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Feisty And Fearless Pioneers Thandi Ndlovu & Nonkululeko Gobodo

Published 1 years ago
By Forbes

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.”

Thandi Ndlovu. Picture: Motlabana Monnakgotla

Thandi Ndlovu: The doctor-turned-builder

 Often, when she works in the coastal KwaZulu-Natal province of South Africa, people wonder why a woman with such a well-known Zulu name struggles with the language, while Sesotho dances over her lips. Dr. Thandi Ndlovu’s mother hails from the Free State province, where Sotho is the dominant language. She shared the language with her children in the Ndlovu household.

Back in 1976, when on the way back north with fellow students from the University of Fort Hare at Alice in the Eastern Cape, they drove hastily through the Free State in a Volkswagen loaded with cans of petrol side-by-side with their luggage. Racism was prevalent in the province at the time, and the objective was to avoid potential confrontations with antagonistic white locals at petrol stations.

As they crossed into the then Transvaal, they saw a huge ball of fire. Police vehicles dotted the road to the township of Soweto, where she grew up. Arriving home, she knocked on her 17-year-old brother’s window to find out what was happening, but Hastings wasn’t there. When her father saw her, he said: “The country is on fire. The school children have taken over the struggle.”

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It was June 17, 1976, the day after the Soweto youth uprising. Ndlovu’s school teacher father told her how “all hell broke loose” at the school the previous morning, and that he hadn’t seen his son ‘Hassie’ since. On July 3, Hastings was found in a government hospital, killed by a police bullet on June 16.

“It was devastating. He was a jewel of a child. And to a little extent, he took after me,” Ndlovu opens up.

“I’m a firm believer in the humanity in us. He would walk down the street everyday coming from school, and little kids would run to him. He would have sweets in all his pockets. He would take the ones who were at school and go through their homework with them. 

“We were to learn later that he was actually the victim of a marksman’s bullet because he was part of the organizers of the June 16th demonstration.

“I’m telling you this story because I want to contextualize it in terms of our experiences under apartheid, and our reaction to those experiences. The pain happened. The pain is still there. But when we talk about it, it is both with pride and gratitude that he was there at a time that he needed to be there to add onto the little bit that each and every human being was doing to change the situation.”

Ndlovu has found that many South Africans today, especially the younger generation, don’t understand the full extent of the sacrifices made by the people involved in the struggle to bring about change in the country. 

“We have to contextualize where we are today so that people appreciate that those experiences, negative as they could have been, are the ones that made us what we are. Because they instilled in us a semblance of resilience, of ‘I can do it and I have to do it and I have to work hard to do it’.”

In September 1976, in the third year of a BSc degree in biochemistry and chemistry, and with an excellent year mark, Ndlovu felt compelled, under pressure from the police, to leave her home, her family and her country. With R10 (less than a dollar) in her pocket, she left South Africa.

During her exile of 18 years, in 1980, her mother passed away, having lost her youngest son to a bullet and three daughters to exile. They could not return to attend the funeral.  

Ndlovu first went to Mozambique and then Zambia. As a member of Umkhonto we Sizwe, the military wing of the African National Congress (ANC), she received training in southern Angola between 1977 and 1979. This was followed by a trip to Moscow to study at the Young Communist League school.

In 1984, she registered at the University of Zambia, where she obtained BSc and MBChB degrees, qualifying on the eve of Nelson Mandela’s release from prison, in 1990.

Returning to South Africa, she interned at the famed Baragwanath Hospital in Soweto, while working as a locum for a partnership of doctors at a train station in Vereeniging in the Gauteng province of the country. Her training in Zambia concentrated on preventative rather than curative medicine, and Ndlovu was amazed to see mothers from “a place called Orange Farm” bringing malnourished babies to the doctors’ rooms.

That was until she saw the informal settlement with her own eyes. She took in row upon row upon row of tin shacks, with no sanitation and “no form of decent livelihood” for its population of over 200,000 people. In 1993, she set up a practice at Orange Farm.

