Khanyisile Kweyama is dynamite in a petite package. She is the first black woman to be appointed Executive Director for South Africa at Anglo American, the world’s biggest platinum producer. She has also staked her claim in the mining sector as the current Vice President of the Chamber of Mines in South Africa, and has recently responded to the call to national duty, taking on a seconded role as the CEO of Business Unity South Africa (BUSA).
We meet Kweyama in the offices of CNBC Africa in Sandton in Johannesburg for a quick coffee and her thoughts on how she broke barriers to become a player in South African mining’s big boys’ club.
In 2014, when the country was in the throes of its longest and costliest strike in the platinum mining sector, Kweyama and her team were right at the front, desperately trying to put out the fire tearing into the country’s investment case.
She recalls the unusual phone call from Anglo’s global CEO, Cynthia Carroll, to confirm dinner arrangements in the midst of this storm. Although she expected her local insight would be sought to protect the company, its workers, and keep communication alive with the unions, she didn’t expect to leave dinner as the company’s Executive Director.
“As the Human Resources Executive, I thought I had a clear line of sight into the company’s succession pipeline. I didn’t see this coming,” she says.
Black empowerment in South Africa keeps a close tab on black appointments. Naysayers were quick to point out that hers was another window-dressing move on the part of the company.
“This is going to be an issue that women, and black women in particular, are going to have to take on boldly and without flinching. There is expectation for us to prove ourselves over and beyond our capabilities. Create your niche and outperform,” says Kweyama.
When she received the call to serve as the CEO of BUSA, she says the enormity of South Africa’s economic stagnation made her firm up her decision. She accepted.
As CEO, she has to bridge the yawning silence between business, government and other stakeholders.
“The country is stuck. We need to do something to move beyond the anemic growth phase we’re in. No one can do it alone.”
Her typical day includes meeting with union leaders, participating in ministerial and presidential deliberations, taking the lead on capturing the input of business, contributing to NEDLAC (the body tasked with finding a middle ground around South Africa’s labor tensions), and all the while, working at the chamber of mines with a broader team to reinvigorate life into a struggling industry.
Kweyama is accountable to a range of ministers. Her roles spill outside of the borders as BUSA also participates in regional and international fora in a myriad Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) initiatives that fight for better trade terms for the region and emerging markets.
For a woman comfortable juggling numerous roles and making decisions that impact on a range of organizations, she prefers the backseat at home.
“My husband is the boss at home. He’s a medical doctor and he lives in his own world. He too has significant industry challenges that he has taken a lead on but we try not to bring our corporate challenges home.”
If there ever was a prize for the strangest love story, Kweyama and Cyril would take it hands down.
It goes thus.
She had needed a flu shot and called on a friend to administer it. Unable to do so because she was in the salon having her hair done, her friend arranged for Kweyama to come to the salon, for the flu shot to be delivered, and for Cyril to administer it. That was the beginning of their love story.
Kweyama’s family is her biggest support. She is a mother to eight children, of which two are her biological offspring. She is also a spiritual mother to many through her church and community.
“Prayer keeps me going. I always pray for guidance and when I get stuck I have to remind Him that we haven’t come this far to be stopped by this nonsense. Show me how to surmount this hurdle.”
Luckily for Kweyama, her prayers seem to be helping.