Dr Bridget Ssamula : Appointed to airline board at 28 years
Congratulations on your appointment as CEO, Engineering Council of South Africa. Your appointment made waves in Uganda. What was that like for you?
I was really surprised. I have been in Uganda and in 2016, none of my qualifications were any different. I was a managing director then. Even my 2016 appointment was in the papers, but this one happened at the time when there were too many synchronicities. It was at the time when they were looking at qualifications both in South Africa, around the leadership of their Eskom board and in Uganda, the airlines management team was before Parliament. My qualifications just took centre stage. It was more about the timing of it; almost like an unveiling. It was unexpected and very unnerving. I have always done my work and if you go back to my track record, I have always broken barriers in many ways, but it has always been on the low.
Did you see this appointment coming and how did it make you feel?
I have always known what my platforms and portfolios were. I live very intentionally. I know what my appointments are and what they are about. I also know when I am going through moments of preparation. I used to tell my friends when I moved to the US, I felt my season in the US—those three years—were my season of “washing of feet”. I was a leader and already in a management portfolio. I had been earmarked for that for a long time. After two years in my first job as a researcher, I got an award for promising young researcher. I was sent for leadership training at that point. I have always been a natural born leader but all of us are a work in progress and there is a certain responsibility that comes with leadership.
I have always had a bit of a quirky career where I was chosen to be on a board at 28 but I think the responsibility of leading and managing people and a sector needed a bit of refinement. I felt I was in my Cave of Adullam (Biblical place of refuge for David). I didn’t know why. When I moved to the US, I was at a level where I had to be part of the [leadership] group. Culturally, what I knew was that we are servant leaders. On the contrary, for a leader in the US, it’s all about the portfolio: Someone does your coffee, someone brings your sandwiches. I wasn’t in top management but I had to serve them. You had moments where you were serving people you were better than but you needed to do it with the humility and understanding that ‘when I get to this role, this is what I need to do differently’. Also, being the leader who doesn’t mind getting sandwiches for people was very unnerving for my junior teams because there is a clear hierarchy in the US about how things are done and the place for black people…I just didn’t have that place. I have never been one of those people who knows their place: I don’t know my place as a black woman, I don’t know my place as a female and I have always lived life like that.
What are your day-to-day roles at the council?
People management. People management. People management. I am going through a phase of rebuilding, restoring and changing how we serve. It is a regulatory role. As a body, it has 100 people but the responsibilities and the stakeholders it represents is the whole engineering fraternity; whether it is institutions of higher learning, what degrees they are doing and making sure that if they want to be professionally registered we have the space and environment for them; the voluntary associations that help mentor them. We talk about a database of about 52,000 engineers in South Africa but that is only 38 percent of engineers within the environment. Every year, 10,000 engineers are released from university, so talking roughly, it is a sector covering about 180,000 engineers.
What tasks/challenges lay ahead as you assume this position ?
I kept saying it was an honour. Many people say that but I do not think they understand it. I understood how much that Council was going out on a limb to choose me. I had never really worked in that space. I engaged with the organisation as an engineer looking to register but I understood they were going out on a limb: I am the first female, I am born Ugandan, my first degree was from Makerere and it was also at a time when the organisation really needed a leader with credibility and that is not lost on me.
I have worked through the life of an engineer: I taught them from the first day when they are registering at university; from first year to postgraduate. I have walked the journey in academia, worked with researchers and also been in industry. I have worked in operations, in leadership positions, in positions where I am learning and being trained, so the lived experience I have would be the experience of all the engineers. There is nothing they talk about that is alien to me: Either I have been through it or I have worked in their positions. Therefore, the recognition of that level of credibility of my career and the importance of that, to this organisation was never lost on me. It remains an honour. I was aware of the portfolio—the MBA kicks in very quickly—you think about it as a business. At the interview, I knew what was not being said that needed fixing. That is one of my gifts. Perhaps it’s the engineering training but I scan very easily, figure out the problem and identify the simple solution.
At which point did you leave Uganda and how much had you practised engineering here?
