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We, Men For Women

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“Men still, and have, historically, wielded significant power. This is an issue that has primarily affected women. In order to bring about change, men need to be a part of the solution and men haven’t made it a priority.”

These are the words of Samuel Mensah, Founder of African fashion brand, Kisua. He is one of a growing number of men in South Africa fighting to make gender equality a priority in business.

An icy wind blows through Johannesburg on this July morning but there is warmth and fellowship as Mensah is joined by Gil Oved, Group Co-CEO of The Creative Counsel; Dion Shango, CEO and Regional Senior Partner of PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC); and Dean Peacock, Co-Founder of civil society group Sonke Gender Justice.

These four men passionately and openly acknowledge the cause they believe in – gender-parity in business, leadership and life. What’s more, they think more men need to be roped in to fight for the cause.

“There are feminists who believe this is a women’s issue and women will deal with it. There’s another school of thought, which I come from, which says you cannot have a conversation about gender inequality and not bring in men. Men are major perpetrators of gender inequality. Boys learn to be men from other men. So this becomes an intergenerational problem if you don’t get men on your side, get men to acknowledge there is a problem, they are part of the problem, and make them part of the solution. Until this is done, women will be fighting a brave battle but it’s going to be an uphill battle,” says Mensah.

According to Bain & Company’s 2017 report, Gender (Dis)parity in South Africa, 31% of South African companies have no females in senior leadership roles. Adding to this bleak statistic is the latest Businesswomen’s Association of South Africa (BWASA) census on women in leadership. It indicates that 22% of board directors are women, but only 7% are executive directors. It also highlights that only 10% of South African CEOs are women. The growth of women in senior leadership roles has also been slow, increasing from 26% in 2004 to just 28% in 2017.

A Glass Ceiling Even A Pickaxe Can’t Break

As if that wasn’t enough, the Executive Director of UN Women, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, earlier this year, revealed a global gender pay gap of 24%.

This is despite South Africa’s constitution and the Employment Equity Act – which should promote gender equity in the workplace – and the country having more women graduates than men. Although progress is being made, it is sluggish.

“Gender equality, up until now, has been seen to be a woman’s problem, not a man’s problem. Let’s be honest, because most platforms, structures and organizations are dominated and controlled by men today, and yes there may be some change but the pace of change is slow, it is nowhere near where it needs to be,” says Shango.

In many European countries, there’s a legal requirement that boards have a proper representation of women.

“Having clear quotas in board participation in Europe has absolutely helped. The argument is in the absence of quotas, it allows poorly-qualified men to stay in those positions,” says Peacock.

The Johannesburg Stock Exchange (JSE), in 2015, changed its listing requirements to prompt companies to disclose the female representation on their boards.

“As the JSE, we are committed to the transformation of our capital markets and to diversity in the workplace. In 2015, we introduced a rule requiring issuers to have a policy for the promotion of gender diversity at the board level and disclose their performance against it,” says Samkele Nkabinde, a Communications Officer at the JSE.

Companies should embrace diversity; it improves the bottom line. There are enough studies to prove this.

“Whenever there are any severe forms of inequality, quotas are helpful. They can be structured in a manner in which it is an incentive, so it’s a carrot rather than a stick. Also, beyond quotas, speaking to the spirit of what we’re trying to do here, not just the fact that it’s the right thing to do, but also waking up to the fact that there’s a lot of data now that shows businesses that have a lot of women employees across all levels of the organization tend to perform better than businesses that are male-dominated. So, not only is it the right thing to do, but gender diversity is actually good for business and the bottom line,” says Mensah, who is a qualified economist and 2014 Tutu Fellow of the African Leadership Institute.

“Economically, it reduces productivity to not use women to their full potential. I think that over time this is being called out and being addressed,” he adds.

This is backed up by research done by global advisory firm Grant Thornton. It shows listed companies with male-only boards, in the United Kingdom (UK), the United States (US) and India alone, are foregoing potential profits of $655 billion.

“A lot has to happen with the regulations and requirements with regards to incentives. If you talk about incentives that governments could put in place, but also for private enterprises to take responsibility and not to do it for any other reason than the profit motive. You have an amazing potential workforce and you need not do too much extra to extract a lot of value out of [women],” says Oved.

Oved and Mensah back their words with action. Oved says 80% of The Creative Counsel’s employees are women. Apart from himself and his Co-Founder, Ran Neu-Ner, all senior management positions are held by women. Similarly, the workforce of Mensah’s Kisua is 70% female, across the value chain.

“This advertising environment is very high-stress, very hands-on, requires huge emotional maturity, requires massive creativity, requires constant lateral thinking, and it just so happened that every time we interviewed people, the women came out tops. We hired some men that couldn’t handle the stress,” says Oved.

“Our business requires one to be quite sensitive, quite culturally aware and quite emotionally aware. It naturally plays to the strengths of women but we don’t have to have 70% women. I think that’s part of the reason. The other part of the reason is that we’ve made a conscious decision that women are an asset and where possible we will hire women to redress some of the imbalances,” says Mensah.

