Interview by: Phesheya Mkhonta

Q: Thank you so much Tenele for taking the time to chat with us! Can you please tell us a little bit about yourself?

A: I am a Christian and wife to Mmilidzi Habangaan, mother of 2, sister, and friend. I am the last-born daughter of Reginald Dhladhla (former Minister of Justice) and Lephepelo Dhladhla (a pharmacist), who both unfortunately passed away. My heritage draws from Swati and Sotho through my parents, and now Kalanga and Tswana through my husband. I am a passionate person – often throwing myself into the causes I believe in. I am an engineer, a leader, and a teacher (I lead Every Nation Eswatini Kids Church). I am a person with dynamic interests, so reading, learning, and traveling are all up my alley.

Q: Can you give us the back story on how you ended up on this specific career path, as an engineer?

A: My mom pointed me in the direction of Engineering after I maintained that I did not want to do Medicine or Actuarial Science, the only other two courses she was willing to pay the university application fees. With my great Mathematics and Physical sciences performance throughout my school career, it was inevitable that I would end up in STEM – I just had to pick a battle.

Q: Do you remember what profession you wanted to pursue when you were much younger?

A: My father was my hero, so naturally I wanted to be like him. I wanted to be a Lawyer, and I thought I would handle it well as I was good in languages too and was doing great in public speaking. However, in Grade 7, one teacher rightly pointed out that I was maybe not as well suited to law as I imagined, and that made me pivot to STEM. Although, I always did like writing and teaching!

Q: As a systems engineer, what does your job entail?

A: Power Systems Engineering is an exciting field, drawing from more than just Engineering Sciences in its application. In my current role, I am responsible for overseeing the power system operations, ensuring a balance between the supply and demand of electrical energy on the grid. This is through a dynamic team that man’s 24-hour control centres, ensuring that electricity gets delivered to the end customer as required and at the expected quality.

Q: That sounds like a whole lot of work and responsibility. What do you enjoy the most about your work?

A: The changing dynamics of the energy space make this job interesting – technology advancements introduce new challenges in the operation and management of the power system. I also enjoy that it is not just engineering that I do, but people management, contract management, compliance (so Law found me in STEM), business and strategy, and trading and economics.

Q: What would you say are some of the secrets that have got you to where you are today?

A: No secret here, just straight-up hard work, dedication, and a commitment to excellence in all I do. My faith, which I saw my mother demonstrate to me growing up, is what keeps me going even in the face of failure. Yes, I have failed – in school and other things, but knowing that I am destined for greater things has always been the kick I need to get up and keep moving despite the challenges I have faced. Being rooted in who I am is also something I try to maintain, remaining humble and not trying to be anyone I am not.

Q: Being in a dynamic and constantly innovating field, how do you stay abreast of the latest developments in the sector?

A: Being part of professional engineering organizations is a big step toward keeping up to date with new developments and innovations.  As part of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) or CIGRE for example, you get access to thousands of resources from academia and industry, and the multiple societies in the institution allow for multiple networking opportunities – which is great for a person growing in the industry. There are also opportunities to use your skills for good – with Smart Village, an example of engineers using the collective to bring greater good. Programs like IEEE-EPICS High were the ones that locked me into engineering and kick-started my journey toward encouraging youth and females to pursue careers in STEM.

Q: You are also a member of WomEng (Woman Engineering Eswatini) and you’ve often spoken passionately about the need to bridge the gap/advocate for women to pursue careers in the STEM fields. Are you currently satisfied with the status quo regarding women in STEM?

A: Satisfied…no, but there has been some progress. I think there is so much more to be done in not only bridging the gap of representation but also fostering environments where males and females collaborate successfully. There remain a lot of nuanced barriers and challenges in the field, but these can be better addressed through a collaborative effort across the genders. One of the specific changes I would recommend is to prioritize diversity from the elementary school level, teaching boy and girl children to work respectfully and together in challenging environments.