“It became like an oasis for the community. For me, it was a calling. It was in the course of dealing with the disease profile in the community and seeing the need, that I started talking to the women. There was a government fund for poor people to build their own houses,” Ndlovu, affectionately called ‘Dr T’ by those who know her well, explains.

“My own practice had been built by the unemployed men of the community. All I did was go to the local hardware store, which was run by my cousin brother, and told him I wanted to build a proper structure among the shacks. He said he knew good builders in the area. I didn’t know much about construction, but up to today, that building stands. So in the middle of this place of misery, here was an oasis of health.”

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Patients who lived in shacks with no toilets and no running water would visit the practice and see a VVIP bathroom with a basin and flush toilet.

“For me, it was giving poor people a sense of dignity and showing them that the whole thing was built by the men in their community. They came with the idea of the pit latrine. They came with the idea of the running water.  And that’s how I set up a community health forum and with a women’s organization called Voice of Women, we started conceptualizing a pilot project for us to build houses for their families,” Ndlovu says.

A senior executive at Nedcor (now Nedbank Group) who dealt with low-cost housing gave her some pointers on how to proceed and she put together a professional team who, ironically, considering her struggle credentials, were all white men, but she knew they would deliver, and they put together a proposal to build 1,000 houses. 

When presenting the project to the municipality, a problem arose. The title couldn’t be passed on to the beneficiaries because they had occupied the land illegally.

“I was deflated. What do I do? I knew I had a good enough concept to sell elsewhere. That’s how I sold it to Mpumalanga [a province in South Africa], to Premier Mathews Phosa,” she relates.

When she went for the meeting one December afternoon, the room was filled with representatives from all the rural municipalities, mayors and municipal managers. She presented the model and left.

“I was on my way back to Johannesburg, and he called and said, ‘come back’. He introduced me to the head of the Mpumalanga Housing Board. By Monday of the following week, I was called to come and sign an opportunity to build, not 1,000 houses as per the proposal, but 10,000 houses in the rural areas of Mpumalanga.

“But, but,” Ndlovu interrupts herself, “that was the one thing that put me in serious trouble.” 

Established housing contractors were up in arms, asking how a medical doctor with no construction experience could be awarded a contract worth R198 million (about $14.2 million). There was extensive media coverage. After thorough investigation – a forensic audit and a commission of inquiry – three years later, she was cleared of the allegations of corruption. The scope of the project was reduced from 10,000 to 6,500 houses, and she could proceed with it.

Her ego was bruised, and she felt compelled to show the country, and especially her competitors, the mettle she was made of and how ethical she was. So it came that after three years of running a medical practice at Orange Farm, and nine years of intensive medical training, the doctor sold her private practice.

“The reason was really that I had seen the country had not embraced the capacity of those same people, the poor people for whom the program was designed, to do it for themselves. I wanted to show the country that you don’t have to have huge infrastructure to build a 40sqm house for a person. And that you can actually build capacity in that poor person by training them to be able, long after you’ve gone, to fix their housing problems.

“That was 22 years ago, and I haven’t looked back,” she laughs.

As soon as she had sold her medical practice to the locum who had worked with her, she started looking for partners. The Sunday before she was to meet up with two white men, who had left the construction firm Murray & Roberts with management contracts to honor the low-cost housing projects signed on by the firm before its exit strategy from low-cost housing, Ndlovu went to the Central Methodist Church in Johannesburg, and prayed.

“I said, Lord, when I meet these white people, please give me the strength to at least tolerate them,” she laughs, recalling it now. “Then I went to meet Chris Cudmore, and the rest is history.”

They reached an agreement “in less than 10 minutes”, papers were drawn up and signed within days and the partnership between Ndlovu, Cudmore and Tim Porter has lasted 22 years – and counting. Cudmore is a South African quantity surveyor and Porter is an Australian engineer. The initial Motheo Construction Group partnership was a split of 51:49 in favor of Ndlovu.

Over the years, she has diluted her equity to around 41% of the business, bringing in more young black female investors.