But what is it about women that makes it smart for a business to value them?

“Women are a lot more considered in how they think, in how they decide the long- and short-term merits of a particular decision. All of that takes me to my experience with the women I work with; in dealing with a problem, they bring better emotional balance in all of those factors. They come from a slightly different place and that’s a blessing to have in any organization,” says Shango.

Shango says PwC manages its partner admissions on certain criteria, including gender.

“We do aim for a particular balance of male and female representation. It’s not enshrined or cast in stone to say it must be 50%, but it is something that drives the decision on how many partners to admit in a year and whether it will portray a gender balance. And because of that it gives you a situation where that same policy informs the lower levels on how to promote people throughout the ranks. How will you ever achieve the right balance at the top if your foundation is all wrong?”

Despite all the policies and good intentions, women still slip through the cracks, especially in their ascent to senior management. Often this is due to an ‘unconscious bias’ in the workplace.

“Unconscious bias is a big problem in our society. It cuts across race, across class and goes back to the societal norms and standards of how boys and girls are treated. The scary thing is even I am often guilty of it. When someone points it out to me, it’s scary and I think ‘oops, why did I think about that?’ I am passionate about gender diversity but there are also small issues that catch me out. That just goes to show you how easily one can fall into that trap,” says Shango.

It’s easy to fall into that trap because an unconscious bias comes from subtle cognitive processes. It is often culturally ingrained from childhood, in a still-patriarchal society.

“I grew up in a household with five kids, four sisters. My dad and I sat around the table at the end of the night and my sisters and my mom would get up and clean. It didn’t occur to me until I had a strongly feminist girlfriend in my late teens who said ‘that s*** needs to stop’. We get socialized in ways that are entirely invisible to us and we take those attitudes forward,” says Peacock.

These attitudes start at home. A lot of the work Peacock does at Sonke Gender Justice, which is 10 years old, revolves around gender-based violence.

“The current gender roles we live with are bad for women, because they lead to violence; and bad for men, because they lead to ill health. The top 10 diseases in the globe, men are over-represented in every single one of them, and that’s not because of genetics, it’s mostly because of our socialization. Which reflects the kind of pressures men experience and we feel we must live up to, so men drink too much, smoke too much, drive too fast, don’t take care of their bodies, kill themselves at much higher rates than women do, men suffer from mental health problems more, and so we’re able to say to men this conversation around gender equality and to end violence against women is not about men losing and women gaining, in many ways we’re all gaining,” he says.

Shango credits the house he grew up in for shaping his attitudes towards women.

“I was raised by strong women. I had a mother and a father but the people I continue to draw the most inspiration from are my mom and my grandmother. They are two incredibly strong women.”

One of the reasons he is taking that legacy forward is his children.

“I am a father of two girls and a young boy. I would like to think that the world they are growing up in will give my daughters equal opportunities that it will give my son.”

Starting a family, however, is part of the problem. Women, not men, are the ones who have to put their careers on hold when they fall pregnant.

“Companies can adjust policies to retain their bright talent. I don’t want to lose somebody because they go on maternity leave. I don’t want to lose someone because they have to leave early to go pick up the kids from school, or they have to work from home because there is a taxi strike and the nanny can’t get to the house. I think with flexibility, employers can retain their staff. I don’t buy into that line of thought that women, because of the gender roles they fulfil, have to be at a natural disadvantage,” says Shango.

Peacock is trying to eliminate this disadvantage. He’s pushing for paternity leave for both men and women.

“There’s research to show that if it’s only women who have parenting leave, then women are discriminated against in the workplace because they know that women, and only women, will leave for a protracted period of time. That’s why we’re pushing for paternity leave in South Africa; it’s good for men, it’s good for women,” he says.

Oved, with his finger on the pulse of technological innovation, goes even further.

“We have to find a way to give a woman the confidence to go and have children and continue to be a mother but still add value to the organization that she’s at and to be able to grow in her career. Very often women are faced with the choice of which one is it going to be. This scenario is ludicrous,” says Oved.

“With today’s technology you can do that. You can work from home, you can work flexi hours – the world has changed but, certainly in South Africa, I haven’t seen that change manifest itself in gender equalization.”

Oved admits he’s concerned about job losses and the obvious financial implications that the looming robotics revolution will bring. He suspects it will affect women less than men.

“Women form deep relationships, they are natural connectors. I believe they will be less affected. Or the converse is that they may find they have better opportunities because the skillset that is required to survive in the new world economy is one that is a better fit for them… if you compare it to 300 years ago, when it was all labour before the industrial revolution, the hard physical labour favoured men. Compare it to now where it is more cerebral and more emotional, how much more will females do better?”

How To Create Jobs In The Age Of Robots And Low Growth

But, if women have more qualities suited for the modern-day workplace, why is gender parity still so far away in corporate Africa – and the world?

“Corporate culture is hugely important, you only need to look at some of the tech companies – Uber and others in Silicon Valley – you can see how difficult it is to get in, and stay, at those places. Women don’t progress despite the fact that women that graduate from the most impressive universities now outnumber men. There should be plenty of women in high-status jobs in Silicon Valley but that’s not happening,” says Peacock.

