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The Indian Ocean Rim Association’s First Woman Secretary General

14 August 2018

21 March 1990 is a day that made an indelible mark and became a precious memory for the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA) Secretary General Dr Nomvuyo Nontsikelelo Nokwe that will stay with her for the rest of her life.

It was the first time she met Nelson Mandela with her family in exile. ‘Pampoen’ (pumpkin) he greeted her. He had fondly remembered her Afrikaans nickname which she had, until then, disliked. Then, the second daughter of Dumalisile and Vuyiswa Nokwe, suddenly developed a new affinity for her nickname.






Photo: Meeting of Dr Nokwe and President Mandela with Deputy Foreign Minister of Ghana, Dr Ibn Chambas, in Windhoek, Namibia on 22 March 1990.


Namibia’s Independence Day coincides with the commemoration of the Sharpeville massacre in South Africa on 21 March 1960. Dr Nokwe, who was practising as an anaesthetist in Accra, Ghana at the No.37 Military Hospital was invited as guest to the Inaugural Independence Celebration in Windhoek where she met Nelson Mandela who had been just released after his incarceration for 27 years.

This, and other significant events that highlighted leadership and regional collaboration, lead up to Dr Nokwe being appointed to the position of IORA Secretary General. Indeed, the origins of IORA come from Nelson Mandela who said in 1995 “the natural urge of the facts of history and geography should broaden itself to include the concept of an Indian Ocean Rim for socio-economic co-operation”.

Dumalisile Nokwe, Nomvuyo’s father, was the first African advocate of the Supreme Court of Transvaal. He also received qualifications in both BSc and teaching diplomas from the University of Fort Hare and became a teacher of science in his alma mater, St Peter's high school in Johannesburg. His intellect and ability should have served to develop his nation. Instead he was harassed and discriminated against by an oppressive regime, trying to strip him of human dignity and hounding him out of his beloved country into exile.

Dr Nokwe and her family escaped South Africa through then Bechuanaland (now Botswana) and finally settled in Zambia. Through an Afro-Asian scholarship she went to study in the then Germany Democratic Republic and completed her medical degree at the Martin Luther University of Halle-Wittenberg. “I am fluent in German, speaking, reading and writing” says Dr Nokwe, “as well as being conversant in French and Italian”.

She returned to South Africa in 1995 and began work as a Public Health Officer at the Wits Medical School. She served as South African Consul to Milan and High Commissioner to Mauritius and Seychelles before commencing as the IORA Secretary General in January 2018. She is the fifth Secretary General and the very first woman in the role.  

IORA promotes collaboration, peace and prosperity amongst its 21 Member States, namely Australia, Bangladesh, Comoros, India, Indonesia, Iran, Kenya, Madagascar, Malaysia, Mauritius, Mozambique, Oman, Seychelles, Singapore, Somalia, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Tanzania, Thailand, United Arab Emirates and Yemen as well as with 7 Dialogue Partners.



Photo: Dr Nokwe with the female members of the IORA Secretariat based in Mauritius celebrating International Women’s Day on 8 March 2018. (l-r) Daniella Smit, Jihnni Awotar, Sadally Bibi Shamimtaz, Pia Simonsen, Nomvuyo Nokwe (SG), Ruchika Rishi, Samima Saumtally, Kritika Nuckchady and Anishta Parsotim

Dr Nokwe stated, “the Indian Ocean is the third largest ocean and emerging as an important sphere for cooperation and trade. It carries half of the world’s container ships, one third of the world’s bulk cargo and two thirds of the world’s oil shipments. It is a natural abundant resource for almost 2.7 billion people, rich in cultural and traditional heritage, and a significant hub of human activity and development.”
Maritime safety and security, trade facilitation, fisheries management, disaster management, tourism and cultural exchanges, academic cooperation, blue economy and women’s empowerment are key priorities explains the Secretary General.

She was recently in Durban at a meeting of senior officials in preparation for the annual Foreign Ministers meeting that will take place in November 2018. The meeting also focused on deliverables and activities by Member States and Dialogue Partners, such as implementation of the IORA Action Plan for 2017-21 and an upcoming Ministerial Meeting for Women’s Empowerment in Mauritius.



November/December 2019











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