Cynthia Stimpel on Courageous Leadership

August 30, 2021
6 min read

A 63, Cynthia Stimpel has reinvented herself as a yoga instructor. It’s a bittersweet reprieve from a corporate career that ended in one of South Africa’s most explosive scandals. As group treasurer of troubled national carrier South African Airways, Stimpel noticed the red flags of corruption. She blew the whistle, becoming a key figure in what would become South Africa’s reckoning with state capture.

Today, Stimpel is hailed as a heroine, but then her courage led to isolation, intimidation and forced her into early retirement in what she thought was her dream job. In the wake of the shocking murder of Gauteng health department whistleblower Babita Deokaran on 23 August, we have a greater appreciation of Stimpel’s sacrifice and courageous leadership. The Thread spoke to her about how to lead in the face of adversity.

South Africa is navigating multiple crises at the moment, and citizens are calling out for leadership in government and the private sphere. What kind of leadership would you like to see emerging from these crises?
The type of leadership I would like to see emerging from these crises, would be leaders with integrity, who will be held accountable, who desire to help others, who show compassion and who are willing to nurture and develop others. Leaders who take decisions and ensure that these decisions are implemented. Leaders who understand the needs of the people who voted for them. Leaders who want to make a positive change.

Our current government has failed the citizens of South Africa, through their lack of understanding of the issues which ordinary citizens face daily: lack of service delivery – food, shelter, jobs,  health, education, housing, water and electricity.

Many South Africans seem disillusioned with the state of leadership in the country, and those that have the opportunity to do so, are choosing to leave the country. Through your ordeal at SAA as documented in your book, and in the subsequent revelations at the Commission of Inquiry into Allegations of State Capture, have you remained hopeful and optimistic about SA and being a South African?
After the senseless killing of Ms Babita Deokaran, I am not so hopeful anymore.

I am mostly an optimistic person, and have great faith in our South African diversity of cultures, religion, background and history. I always believed that we need to embrace this diversity as South Africans, and not see ourselves as lesser beings when compared to others. We should stop seeing ourselves along racial lines. 

South Africans have lived through five centuries of diversity, and yet we still cannot see ourselves as South Africans first. So hence I feel we all need to stand together first in order to have a new vision for South Africa and not rely on the government.

We need a good structure, and this needs to be filled with people who have  integrity and can be held accountable.

Self awareness is the key and starting point to “self-leadership”. Once a leader can learn self-awareness, they can attune themselves to their own weaknesses and strengths

Whistleblowers need to be celebrated but in your book you highlight that whistleblowers are treated as pariahs, admonished in social scorn. How have you maintained your sense of self and your integrity in the face of the trauma and loss you’ve suffered through your experience?
There is a saying “If you do not stand for something, you can fall for anything”. The quote is from Alexander Hamilton. I believe one has to have strong principles and values on which to rely upon in times of crisis. I had three pillars which supported me throughout the dark days of my journey as a whistleblower. I had my foundation in my faith in God, as a Catholic. My family’s support was an immense pillar of strength. And my own personal daily regiment of exercise,  time taken to do yoga and to meditate.

You climbed the corporate ladder in South Africa at a time when there were no laws around employment equity or broad-based black economic empowerment. Now that we have a progressive constitution and legislation that protects diversity, corporate South Africa remains largely untransformed in terms of racial and gender demographics. Why do you think there is still such an under-representation of women, and specifically women of colour, at the C-suite level of corporate leadership in South Africa?
Climbing the corporate ladder takes energy, courage, knowledge, and lots of hard work. Women are still under-represented in many spheres in the corporate world as well as the government. The majority of Board rooms still reflect more males than females, even though demographically, there are more women than men. Why is that? It is because there is no direct will to change these statistics.

In corporates and even smaller boards, one sees more men taking up this role, with confidence, even though they may have no experience whatsoever. Men push or recommend other menfolk into this role. Women, are unfortunately, not always recommended by male counterparts, and have to struggle to break that glass ceiling each time. I believe as women, we need to support one another, and provide spaces to talk about our challenges and to learn from one another. There are many such women groups, however, we need to collaborate more and support women more.

One of the themes we touch on in this month’s newsletter is around self-leadership and how we respond and show-up in times of crisis. In what ways do you think women can lead and empower themselves while navigating their professional growth and development?
Self awareness is the key and starting point to “self-leadership”.  Once a leader can learn self-awareness, they can attune themselves to their own weaknesses and strengths, and improve on the weak spots, and hone in and promote their personal  strengths.

I list below a few simple habits, which can be done on a daily basis which is guaranteed to improve one’s well-being, and give one the ability to lead and empower oneself:

  • Silence – Take time to be quiet and meditate
  • Learn something new every day – Through reading, anything from poems, to music,  discovering something new.
  • Write every day – Through keeping a personal journal. 
  • Exercise daily – Even if one just walks for 15 minutes. Find what suits you, and do it daily. Our bodies need movement.
  • Positive self talk – Positive affirmations. Talk to yourself daily in a positive manner by having positive affirmations or positive mantras.


raksha singh semnarayan

you have contibuted to the era of accountability. thank you for the inspiration and lessons

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