“The glass ceiling is real, the old boys’ phenomenon is real, and discrimination is real,” he adds.

It is for this reason that UN Women launched its HeForShe campaign in 2014. It encourages men to take more responsibility in driving gender diversity.

“Men are half of humanity and are the majority of decision-makers; they are implicated in denying women their rights and for perpetrating violence against women. It is in our best interest to mobilize men to take action and drive change. Change means the good men must use their positions of influence to show zero tolerance to gender injustices. They can engage other men and influence behavior change because, if good men do not act positively and with a purpose, that allows the offending practices to be perpetuated. A HeForShe is a man who takes action to demonstrate positive masculinity and to influence change,” says Mlambo-Ngcuka of UN Women.

Shango has taken up the cause and proudly wears a HeForShe pin on his lapel.

“It was a no-brainer for our global Chairman at the time, Mr. Dennis Nally, to sign PwC up as one of the founding members. For me, what it does is it takes an unbalanced population at PwC, particularly at leadership level, and really makes sure that this problem is front of mind among a larger majority of this population you are targeting. It’s a slightly different way of positioning the discussion. It places the agenda on the table of the people who run this business and who are at the heart of the business,” he says.

He is also encouraged by the fact that the Chair of PwC South Africa, Shirley Machaba, is a member of the 30% Club. In South Africa, it calls for women to represent 30% of boards by 2020. According to Colleen Larsen, the President of 30% Club Southern Africa, it should not take longer than five to eight years for this target to be achieved.

From Nails To Nannies: The Price Women Pay

Shango thinks this will be difficult but is necessary to create a snowball effect.

“Something like the 30% Club, in the year 2030, if organizations have at least that 30% mark to show. I’m under no illusion this will be a long process, it’ll take time because we are starting from a very low base. But I think if we can get to that 30% mark, progress thereafter will be at a much faster pace.”

Preya Moodley, Head of Shared Services at Investec, did an MBA at the Gordon Institute of Business Science (GIBS), titled, Is Sponsorship An Enabler To Women Breaking The Barriers To The Boardroom? It revealed that it’s imperative men are involved in achieving gender equality.

“In order to change the current narrative we require change agents who are in a position of power and influence and currently, due to numbers, this power and influence sits with men. In conducting my research I interviewed a number of very successful women, every single one of them got to where they were as a result of been sponsored by a senior male leader already occupying a position of power,” says Moodley.

Those women are now paying it forward, she says.

It is also important for children to see women they look up to.

“I think when we’re raising the next generation it’s important we start confronting these gender stereotypes that lead to the inequality that they’ll encounter later in life because you’re a woman and these are your roles. It’s something we all have to be conscious of when we’re moulding children so that boys grow up knowing, believing and seeing it as completely natural that women are just the same as them, just as capable as them. Little girls must grow up believing they can do anything and there are no constraints on their abilities. I would hate to bring up a daughter that would tolerate being paid 27% less than a man,” says Mensah.

“A lot of teaching needs to go into making girls understand they are equal to boys. They can do anything that boys can do. Nothing should limit girls at a young age in terms of thinking what they can become and the type of dreams they can have. But you still get it today, where girls are told you can’t do that, that’s more for men. If you want to be an engineer or design beautiful buildings, that’s more for men. Don’t you want to do something softer like become a doctor. Certain things are seen as a male domain only,” adds Shango.

The Real Cost Of Changing Your Surname When You Turn Mrs

Most of the opinion-leaders we spoke to agree men are an important cog towards gender transformation.

“I think that in business, like in many other institutions, women need to learn various tactics. For me, the best allies are the ones that have a dense understanding and commitment to feminist ethics. Sometimes an ally with such principles could be a male colleague. These institutions are often premised on institutional inheritances, assumptions and cultures that do not need to aggressively articulate their misogyny. The best allies are the people that understand this and to whom you do not need to explain your frustrations to. The best allies are the ones who work to defamiliarize the environments that we work in by demanding complex questions and responses to questions of power in an institution,” says Danai Mupotsa, a lecturer in African Literature at the University of the Witwatersrand.

Oved says there is no silver bullet to this issue. Everyone needs to work together, but most of all, women need to promote themselves and tell their stories.

“It requires a mix of government intervention, private enterprise commitment, of societal commitment, and very importantly, women have an obligation, not a right, not a privilege, an obligation to tell their story. Again, part of the cultural screw-up of this country is ‘oh, I want to be humble, I don’t want anyone to think that I’m showing off’. But the wrong people are showing off. If you’re a successful woman, you’re not a show-off by telling your story. It feels inaccessible. If you’re a girl growing up in a township, with not much access, and you look at successful women, it’s so far from your life that it doesn’t have much impact on you. But wouldn’t it be great if you were to find out that that person you look up to actually started where you are or worse off,” says Oved.

This is partly a cultural problem, according to Shango.

“There are societal norms enforced at a young age. To make it even more difficult, there are certain cultural practises that make it unacceptable for women to speak up,” he says.

