More than ever before, 2020 has been the year when people around the globe are sitting up and taking notice of the impressive way in which female world leaders are steering their countries through a devastating pandemic. From Angela Merkel in Germany to Jacinda Adern in New Zealand, these women have demonstrated the ability to be both warm and authoritative in times of crisis, with an effective leadership style that is driven by humility and kindness, and a willingness to listen to representatives of diverse backgrounds and expertise.

Deputy Mayor of the Overstrand, Elnora Gillion, relaxing at home with her family. From left, at the back, are her husband Craig, Elnora and their son, Noah. In front are daughters Hazel-Ann and Riley with the family’s rescue dog, Bella.

These are the very qualities that the Overstrand’s Deputy Mayor, Elnora Gillion possesses. Born and bred in Hawston, she comes from a family of community activists – among them was her aunt, Florence de Villiers, a founding member and the first general secretary of the South African Domestic Workers Union in the eighties who later served as an ANC councillor. It seems almost inevitable that Elnora, too, would become a pillar of strength in her community and end up in the political arena, fighting for the vulnerable and the oppressed.

Her father was a fisherman who was often away at sea for days and weeks at a time. The family moved often and Elnora remembers one time when her father came home and couldn’t find his family. “We’d had to move again because my mother couldn’t afford to pay the rent and my father had no idea where we were!” After asking around, community members soon pointed him in the right direction and the family was reunited.

After attending primary school in Hawston, Elnora spent her high school years at Swartberg High in Caledon, matriculating in 1993. “It was a tumultuous time,” she recalls. “Big changes were afoot in our country.” The second daughter in a family of four girls, Elnora was the only one to matriculate. Growing up in a poor community was never easy, and she knew that she would have to look after herself. During her high school years, she often worked at the Sonesta community hall at Meerensee, washing dishes, and later got a job at Strati’s Superette in Hermanus.

Although as a teenager, Elnora’s dream was to become an air hostess and travel the world, she decided that acquiring more technical skills would stand her in good stead, and after matriculating, she enrolled for a computer course at Boston College in Bellville. Staying with family members in Eersterivier, she travelled alone by train to attend her classes and was proud to achieve her first post-matric qualification.

Back in Hermanus, Elnora was packing shelves in Strati’s when the bank manager of the newly-opened Nedbank branch in town came into the shop. Wasting no time, Elnora told him that she thought she would be an excellent candidate for a job in the bank. After giving him her CV, the job was hers.

“Having a victim mentality will never get you anywhere,” she says simply. “You have to have the courage to believe in yourself and your abilities.” As her career in banking progressed, first at Nedbank and then at FNB and ABSA, Elnora moved up through the various channels, from the enquiries desk to business banking, expanding her knowledge along the way by earning further qualifications. She was the bank manager at ABSA’s Gansbaai branch for a number of years before going back to business banking, her real forte. “I enjoyed building solid relationships and supporting my small business clients,” she says.

In between working full-time, Elnora got married to Craig Gillion, a teacher at Gansbaai Academia (they recently celebrated their silver wedding anniversary), had two babies – Hazel-Ann is now 24 and Noah is 21 – and more recently took in a foster child, Riley, when she was eight months old. The family is currently in the process of legally adopting Riley, who is now seven.

“In my banking career I often had to make tough choices,” says Elnora. “Challenging male colleagues, and especially male superiors, was a big no-no. But I have always stood up for what I believe to be right. My family had shown me that if you don’t agree with something, you speak out – even if it lands you in jail.”

This fearless defiance is part of what makes Elnora such an effective leader. The other part, however, is even more important. As a woman, she has true empathy and compassion for others; she is open, direct and accessible, and forges relationships built on trust. She is confident and comfortable in her own skin; has no need to put on airs and is always ready to listen and help. “Just as I always try to be the best I can be, I also see the best in others. Whenever I’m approached with a problem, I always want to know more, because we should never think that we know everything. So I always try to find out what motivates people, and I believe in engaging with them to find out how we can solve a problem.”

Even during her banking career, and while raising her children, Elnora was always involved in community work, including CSI projects and social welfare programmes, such as soup kitchens and the rehabilitation of tik addicts. Her community work did not go unnoticed, and in 2016 the DA approached Elnora to stand as a candidate councillor. “I worked very closely with the late mayor of the Overstrand, Rudolf Smit, and I realised it was time,” she says, “for me to use my political affiliation as a vehicle to bring about change.” In the 2016 election, Elnora was voted in as Councillor for Ward 8 (Hawston, Fisherhaven, Honingklip and Arabella) and also chosen as a member of the Mayoral Committee.

“During the past four years, there have been significant changes within the municipality, including more budget implementation in areas such as Hawston, Zwelihle, Kleinmond and Gansbaai. This is important because policies and bylaws must benefit all residents – not just some of them,” says Elnora firmly. “Some of them were promulgated ages ago and need to be adapted. The municipality also needs a strategy to change people’s perception about local government by engaging more regularly with civil organisations and building bridges.”

Known for her skills as a mediator, Elnora says it is important for people to feel that their voices are being heard. “Many residents in my ward have valid concerns about housing allocation, for example, and when meetings are held, they have to be given the opportunity to express their frustrations. I’m not afraid of conflict and I always remain calm, even when people start throwing chairs around!” she laughs. “People don’t feel removed from me because I’m the Deputy Mayor; I stand among the members of my community and they know I am there for them.”

For the same reason, Elnora took up the cause of the restaurant owners during the recent ‘One Million Seats on the Streets’ protest, urging the police to let the protesters’ voices be heard when they demanded that the restaurateurs remove their tables and chairs from the streets. “Although I knew that it went against the State of Disaster prohibition on gatherings, I believe in their cause and I had to follow my heart and support them.”

Being elected as Deputy Mayor in February 2019 was “a great honour and also a great responsibility”, says Elnora. Her hectic schedule leaves little time for her family, but they are very supportive of the work she does and are clearly very proud of her.

“We all have a dream for ourselves and, while women may have to overcome more obstacles than men, there are always opportunities. People will try to put you down, but you have to be brave and persevere, take good care of your health, and surround yourself with positive people who believe in you. Now is the time for us to be hopeful and to take hands as there is a lot of hard work that lies ahead.”

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