leaders who are not credible people implicated in corruption and sexual violence cases.
If any leader is implicated in a criminal charge, whether guilty or not, whilst the investigations are on they should step down to clear their names.
Let us refuse to be led by anybody who has been proven guilty of corruption charges at any level.
Q. What do you think the public should do to have their voices heard against corruption?
A. The media need to empower people to understand what is happening and the modality of these cases.
The media is powerful and can reach the masses – it is the best weapon to voice our grievances.
We had incidents like the glass project in Palapye case, which died a natural death; we should not let the same thing happen to the NPF.
As individuals, let us use our spaces very responsibly and share credible and progressive information.
Q. Don’t you think our leaders should declare their assets?
A. It would certainly solve many of our corruption and maladministration cases.
What we want to know is did you acquire your assets without using your power to milk the government coffers?
If our leaders have nothing to fear or hide why is it a problem in passing that law in parliament? DCEC’s capacity needs to be enhanced so that they can deliver their mandate.
They need to report directly to the parliament instead of the Office of the President.
They need to have their special prosecutors and be more independent so that Batswana can trust that indeed they fight crime, regardless of who is involved.
If we have structures like the DCEC and Ombudsman not having independence and credibility then we have a problem!
Q. President Khama’s term ends this month – do you think he’s done enough for youth empowerment?
A. It can never be enough. One of the things we appreciate is the economic empowerment initiatives for the young people.
The Ministry of Youth was very vibrant, promoting Presidential arts and culture.
Youth sit in the vision council, something that has never happened in the past.
For the first time we had a youth specially elected as a Member of Parliament.
We hope the incoming President will continue engaging young people at the decision-making level.
For political parties we shouldn’t just be providing entertainment at rallies!
Q. Do you have any political ambitions?
A. If the masses want me to stand for elections and see value in my representation I will do it.
If at that time the space in my life allows me to do it, I would be happy to be sent to represent the interest of the people.
Q. What would you say is your greatest achievement?
A. My greatest achievement in life would be having people come to me to tell me that they have been inspired and motivated to be better people, to live better lives, to uptake their social responsibility and be proactive and patriotic because of what I said or did that made a positive impact in their lives. The awards are just a bonus.
Q. Thank God it’s Friday – what are your plans for the weekend?
A. I am a small stock farmer so this weekend I will be at the farm.
I will be also babysitting one of my nieces.