“As a practical example, people join us at PwC as graduates from university. You have two people. One a white male, outspoken, boisterous, loud, confident and a little bit arrogant. On the other hand, you have a black female who grew up in a rural area. Compared to the white male who grew up in Bryanston or Pretoria, this young lady was brought up to believe that you don’t talk back to people who are older than you and you shy away from confrontation. They both come here from the same university with the same qualification. By virtue of his personality and just how he is, the white male strikes a good relationship with the manager who also happens to be male. Every Monday, they’ll talk about the sport that happened over the weekend, they will talk about what is happening later in the week and they’ll have one or two interests, such as mountain biking. This lady has a completely different set of interests, very different background… In that context, guess who stands a better chance of being seen as the leading performer on that team. That poor girl stands no chance, simply by virtue of the cards she was dealt in life, the circumstances she was born into,” says Shango.

“Someone needs to say to that girl ‘you need to market yourself, you need to be a bit more aggressive in demonstrating to the manager the value you are adding to the team, the great work you’re doing’.”

Shango, however, is optimistic about the future.

“I’m inspired by how girls are growing up differently. I’m inspired by how my own daughters challenge me and put me in my place.”

When I ask Shango if his daughters, aged 12 and 10, want to have traditionally male-oriented careers, such as engineering, he says they don’t know yet.

“All they know is they don’t want to be an accountant like their dad. They say it’s boring,” he says with a chuckle.

Maybe one day they’ll realize that their dad does a lot more than crunching numbers. Most of all he is part of an important discourse towards what will one day hopefully be a gender-just world and an equal society.

Do We Need Male Allies?

“For me, the best allies are the ones that have a dense understanding and commitment to feminist ethics. Sometimes an ally with such principles could be a male colleague… The best allies are the ones who work to defamiliarize the environments we work in by demanding complex questions and responses to questions of power in an institution.” – Danai Mupotsa, Lecturer, African Literature, University of the Witwatersrand

“Of course we need men advocating for feminism. In the patriarchal world we live in, men hold the power and voice to exact change. It is important that they acknowledge and use their male privilege to dismantle the system that confines their behaviors too. Men are also trapped within the confines of ‘masculinity’ and our fight for feminism includes destroying gender binaries and expectations such as relating masculinity to men and femininity to women. For these reasons, men are essential to the feminist movement, so long as their voices don’t override the voices of the oppressed.” – Nithya Ramesh, Rising sophomore at Stephen M. Ross School of Business, University of Michigan

“It is in our best interest to mobilize men to take action and drive change. Change means the good men must use their positions of influence to show zero tolerance to gender injustices…” – Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, Executive Director, UN Women

“In order to change the current narrative we require change agents who are in a position of power and influence and currently, due to numbers, this power and influence sits with men.” – Preya Moodley, Head of Shared Services at Investec, who did an MBA at GIBS titled Is Sponsorship An Enabler To Women Breaking The Barriers To The Boardroom?

“Getting to a truly inclusive and transformed workplace requires the commitment of leadership at a strategic and personal level. And men are still overwhelmingly at the apex of the corporate leadership pyramid and occupy the C-suite positions and chairs of boards. Therefore, it makes sense that men, like women who are championing the cause, become the real champions to create truly inclusive work environments… They are driving this change in mind-set and behaviour by  becoming role models for other men. There are some outstanding champions promoting gender equality. I know this from the research we conducted for a book we just had published, Women Leadership in Emerging Markets.” – Shireen Chengadu, Lecturer, Gordon Institute of Business Science

“Men and women need to create interventions that target and support progressive men; while challenging societal stereotypes that belittle them. Each one of us men and women has to be a change agent for the emancipation of humanity across, gender, race and all social identities, if equity is to be achieved in our lifetime.” – Judy Dlamini, leading South African entrepreneur and author of Equal But Different

“In order to achieve gender equality we really need men to assist as change agents. We need them to be part of the conversation, to step up and take action that promotes women fairly. Research points to the outright success of companies and countries that have homogenous mixes of gender. Our time is now and our attributes are being recognized as an imperative to success. Nelson Mandela stepped up to assist women on their trajectory to this ideal. Without imposing unnecessary quotas, to this day, women are well represented in government in South Africa. Those heady days where women were respected for their difference, intuition and compassion were special and South Africa was a shining example to the rest of the world.” – Wendy Appelbaum, leading South African entrepreneur

“I think that men have a very important part to play as the power is currently vested in them. They could share this power with women and that will advance women. They will of course also need to sponsor women and expose them to stretch assignments and support them to get access to their networks.” – Caren Scheepers, Senior Lecturer, GIBS

“As males continue to dominate and occupy a pivotal role in driving the continent’s agenda, there is no denying male advocates are essential for us to see the progression of women… for our continent to move forward, for us to see the realization of Agenda 2063 of a prosperous Africa, we need diverse voices at all levels of society.” – Lebogang Chaka, business advisor and speaker

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Mastercard: Diligent About Digital In Africa

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Mastercard knows only too well that technology can drive inclusive financial growth with simpler and more efficient ways to do business and life. And Raghu Malhotra, the man spearheading this trajectory in Africa, is also focused on social progress.


