BP South Africa Appoints Black Woman CEO, Creates History

Priscillah Mabelane is the first black woman in history to head a multinational oil major.

The news of her appointment made headlines around the world. Born in a small town in Limpopo province, Priscillah Mabelane is the new CEO of BP Southern Africa (BPSA) and the first black woman in history to head a multinational oil major.

Jean-Pierre Favennec, president of the Association for the Development of Energy in Africa, says he cannot imagine a better “first” than Mabelane. “Africa has brilliant female executives with positions at [the] CEO level in important companies and in politics, but it is rare to see such an impressive résumé,” he says. “The new CEO is truly in charge of one of the largest businesses on the continent.”

Before joining BPSA in 2011 as CFO, Mabelane—who started working at the age of 12 as a typist for her father’s bookkeeping company—was CFO at Airports Company of South Africa and tax director at Ernst & Young, and held various senior positions at Eskom, a South African power company.

Yet, Mabelane’s rise to the industry’s top echelons carries great symbolic value, well beyond the borders of Africa. According to a 2016 report by Reuters, only 7%–11% of board members and senior executives in the oil and gas sector worldwide are women.

Networking site LinkedIn found that women make up roughly a fourth of all its oil- and gas-related profiles, the lowest proportion among the industries surveyed.

As CEO (and as a role model), Mabelane has her work cut out for her. “She takes over at a time of economic stagnation brought about by years of poor leadership and regulation by the state,” says Harro von Blottnitz, deputy head of the chemical engineering department at the University of Cape Town. “The fuels industry is characterized by old and small oil refineries that cannot produce fuels of the standards demanded by the motor manufacturers, leading to increasing import volumes of refined products. Meanwhile, sales growth of gasoline is restricted by increasing congestion in the cities, and that is even before we consider the more widespread adoption of electric vehicles.”

Upstream opportunities in natural gas in Southern Africa, adds von Blottnitz, are also significant, but they require attention to boosting new forms of demand. “Can she help Southern Africa to go beyond petroleum?” asks Blottnitz.