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Will There Be Any Elephants Left In 2030?

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Once upon a time, Africa alone was home to 26 million elephants. The giants roamed the continent knowing not what lay in store, that their habitats would dwindle and so would their majestic numbers.

From millions, they are now in their thousands, falling faster than trees – all for their ivory tusks.

Approximately 97 elephants are gunned down daily by poachers for their tusks. This means by 2030 there could be no elephants left in the wild.

According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the African elephant population dropped from 550,000 in 2006 to about 350,000. In East Africa, the decline is far more alarming – from 150,000 to about 100,000.

Other parts of the world have also seen a drastic decline of the elephant population. In Asia, it’s estimated less than 50,000 elephants still roam the region; more than half of them in India.

These figures are frightening – what deforestation and poaching can do.

Jeffrey Gettleman of The New York Times said: “Like blood diamonds from Sierra Leone or plundered minerals from Congo, ivory, it seems, is the latest conflict resource in Africa, dragged out of remote battle zones, easily converted into cash and now fueling conflicts across the continent.”

It’s hard not to notice the mammoths disappearing.

Paula Kahumbu. (Photo supplied)

Dr. Paula Kahumbu, the CEO of WildlifeDirect, a Kenyan conservation NGO, is currently leading a campaign, Hands Off Our Elephants – civil society, corporations, government agencies as well as other conservation organizations in a unified approach towards ending the poaching crisis in Kenya.

Born in Nairobi, Kenya, to an English mother and Kenyan father, Kahumbu is one of eight siblings. Being out in the wilderness as a child interacting with animals made her the committed eco-warrior she is today.

“My mother was often home alone and because we were so many, mother would literally tell us to get lost and we would do just that,” says Kahumbu.

“We’d go exploring – catching anything you can imagine; birds, mice, snakes, frogs. We’d go fishing and swimming in the rivers, make our way through to forests and swamps. We spent our entire childhoods in the wilderness.”

“We did the kind of stuff you would never allow children to do today actually but it was very safe at that time,” she continues.

Soon, these trysts led to an encounter with Richard Leakey, a Kenyan paleoanthropologist, conservationist and politician.

“We didn’t know all that much about wildlife so we would visit our neighbor, Richard Leakey, head of the Kenya Museum Associates. He was someone who knew a lot about animals and whenever we would spend time with him he would teach us about their ecology, behavior, and the like.”

Between the 1960s and 1980s, elephant poaching was at a dramatic high, according to the Convention of International Trade and Endangered Species (CITES).

“When I finished high school, it was very difficult at that time to get into university. My parents could not afford to take us to the local university,” says Kahumbu, who then, just as she had done countless times as a girl, returned to Leakey.

She knocked on his door, which at the time was at the National Museum, and said, “I want to be a ranger”. That got her in.

“There was one particular place I wanted to go to, Kora National Park, best known for the lions and George Adamson who is famously known as Baba ya Simba, which translates to ‘father of lions’. My dream was to be his ranger. And Richard Leakey said ‘are you sure about this’? I was 17 years old and that’s all I wanted to do. I ended up in a research facility which focused on monkeys and that’s when I realized the importance of science in studying animals,” says Kahumbu.

That was the motivation for years of study. Kahumbu was the first in her family to attend university.

“My mum was not keen on the idea of a career in animal conservation… She sent me to secretarial college because she thought that the safe [career] option is to be a secretary because everyone needs a secretary. I detested it and the day I ran to Richard Leakey’s office was the day I ran away from secretarial college.”

The Professor Who Saved An African Rainforest

Kahumu did a lot of field work early in her career.

“I went to some of the remote corners of the country, some really dangerous areas to study this wildlife. This left my mother very anxious.”

Her “conservative” mother always threatened: “I am going to speak to this Richard Leakey because it’s unacceptable that a young woman can live in the bush for months on end counting monkeys on her own.”

Her father, on the other hand, encouraged her. Kahumbu clearly broke boundaries.