In many ways, Raghu Malhotra is like the brand he works for, leaving his footprints in different parts of the world, and in some cases, the most unlikely corners.

On a scorching summer’s day in June 2016, Malhotra traveled 100km east of Jordan’s capital city Amman, to a camp with white tents named Azraq built for the refugees of the Syrian Civil War.

In the desert terrain and hot, windy conditions, people had to queue for hours on end for plates of food handed out of visiting trucks. But some of them, displaced and homeless overnight, expressed their gratitude to Malhotra, President for Mastercard in the Middle East and Africa (MEA).

Mastercard, a technology company that engages in the global payments industry, had distributed e-cards, as part of a global collaboration with the World Food Programme, to the refugees that they could now use to purchase food and other supplies from local shops.

READ MORE | The Big Bank Theory: South Africa’s Banks Of The Future

 “I spoke to the people myself and saw what their lives were… Even those who were doctors with their families and were displaced… They said to me ‘you have restored dignity to our lives; you have no idea how demeaning it is to queue up to be given food’… We actually digitized how that subsidy for food was given. Some of these things go beyond economics,” says Malhotra. 

Beyond economics.

That very simply sums up Malhotra’s mandate for Africa as well.

The New York-headquartered Mastercard, ranked No. 43 on Forbes’ list of the World’s Most Valuable Brands, with a market cap of $247 billion, which connects consumers, financial institutions, merchants, governments and business, is fostering key partnerships across the African continent to help drive inclusive economic growth.

The idea, Malhotra says, “is to get our global skill-set to operate in its most efficient form in every local economy, at the same time, we must do good, and it must be sustainable.”

He calls Africa the next bastion of growth for various industries.

“As a company, we have stated we are going to get 500 million new consumers globally. And Africa plays a big part of that whole story… We want to be an integral part of various economies here,” says the man responsible for driving Mastercard’s global strategy across 69 markets.

Raghu Malhotra President for Mastercard in the Middle East and Africa. Picture: Motlabana Monnakgotla

“It probably took us over 20 years to get the first 50 million new consumers, in my part of the world, which is the Middle East and Africa (MEA). It took us probably five years to get the next 50 million, and last year alone, we put over 50 million consumers [in the formal economy] in MEA. That is part of our whole African story, so this is just not rhetoric; we are actually building our business on that basis.”

Home to four of the world’s top five fastest-growing economies, Africa has the fastest urbanization rate in the world, the youngest population, and a rapidly expanding middle class predicted to increase business and consumer spending.

It’s a continent of opportunity for global players like Mastercard with an eye on the potential of a booming consumer base and small and medium entrepreneurs, most of whom are still not a part of the formal economy. A large proportion of Africa is still unbanked. There is enough business opportunity in offering people digital tools so they can lead respectable financial lives.

READ MORE | The Monk Of Business: Ylias Akbaraly Talks About Secret To Success And Plans To Take Africa With Him

But it is in knowing that financial inclusion is not just about technology, but more about solving bigger problems, as the World Bank says in its overview for Africa: “Achieving higher inclusive growth and reaping the benefits of a demographic dividend will require going beyond a business as usual approach to development for Africa. Going forward, it is imperative that the region undertakes the following four actions, concurrently: invest more and better in its people; leapfrog into the 21st century digital and high-tech economy; harness private finance and know-how to fill the infrastructure gap; and build resilience to fragility and conflict and climate change.”

And in order to enable financial access, Mastercard has a balanced strategy in place, with the right partnerships for inclusive growth on the continent, Malhotra tells FORBES AFRICA.

“Every emerging market has different segments of people and you need to get the right product for the right segment. What we do is a balanced growth strategy across the continent based on timing, opportunity etc… Of course, because the bottom of the pyramid is much bigger, I think what we need is to adapt things differently; that is where the inclusive growth story comes from. That is where the opportunity is, but there is a second part to it…” And that, he summarizes, is advancing sustainable growth, doing good and bringing more transparency and efficiency.

The new pragmatic dispensation of governments in Africa towards ideas, technology and innovation has surely helped open up the stage to newer segment-driven products, especially as Africa already has such global laurels as Safaricom’s mobile money transfer and micro-financing service M-Pesa that took financial access to a whole new level. Also, sub-Saharan Africa remains one of the fastest-growing mobile markets in the world.

READ MORE | Feisty And Fearless Pioneers Thandi Ndlovu & Nonkululeko Gobodo

Malhotra says he finds African governments consistent in how they are rolling out their digital vision, and in trying to collaborate towards creating better ecosystems for their economies, though each is unique with its own dossier of problems.

“When I speak to various governments around Africa, I see a commonality of what their needs are and I also see a commonality in how they are trying to respond. So I think a lot of them realize running cash economies is a very inefficient way of doing things… Also, the consumer base is much more open to new technology because there is no bedded infrastructure or legacy infrastructure. I think where governments need to start thinking a bit more is how much do they want to do completely on their own.”

