Making a difference: Irene Charnley’s journey in the corporate world

Published 10 years ago

Growing up in Apartheid South Africa, examples of bravery, heroism and inspirational humanity were all around me. Some of my heroes were personal; ordinary people working quietly to overcome injustice and keep their dignity, while trying to escape poverty.

Other heroes I share with the world: Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo, JB Marks, Walter and Albertina Sisulu.

But my greatest hero of all was my mother – widowed with three children, living in a poor Cape Flats community. She showed me every day that our circumstances need not define us, and how important it is to balance strength and determination with love, kindness and humanity. My mother showed me how to be brave.


My heroes shaped the value system that defines who I am today – values such as equality and equity, diversity and inclusivity, freedom and responsibility, hope and faith for the future.

I believe that social and economic justice must prevail. I believe in the importance of remaining grounded and humble. And I believe in my ability to achieve anything I set my mind to.

My first chance to test these values came when I was thrust into the minefield of labor negotiations at the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM).

As a union, we had to succeed, because the work we were doing impacted on the lives of hundreds of thousands of black mineworkers. And they were depending on us to safeguard their livelihoods and improve their lives.


Working at the NUM taught me a great deal and laid the foundation for my future in the corporate world. In order to do my job – negotiating increased wages and improved conditions of employment – I had to master all of the issues, irrespective of their complexity.

I learnt that success lies in finding the balance between legitimate business imperatives and our broader, human responsibility to make a positive, sustainable contribution to society.

Naturally, the issues we dealt with were emotionally charged. We had to negotiate professionally and responsibly, navigating the inevitable trade-offs, to ensure that mineworkers’ lives improved while the company made money. Afterwards, we needed to explain the issues and solutions to our members in an accessible way.

The nature of the challenge led to three important lessons.


First, learn fearlessly. Follow that old piece of advice: when others sleep, you read. Secondly, never think that you know everything; have the humility and courage to keep asking until you understand. Do not be afraid to make mistakes.

And thirdly, you only really understand something when you can explain it, in simple terms, in less than three minutes.

These lessons guided me when I moved from the negotiating table to the boardroom table. As an executive director at Johnnic, which at the time was an industrial conglomerate, I represented the unions and the black business consortium.

I also had the opportunity to play a leading role in the negotiation of a number of transactions that ultimately led to Johnnic’s makeover as a focused media, entertainment and telecommunications group. One of these contracts resulted in the reverse-listing of MTN Holdings through M-Cell Limited, and the subsequent transformation of the mobile operator into one of the pre-eminent black-empowered companies on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange.


At MTN, I became aware of the inc-

redible impact that information and communications technology can have on people’s lives. Access to information and the ability to communicate makes us masters of our own destinies, empowered to uplift families, communities, businesses, and ultim-ately, the societies in which we live.

The statistics speak for themselves. According to the World Bank, for every 10% increase in broadband penetration, there is a 2-3% increase in employment and a 1.38 percentage point increase in gross domestic product.

This realization, and the freedom that I felt after achieving my objectives at MTN, inspired me to establish Smile Communications.


An African telecommunications operator, Smile has a presence in Tanzania, Uganda, the DRC and Nigeria.

Our mission is testimony to what I have learnt: To deliver affordable, high-quality and easy-to-use broadband access and communication services across Africa, using low-cost, innovative business models and technologies.

Although my journey is – hopefully – nowhere near its end, I suspect that some of the most important lessons still lie ahead. Every day, when I step into the office, I feel that in some small way I am making a contribution to changing the world for the better. That sense of mission makes every problem surmountable and every victory more meaningful.