“I remember my male colleagues were very angry with me because it was very uncommon for a woman, particularly a Kenyan woman, to be working in the forest usually by herself, so they would beg me to stop but of course I never did,” she says.

That did not deter her from her course.

“My son was actually born when I started working on my PhD and he was two-and-a-half years old when I had to spend extended periods of time in the wilderness conducting my research. I worked in a rainforest on top of a mountain with huge trees.”

Kahumbu and a small team of researchers were studying trees, a main source of nourishment for the elephants.

“We wanted to gauge how elephants living and eating in the forest was changing the landscape of the forest. My son was still so small, I would sit him on a mat, give him some toys to play with and go on measuring trees.”

“One day, the trees started moving as though they were being consumed by strong winds, it was actually a herd of elephants calmly making their way through the forest… But we were so busy we had not noticed they had moved in around us and I hadn’t really realized they were around us until I was about to measure what I thought was the trunk of a tree and then I realized it was the leg of an elephant,” she laughs.

“When I did [realize], I slowly tiptoed backwards and picked up the baby.”

Paula Kahumbu observes elephants. (Photo supplied)

Kahumbu was persuaded to study elephants after her bachelor’s degree and “was offered an once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to lead the stocktake of ivory in 1989 in Kenya”.

“I had to measure every single tusk, which is a great source of information about the sex of the elephant and age. We gathered data from about 3,000 tusks and drew a timeline as every tusk had a marker of when and where it was seized.”

What the timelines showed was alarming. The tusks got smaller and smaller. This showed poachers were going for smaller elephants, calves essentially.

“Juxtaposing the data with the demography of animals, we saw there were no adults left, the species was basically finished because there were no longer breeding individuals; poachers are going for any kind of elephant, even if it had half a kilogram of ivory.”

Following that, Kahumbu decided she was not going to study the pachyderms, not only because they were virtually extinct but also because there was the threat of her becoming a target for poachers in the area.

“So, for my master’s degree, I decided to study monkeys and even from time to time, when we were out doing research in the wilderness, we’d hear gunshots and subsequently come across dead elephants on our trail and I remember thinking, ‘thank goodness I’m not studying elephants’ because every single day, I would be heartbroken.”

For three years, she refused to study them.

After her master’s, she became a senior scientist at Kenya Wildlife Service. While there, the organization hired 30 young Kenyans to conduct research on elephants.

Spray It Out – Graffiti To Protect Animals

The ban on poaching was now in place so their task was to work out how to save the remaining elephants as well as replenish the population. This formed the thesis of Kahumbu’s PhD.

When she became CEO of WildlifeDirect, she led a campaign exposing the poaching crisis in Kenya, leading to major reforms in the laws and practices against ivory poachers and traffickers.

Poaching dropped by 80% in three years. Kenya burned her entire ivory stockpile of 105 tonnes in April 2016, an event that garnered global attention.

“The world was very surprised – how was it that a country suffering economically would forego millions of dollars’ worth of a payout to prove a point?” says Kahumbu.

It was a start, and conservation continues.

“Even after decades of working in this area, I still can’t understand the inhumanity and greed of poachers. The elephant is an extraordinary animal. They can live in any habitat except the ocean. They can climb close to the ice on Mount Kilimanjaro, they can live in deserts as they do in Namibia and northern Africa. They can live in forests and in savannahs. Elephants can also eat almost anything.

“They are a lot like humans in that way because they can easily adapt to an environment. Their brain is three to six times larger than the human brain, designed to store vast amounts of information. Further, elephant families are actually governed by females because the male leave the herd at an early age and only return to mate.”

The trade of ivory is inextricably linked to the trading of slaves. Kahumbu explains, in the late 1800s, the British could not take ivory out of Africa without the help of slaves because they did not have the means to carry it. Ivory was stolen from the homesteads of people in the Congo.

“In those days, Africans did not see the monetary value poachers saw; they would use the tusks as fence posts around their homesteads and the British would raid these villages and steal all the ivory and ship it to Zanzibar and Mombasa and then it would be taken to Europe. It was so valuable, 100 tons a year were being shipped out to be used as billiard balls.”