Part of this transformation on the path to financial progress is alleviating the burden of cash. Cash still accounts for most consumer payments in Africa. Mastercard, which started out as synonymous with credit cards, continues its efforts to convert consumers from cash to electronic transactions, and move beyond plastic.

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Pioneer For Women In Construction Thandi Ndlovu has died

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The cover of the August (Women’s Month) edition of Forbes Africa beautifully captures the essence of the woman I interviewed only a few weeks ago. Gracious, soft-spoken, brimming with life and energy. Dr Thandi Ndlovu impressed the entire Forbes crew on that afternoon cover shoot with her broad smile, and open yet powerful demeanor.

It is with great sadness that Forbes Africa heard of the accident that took her life on Saturday the 24 August 2019.

READ MORE |COVER: Feisty And Fearless Pioneers Thandi Ndlovu & Nonkululeko Gobodo

She had given so much to South Africa and its people – through the apartheid years and during the 25 years of democracy, literally building a better future, first through her medical practice at Orange Farm and then through her company, Motheo Construction Group and the scholarships for tertiary education granted by her Motheo Children’s Foundation.

That sunny winter’s afternoon, I asked her if she, at the age of 65, was considering retirement, and she laughed. A lively, amiable laugh. She told me she was healthy and strong and easily worked 12 to 13 hour days.

READ MORE | WATCH | Making Of The Women’s Month Cover: Thandi Ndlovu & Nonkululeko Gobodo

She loved hiking, and has climbed Kilimanjaro twice, reached the base camps of Mount Everest and Annapurna in Nepal. At the time of the interview, she was training to climb Machu Picchu, the famed ruins in Peru’s mountains.

One of her biggest passions was to make a difference in people’s lives and to motivate people to achieve the best they could. The other was to redress the racial tensions that still remained in South Africa.

Dr Thandi Ndlovu, South Africa is poorer for your passing.

-Jill De Villiers

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Feisty And Fearless Pioneers Thandi Ndlovu & Nonkululeko Gobodo

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Thandi Ndlovu and Nonkululeko Gobodo, moulded by South Africa’s apartheid past, tore their way into male-dominated sectors , leading them boldly through a quarter century of democracy. Failure was never an option.


On a sunny winter’s afternoon in a quiet suburb of Randburg in greater Johannesburg, a second white Mercedes-Benz pulls up in the driveway of a photographic studio, and finds a shady spot to park.

Already seated next to a pool glinting blue in the sunlight, an elegant woman dressed in black and white sips green tea and talks about her early life growing up in the former Bantustan of Transkei in South Africa.

Absorbed in recounting her story, she looks up as a tall, slender woman, also in a chic black and white ensemble, walks towards her. The two women beam in recognition. They are here to be photographed by FORBES AFRICA and to share their unique stories as businesswomen in two traditionally white male-dominated sectors – auditing and construction.  

This year, South Africa celebrates 25 years of democracy. As the country started shaking off the shackles of oppression in the 1990s, both these women embarked on their paths to greatness. Both had been moulded by the harsh final years of apartheid, gaining the strength and conviction to fight for what they believed in.

In the process, they built successful businesses, changed perceptions and became role models.

And as with all stories of achievement, their journeys came with times of adversity.

Nonkululeko Gobodo. Picture: Motlabana Monnakgotla

Nonkululeko Gobodo: The visionary in auditing

 As a young girl, Nonkululeko Gobodo had very low self-esteem. She was shy and quiet and as the middle child in a family of five children, she felt overshadowed by her very outgoing older siblings. Her mother made it clear that she thought Gobodo wasn’t “going to amount to anything”.

Yet, there were factors in her upbringing, at home and in her community, which shaped her and prepared her for a future as a captain of industry.

Her mother was very hard on her. “I’m someone who needs affirmation and she did the opposite of what I needed. Fortunately, my father was doing that, he was doing the affirmative things.”

As an educator, her father was excited when she achieved “goodish” results at school, even slaughtering a sheep in celebration.

“When my parents were running shops, I used to be the one who would help in running the shops during the holidays. And I was quite young to be given the responsibility. My mother was literally taking a holiday, and I would run the shop perfectly, no shortage or anything like that. So, in spite of the fact that she was too hard on me, she must have thought she was nurturing this talent and making me strong.”  

Growing up in the then independent Transkei (now the Eastern Cape province of South Africa), Gobodo was largely sheltered from the impact of apartheid in other parts of the country.

“I lived in this world where you were sort of cushioned from what was happening in South Africa. So you were socialized to be a fighter, to be strong. My parents used to say that we should never allow anybody to tell us there were things we cannot do,” she elucidates.

It was an everyday thing to see black people running a variety of formal businesses like hotels, garages and wholesalers.

“I suppose I was very fortunate in that I was raised by these parents who were in business, who were working very hard during those times and with very strong personalities, both of them. Within the Xhosa tribe itself, although there is patriarchy and all that, Xhosa women are very strong and they are sort of equal partners with their husbands.”

Still very young, Gobodo fell pregnant. Her parents insisted on marriage. The marriage would end several years later, after the birth of three children, when she was 34 years old.