I have always been very analytical about what I do. I always think ten steps ahead. Some people play chess for leisure. I don’t. That is how I live my life. I figured out that I wanted to be a civil engineer when my father was building houses and he had a crisis where had to call in an engineer. I remember Winnie Byanyima, an aeronautical engineer, coming to school on career day and it made me feel that “girls can”. Throughout my first year and second year [at Makerere University], especially during industrial training, I was eliminating areas of engineering because I was thinking of my life in this job. In second year, I worked with ACE Consulting Engineers on the Securities Exchange and Parliament of Uganda buildings. I had to climb all the way up there even though I fear heights. I eliminated structures very easily. I was not going to be a woman on site fighting off bricklayers: It was not going to be my life. It was great but it didn’t tickle my fancy. I need to do things that people can relate to. In third year, while on a road project Kumi, I walked 20 kilometres, measuring the length and breadth of potholes——proving that as a woman I was not a secretary, as the engineer on site believed. I also saw that on site, you are treated as if you are in boarding school and I am not very good with rules.
When we did transportation engineering, the light bulb just went on. I wanted to do transportation, but I also knew that within engineering in the limited Ugandan environment, I was only going to be a roads person, water person or a geotechnical person.
My father had studied in the UK and all of us had to go through the UK application process. I saw they had a lot more options there. I started looking at places to study transportation engineering. Mentally, I left Uganda in my third year of university. Physically, I left in October 2002.
As a woman in your field, how have you navigated the labels, biases and barriers against women?
In Uganda, I just had to fight the fact that I was female. We come from a highly patriarchal society. When I moved to South Africa, I had a new label, I was now black and I had to understand what that meant in the context of prejudice. We are not aware of it because we were not raised understanding the dynamics of race. My father studied in the UK in the 60s—he sat me down and tried to give me a lecture about racism and apartheid and I said, “no, no, I know apartheid” but I knew it historically, intrinsically, logically… I did not know the effect and impact of the underlying undertones that that prejudice would have on me as person. When I went to the US, I spent some time in UC Berkeley while I was doing my PhD and there, I was just an African. It was at that point that I thought, ‘I am done trying to conform to labels’ and I did also recognise that in every room I walk into, there will be someone who gives me a label.
On life, marriage and family
“People say there is a work/life balance, I just think it is life and there are many pie charts in that life. There is the financial; there is Bridget at work and at home. Bridget at home started off as Bridget the sister; daughter and sibling. We morph all these into our social structures and these can be Bridget the wife, mother… but at the core of all of it is who we are.”
There are areas of the pie chart to which I have never really added. Bridget has been a partner but has never been a wife or mother but Bridget is that aunt. I think of ‘wife’ and ‘mother’ as two serious ministries and in my view, ‘mother’ is always linked to ‘wife’. Let things happen later but motherhood will be linked to wife, for me. If I would do it, it would be adoption and that I can do at any time.
I did make the effort (at dating and relationships) when I was going through my 20s and 30s but even as a child, I have always looked at the space for women in marriage. I saw what was being offered to women in the confines of marriage. I saw that there was a direct correlation with the quality of your life as a wife based on the qualities and characteristics, especially around the shortcomings of the husband you chose, and I thought, “What am I going to do with my five talents?” because I have always been aware of the ‘pie-chart’ and I have never bought into the societal construct that equates marriage with respect. If you and your husband do not respect your marriage, society is not going to give it to you. You are at the mercy of who you chose. I got approached by this fellow. I was going to study then and a friend said to me, ‘this guy is interested in you’. We go, we sit and have ice cream and he tells me he will allow me to study my masters. As he said the word “allow”, I walked away. I have never been that person who says, “Because they have approached, I morph.” I have to choose the one I can submit to.
• 1991 to 1997: Attended Mt. St. Mary’s College Namagunga
• 2001: Bachelor of Science in Civil Engineering (hon)-Makerere University
• October 2002: Left Uganda for South Africa.
• 2004: Masters of Engineering Transport Engineering at University of Pretoria in South Africa.
• PhD in Transportation Engineering at University of Pretoria in South Africa.
• 2004—2006: Lecturer University Pretoria
• Visiting research scholar Institute Transport Studies, University California, Berkeley, 2006
• Masters of Business Administration (MBA) from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University
• Joined board of airline at 28 years old.
• Researcher Council of Scientific Industrial Research, Pretoria, from 2006.
• Since 2013: Progressed from Executive, Aviation and Rail Market Sector Lead in South Africa to Managing Director of Uganda and East Africa and later Senior Director for AECOM USA Key accounts and Cities.
• Effective November 1, 2022: Chief Executive Officer, Engineering Council of South Africa