Saving Rhinos, Using Military Dogs

And then ivory found its way to America; the volume of ivory coming into one part alone gave birth to two cities on the back of ivory trade and slavery. Business boomed. Technology was developed to transform ivory into how we know it today – thin veneers used as piano keys and hair combs.

“That was a major driver. And by the end of the 1800s, there was about 1.2 million elephants – a drastic decline. In Japan, ivory was a symbol of luck, pens and stamps were made with ivory and of course this caused the trade to skyrocket in the region.”

At the moment, various species of the elephant are on the World Wildlife Fund’s (WWF) list of critically endangered, endangered, vulnerable and threatened animals, sharing the list with another dwindling animal – the rhinoceros. The illegal rhino horn trade has decimated the world’s rhino population by more than 90% over the past 40 years.

But has the world awakened to the plight of these animals?

According to research, the common strategy adopted by many countries is to destroy stockpiles of ivory. An article in The Guardian quotes WWF: “This has been the case not only for African countries but also some developed countries that have intercepted ivory originating from Africa. The idea is to remove the ivory from the market and thus reduce the incentive for people to engage in smuggling. In Kenya, the problem of elephant poaching has spiraled out of control and destroying ivory has become the common practice in dealing with the stockpiles.”

The torching of stockpiles of ivory has not been the only way governments have tried to mitigate the poaching of elephants. Countries such as France, China, the United States, and the Philippines have destroyed ivory worth millions of dollars. However, South Africa, Botswana and Zimbabwe oppose the destruction of illegal ivory; this according to an article published in National Geographic in 2016.

But does destroying ivory translate to less poaching? The Conservation Trust, a nongovernmental organization sites that in 2015, elephant poaching was at its highest level in more than three decades.

The ornaments made from the tusks form part of a billion-dollar industry – prevalent and as dangerous as ever.

Kahumbu’s Hands Off Our Elephants has generated unprecedented public and political awareness and support for wildlife conservation in Kenya.

According to WildlifeDirect, the most severe financial penalty for convicted poachers was $400, and fewer than 4% of convicted offenders were going to jail, a safe haven for poachers. Since then, the Kenyan government has allocated $20 million for anti-poaching activities.

In January last year, Kahumbu partnered with media and wildlife authorities to launch Kenya’s first wildlife documentary series, NTV Wild. It shines a light on issues of poaching and the very real prospect that in the near future, the world may be without elephants.

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Not Just Equality, But Recognition Of Excellence

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August marks Women’s Day in South Africa, a day commemorating the efforts of more than 20,000 women of all races, who marched to the highest political office in the land, on the morning of August 9 in 1956, to raise awareness around women’s rights and present a petition against the carrying of passes by women, to the then prime minister.

More than six decades on, the call for the equitable treatment and acknowledgement of women’s rights remains a battle for a global community of women – for recognition and also for fair and equitable economic opportunities.

Think back to the recent FIFA Women’s World Cup, where champions, USA, returned home with the trophy but also a very small paycheck for their efforts. During their return tour, their victory was overshadowed by calls from supporters to ensure authorities offer them salaries equal to their male counterparts.

READ MORE | No Longer In The Wilderness

Whilst efforts have been made in this regard, the discrepancies in pay between men’s and women’s football, much like many other sectors, remain too large to ignore.

FIFA, the world governing body of football, doubled the total prize money for the 2019 Women’s World Cup from $15 million to $30 million but it is still a fraction of the $400 million received by players in the men’s tournament last year.

The disparity across sub-Saharan Africa is even more glaring. Despite a great showing from teams represented by Nigeria, South Africa and Cameroon, the reality for many local players is that there are no local leagues. As such, players are expected to train and perform at a professional level while still managing a separate full-time job to pay their bills and make ends meet.

On closer inspection of recent data, one is hit with the enormity of the task at hand. The Global Gender Gap Report published by the World Economic Forum in December 2018, revealed that at the current rate of change, it will take about 108 years to close the overall gender gap and 202 years to bring about parity in the workplace.