While taking a gap year working at her father’s panel-beating shop in Mthatha (then Umtata), during her first pregnancy, Gobodo discovered her calling. While her parents thought she would be well-suited to a career in medicine, she found joy in accountancy.

The gap year also revealed her innate strength to stand up for what she believed in. For the first time, she encountered racism. White managers remained in place when her father bought the business from the Transkei Development Corporation (TDC).

“They were really so upset by these black people who had taken over this business, and they were just bullying everyone. So I was able to stand up to them and then I realized I’m actually smart, I’m actually not this thing that my mother was saying, that I’m not just smart, but I’m strong, I’m tough, I can stand up to these men during apartheid years and it was not because my father owned the shop, but it was this thing of suddenly discovering who you are for the first time and just waking up to who you are and suddenly knowing what you wanted to do. Oh wow, accountancy, I didn’t know about that,” she smiles.

She was also inspired by the fact that black auditors did the books for her father’s business. They were WL Nkuhlu & Co, owned by Professor Wiseman Nkuhlu. Her father supported her decision to study BCom and she enrolled at the University of Transkei (now Walter Sisulu University).

Gobodo became a star performer at university and her confidence grew. After qualifying, the university offered her a junior lectureship. While there was no racism in the academic environment, it was here that she had her first taste of gender discrimination. A male colleague instructed her to do filing. She thought this was ridiculous considering her position, and she refused. He treated her as an equal from then on. 

“I made a decision to fight the system differently,” she says. “I was sure there was no system that would determine who I am and how far I can go. I used to say this mantra to myself: ‘Your opinions of me do not define me. You don’t even know who I am’. So I never allowed those things to get to me.”

Early on, she already had a vision to have her own practice, so she was not distracted by her peers complaining while doing their articles. She was determined to take advantage of the opportunity to get the best training she could get. “Those guys never became chartered accountants, so it was a wise thing not to join them,” she smiles.

In 1987, she made history when she became South Africa’s first black female chartered accountant.

Working at KPMG, she grew to rapidly build her own portfolio of challenging assignments.

“It was my driving force right through life to prove to myself and others that there was nothing I couldn’t do. And for me, being black really gave me purpose. I can imagine that if I was living in a world that was readymade for me, life would have been very boring,” she says.

She was offered a partnership eight months after her articles. She would be the first black partner, and the first woman. It was very tempting. But she remembered her vision to start her own practice and taking the partnership would be “the easy way out”. 

So she moved on to the TDC, where at the age of 29, she was promoted from internal audit manager to Chief Financial Officer within three months. Again in 1992, she decided to break “the golden chains” of the TDC to pursue her destiny. But first, she restructured her department and empowered five managers; thoroughly enjoying the work of developing leaders, and setting the tone for the business she runs now – Nkululeko Leadership Consulting.

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 At the time, her father questioned her decision to leave such a lucrative position to take the risk of starting a business. “Everybody was so scared for me and was discouraging me. I realized these people were expressing their own fears. I have no such fears. And it’s not saying I’m not fearful of the step I am taking, but I’m going into this business to succeed.”

The best way to do that was to step into the void without a safety net. So, no part-time lecturing job to distract her from her vision. “If I had listened to them, how would I have known that I could take my business this far?”

She describes herself as a natural entrepreneur. Yet, the responsibility of leading a business is not a joke.

“It sobers you up,” she says. “You realize you have to make this work, otherwise you’re going to fail a whole lot of people. But when you have the courage to pursue your dream, things sort of work out. Things fall into place.”

Eighteen months into the practice, she took on a partner and felt an “agitation for growth”. It came with a “massive job” from the Transkei Auditor General, and things changed overnight. With only four people in their office, they now needed 30 to complete the assignment and they hired second and third year students who attended night lectures at the university.

“At that time, as a black and a woman, you had to define your own image of yourself, and have the right attitude to fight for your place in the sun. And I can’t take for granted the way I was socialized and raised by my parents. My father was such a fighter. And he shared all his stories at the dinner table. He used to say in Xhosa: ‘who can stand in front of a bus?’, so you just have those pictures of yourself as a bus. Who can stand in front of me and my ambitions in life,” she laughs.

This self-confidence, belief in herself, direction, purpose and her clear vision steered her ever further.

“Unfortunately, I had a fallout with my partner Sindi Zilwa [co-founder of Nkonki Inc, a registered firm of auditors, consultants and advisors], and that was a hard one, a very difficult one. I used to say it was more difficult than my divorce, because that happened almost at the same time. First, the divorce started and a few months later, I divorced with my partner,” she says.

“It was a lonely time. It is amazing that out of hardship, we find an opportunity to grow and move to the next level.”

She went on a five -week program with Merrill Lynch in New York in 1994. On her return, she saw herself being cut out of negotiations to establish a medium-sized black accounting firm. While these plans were scuppered now, her vision still survived and no one could take that away from her.

She approached young professionals who were managers at the big accounting firms in Johannesburg to join her. “But you can imagine, they were young, they were fearful. It took about eight months to persuade and convince them.” 