With a current black female ownership of 54%, the Motheo Construction Group specializes in mass housing, which after diversification, makes up 66% of the business. Other divisions include road infrastructure and civil engineering. The Motheo Academy is Dr T’s pride and joy.

“When we do have a project anywhere, we involve especially young people from communities, whether urban or rural, and train them. We have a strong relationship with the Construction Education and Training Authority. At the end of the project, they are left with skills. So the academy would do special mentorship programs – at the moment with 15 people – with the intention of leaving something behind as we grow the business,” she says.

When she started Motheo in 1997, there were seven big construction companies listed on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange. The landscape in 2019 looks very different. Within months, three big South African construction firms – Group Five, Basil Read and Esor – were forced to file for bankruptcy protection. Previous giants Aveng and Murray & Roberts have also not had it easy. How is Motheo Construction Group coping, we ask?

“You know, the decisions I took many years ago to bring into my business highly-skilled, competent individuals, who I thank God for; they share my passion for developing others. They share my passion for running a responsible business – a business that will make money, but always give back. And so, touch wood, we’re doing very well. We’ve grown in the last three years 20 percent year-on-year on average. I think we are the largest black women-owned construction business in the country. And we have survived.”

The business has done almost a billion rand turnover ($72 million) per annum, with 200 people permanently employed, and between 1,000 and 1,500 waged employees at a given time.

“Why? Because we believe in keeping a very small overhead cost structure and then empowering the people we work with on the ground.” 

In this way, the group has built a network of subcontractors throughout the country.

“The fundamentals for establishing the business were solid,” she elaborates. “It was built on ethical principles, and it is paying dividends.”

Prompted by the government to transform the construction industry through partnerships, a Settlement Agreement was signed in 2016 with seven large construction firms. As part of this Agreement, WBHO – now the largest surviving construction firm – partnered with Motheo Construction, Fikile Construction and Edwin Construction, who would be “supported to collectively reach 25% of the WBHO construction and civil engineering turnover”, according to the South African Forum of Civil Engineering Contractors.

“Black youngsters who leave technikons and universities could be matched with older, more experienced people,” she explains. “The ‘twinning’ model has really been proven for me. Right now, I’ve got two or three young women that I take to my old ‘toppies’ and say you shall work with this person. It accelerates their development. It’s a model I believe South Africa should follow.

“Unfortunately, a lot of skills that would have been used to develop this twinning model have left the country or are in retirement.”

Ndlovu serves on several boards, including Truworths International, her own company boards and the boards of businesses she invests in.  

There is also the Dr Thandi Ndlovu Children’s Foundation, which is close to her heart. Full scholarships have been awarded to 25 students to go to university and technikon at an average cost of R1.5 million ($107,829) to R2 million ($143,772).

At the age of 65, she has no intention of retiring any time soon, but when she does, she will spend her time hiking (she has summited Kilimanjaro twice, reached the base camp of Mount Everest and the base camp of Annapurna, and is off to Machu Picchu next), teaching and passing on skills, building South Africa, redressing racial tensions and motivating people.

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Side bar: The Days of The Struggle And the Mentors that made her 

“My biggest mentor has been former [South African] First Lady Zanele Mbeki. In exile, she mentored us young women. I was 21 when I went to that camp of the ANC and I was the eldest. There were other young women of 13 or 14 that I had to look after in a camp of over 1,000 men, there were 21 of us. So there were these older women, who were not in the camp with us, but who when we needed anything, we asked them. They included Mrs Mbeki. The generation older than us were our big sisters, so we told them everything,” remembers Ndlovu. Others were the late Adelaide Tambo, wife of Oliver Tambo, and struggle icon Ruth Mompati, as well as Barbara Masekela, who was President Nelson Mandela’s chief of staff until 1995, and politician, diplomat and poet Lindiwe Mabuza. 

– Jill De Villiers

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Related Topics: #Featured, #Nkululeko Leadership Consulting, #Nonkululeko Gobodo, #Sindi Zilwa, #Thandi Ndlovu.