Q: In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women in the STEM fields that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts? What would you suggest be done to address these problems?

A: I think women face the challenge of expectation – both from society and from self. As women, I think we carry a lot of expectations, which often affects confidence and results in imposter syndrome. The matter of representation is key, but more than representation, there needs to be mentorship and coaching for females in STEM. There are things like bargaining, negotiation, and leadership, among other things that women may not naturally possess due to the structure of society and education. These then result in women in the workplace expecting themselves to magically possess these skills. The correct support structures are needed to ensure that women understand that most of the skills they see their male counterparts possessing are learned, and we can learn them too.

Q: What are some “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a woman in STEM or Engineering, specifically?

A: It would be the notion that women are better suited to the more secretarial duties like taking minutes and organizing staff gatherings. Ok, yes, some women are better at these things, but similarly, some males can excel in these skills too. I think it is these nuances in the interactions that women have in the workplace that contribute to women eventually, and often prematurely, exiting the STEM pipeline. Add this to the need for women to constantly prove themselves, and the constant barrage of administrative tasks, and you see other women believing these myths.

Q: None of us can achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person or people who you are grateful for who helped get you to where you are?

A: There are a lot of people I am grateful to. Firstly, to God, who through His grace, I am what I am. My parents Reggie and Lulu, instilled some amazing traits in me: determination, a strong work ethic, the will to excel, and a love of words. My husband Mmilidzi, is always supportive of my journey and growth but also anchors me in times when I need to be anchored. My sisters and dear friends are always cheering and rooting for me. And lastly, the community of people who helped me through the years, teachers, family friends, and neighbors who always were so willing to pour into me.

Q: You’ve recently released a children’s book titled Lulu na Luba. What was the inspiration behind the book? Secondly, as a project that seems far removed from your professional career, what do you aim to achieve with the book series?

A: The inspiration for the book came from my kids, Lulu and Lubanzi. They have changed my entire existence for the better and continue to challenge me to stretch myself and push my boundaries. Although it may seem far removed from my career from the outside looking in, it is not far removed from who I am. From a young age, I have always loved words and their power to create a reality unimaginable. Poetry and languages have always been in my roots – a legacy story I will share with the world over time.

The vision for the book series – is to teach indigenous languages in a fun and engaging way, because I have noticed how indigenous languages are getting lost in western translation. Over and above that, I hope to demonstrate indigenous languages as tools to express love and positivity, even toward oneself. The power of life and death is in the tongue, and we need to learn how to create life even in our indigenous languages.

Q: Okay, I guess, in a way it’s another pivot toward your love for writing and teaching. So, I assume the book is written in SiSwati? Where can people buy it?

A: Yes, the first version of the book is in Siswati, with the English version already waiting to be published. However, because the vision is to focus on indigenous languages, I am also working to find translators to help with Kalanga, Ndebele, Sotho, Tswana, Shona, and more. Updates on these will follow in 2024.

To get yourself a Siswati copy, please contact me directly via email at teneled@gmail.com for orders. For South Africa and the greater SADC region, you can also visit my distributor’s website: https://imagnaryhouse.com.

Q: Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson or Quote”, and please share how this has shaped you or been relevant in your life?

It has to be 1 Corinthians 15 verse 10. “But by the grace of God I am what I am, and His grace toward me was not in vain, but I labored more abundantly than they all, yet not I, but the grace of God which was with me.”

A lot of people have said to me that I am lucky favoured or gifted. I am! However, over and above that grace, I work hard so that that grace (or luck or favour) is not wasted on me. This has helped me stay humble and recognize that I am not excused from hard work at any point in time.

Q: Before we let you go, can you tell us what Tenele’s life looks like in 2034? (Ten years from now)

A: Mmmh. That’s a tough question. A woman fully immersed in her purpose and calling, driving progress and change and raising a generation that will turn the world right side up.

Brilliant. Thank you so much for your time and candor.

It was my pleasure. Thank you.

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