Gobodo understood their fears as she herself had to overcome her doubts about moving from a small community in the Transkei to the big city. But the visit to New York had helped her overcome her fear. If she could make it there, she could make it anywhere.

Gobodo Incorporated was established in 1996. It was the third medium-sized black accounting firm.

The others were Nkonki Sizwe Ntsaluba and KMMT Brey.

She believes that providence has always sent “angels” to her at the right time in her life. Peter Moyo, a partner at Ernst & Young at the time, gave his time and invaluable experience leading to the establishment of Gobodo Incorporated. Chris Stephens, who was the former head of consulting for KPMG, facilitated bringing a fully-fledged forensics unit to the firm. They took up a whole floor at their new Parktown, Johannesburg offices instead of the planned half-floor.

From a small practice in Mthatha, Gobodo Inc. grew to a medium-sized company with 10 partners, 200 staff and three offices – in Durban, Cape Town and Johannesburg. It was an exciting time.

Gobodo firmly believes that visions are not static. Once a summit is conquered, there will always be another one waiting for you.

The next summit beckoned her 15 years later. Black Economic Empowerment (BEE), a program launched by the South African government to redress the inequalities of apartheid, was firmly established and accounting firms were compliant, and Gobodo Inc. started losing out on opportunities as previous joint-audits done in partnership with the big accounting firms fell away.

She started talks with Victor Sekese of Sizwe Ntsaluba to merge the two medium-sized firms.

Again, people questioned the wisdom of the move. What if the market was not ready for a large black accounting firm?

There was somewhat of a culture clash when the “somewhat older, disciplined, bottom-line” Gobodo Inc. and the “younger, more creative” Sizwe Ntsaluba teams came together.  A new culture combining the best of both emerged. Ironically, while no people were lost during the merger, some were uncomfortable with the culture change and left. 

In the beginning, “a lot of sacrifices had to be made to make this thing work. Like the name. My partners were saying Nonkululeko’s name should be in front because she’s the only remaining founder,” explains Gobodo.

Sizwe Ntsaluba wanted their name up front, and it was a deal-breaker. She decided the vision was bigger than her and she wouldn’t allow anything to jeopardize it. The company name was agreed on: SizweNtsalubaGobodo. The business grew to 55 partners and over 1,000 staff. 

“I think we underestimated how hard it would be,” she says. “Mergers are difficult in themselves, around 70% of mergers fail. People were laughing at us saying ‘ah, black people, they’re going to fight amongst each other and fail’, so we were determined not to fail. Failure was not an option.”

When they did their first sole tender, “you could smell the fear in the passages. There was so much fear”. Then the call came from the chair of the audit committee of Transnet to say the board had decided to appoint SizweNtsalubaGobodo as the sole auditors.

Gobodo had led the way to the establishment of the fifth largest accounting firm in South Africa. Her vision had been realized.

“It was just so fulfilling, really so fulfilling,” says the grandmother-of-three. “So it was time to move this thing forward.”

 She was the Executive Chairperson and Sekese was the CEO. She commissioned partners to find the best governance structure for the firm. Their recommendation was for one leader to lead the firm forward, and a non-executive chair.

“That was going to be boring for me. If I was not going to be part of driving this vision forward, it was time for me to leave,” Gobodo says. “There comes a time that the founders must leave and hand over to the next generation.”

Although she had achieved her dream, it was not easy to let go. The separation took three months.

“I learned a lot about letting go at that time. We have to let go layer by layer. I had to accept that they would do what they had to with the legacy. And here they are now, having merged with Grant Thornton. The dream was to be a true international firm, and now with SNG Grant Thornton, it is still basically a black firm going into the continent. The dream does not die. This is still a black firm taking over an international brand.”

Gobodo now heads Nkululeko Leadership Consulting, a boutique, black-owned and managed leadership consulting firm. Here, she can live her passion for developing leaders. She also sits on the boards of PPC and Clicks. The future awaits her with more promise.

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Side bar: ‘The World Is Not Kind To Strong Women Leaders’

What were the greatest challenges she faced during her career?

“Making a success of your life in the South Africa of the past. As a black person, you always started from a place of being dismissed, as a woman, you always started from a place of being dismissed. So you had to be true to yourself and find yourself for you to be able to succeed. And that was hard. I don’t want to make it as if it was easy.

“The second thing was being a strong woman leader. The world is not kind to strong women leaders. And for me, being a strong woman leader was the hardest thing because both men and women don’t accept a strong woman leader. So you have this big vision, you are driven, you have to move things forward and if you’re a strong man, you’re accepted.

“But if you’re a strong woman, you are not. So you had to grow up and mature and try to find that balance of still moving people forward to achieve your vision, because I realized early that I would not get to the finish line without them. I could not leave them behind. So I always had to find that balance and sometimes, I didn’t do it well.

“Because there was this urgency of moving forward and you have to drag people with you. And they didn’t take kindly to that. Do I regret it? No, not really. I don’t think I would have achieved what I had. I had been given these gifts as a strong woman for a reason. I just feel sorry for strong women leaders, because it is still not easy for them today.”

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