This is a long time to wait for parity of any sort – what more for the sports field, the political sphere and new digital industries that are likely to emerge?

As women, we certainly can’t sit by the wayside in hopes of being rescued from this dilemma.

I believe that our focus and rhetoric need to be adapted and realigned. I believe it goes beyond just empowering females, but unlocking economic opportunities for all through the advancement of women.

It’s well documented that female-headed households lead to the advancement of all and everyone wins.

Beyond this, the recent FIFA Women’s World Cup reminded me that while the battle for gender equality remains a major challenge, the real issue is around equal and fair recognition – on the soccer field, in the boardroom and in places of political leadership.

READ MORE | Businesses Of The Future: 20 New Wealth Creators On The African Continent

As a society, we should be empowering, supporting and rewarding those who go above and beyond to achieve levels of excellence in their respective sectors.

“We should all be feminists,” a popular quote by Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has a lot of truth to it, in driving the awareness and active citizenry for change.

I believe we should take this a step further and we should all be activists who reward excellence, regardless of race or gender.

Let’s reward excellence! And the economic benefits will naturally follow – for all.

– Gugulethu Mfuphi is an award-winning radio broadcaster, financial journalist, conference moderator and CNBC Africa alumni. She was recently named one of South Africa’s 200 young leaders in media by Mail & Guardian.

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No Longer In The Wilderness

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Meet the women challenging stereotypes deep in the bush in Botswana’s tourism capital Maun, filling roles conventionally held by men.


For 10 years, until 2018, Botswana had no First Lady, as President Ian Khama was unmarried. Botswana’s first First Lady, Ruth Williams Khama, the wife of Botswana’s first president Sir Seretse Khama, was recognized for her charitable work with women, and the current First Lady, Neo Masisi, is a champion for these causes too.

However, Masisi is also an accountant by profession with an MBA and an impressive resume (United Nations Headquarters in New York, United Nations Economic Commission for Africa and United Nations Integrated Peacebuilding Office in the Central African Republic).

But not just on the frontlines, in the deeper realms of this southern African country and acclaimed tourism destination, there are more women defying stereotypes, especially in its famed safari industry.

READ MORE | Bogolo Joy Kenewendo: Dismiss This Beautiful Continent At Your Own Peril

In the country’s tourism capital of Maun, at Kwando Safaris, guests visiting the iconic Okavango Delta waterways and predator plains of the Central Kalahari might be surprised to discover that for over a decade, a majority team of women have been behind the operation.

“Having so many women work in the company was never a policy; it just happened that way. I guess that women were just more capable,” says Sue Smart in her office in Maun.

She talks about her role as the Director of Kwando Safaris for 12 years as an accidental occupation, but a gutsy corporate background primed her for the head position.

“Coming to Gaborone as a volunteer, I worked with children impacted by HIV/AIDS. Then I visited the Okavango Delta on holiday. A chain of life events eventually led to me working at Kwando Safaris’ Kwara Camp, volunteering back of house, in the kitchen, with housekeeping – anywhere they needed it.”

Ungwang Makuluba is Moremi Air’s first local female pilot. Picture: Melanie Van Zyl

Formerly a Director at PricewaterhouseCoopers, with a background in environmental biology, it was a chance meeting with the owner that saw her grow from volunteer to boss in just three months. “In many ways, I was not a conventional fit for this role. I’m not African, a pilot, a guide, or a man, but my background in other areas meant I could run a business – even in the bush.”

Having a woman at the helm has had significant side effects for the company. Many women at Kwando Safaris hold high positions, from the general manager to operations manager to those in reservations to sales and marketing. This unofficial head office policy also extends into the camps in a formal staff management plan, where each lodge has a male and a female camp manager always on duty. 

Looking at the origins of tourism in Botswana, it’s perhaps not surprising that (generally speaking) travel in southern Africa has been a male-dominated industry. After all, the very first visitors to Botswana’s wild spaces were rough and tough gun-slinging, trophy-seeking tourists.

The current CEO of Botswana Tourism is a woman and, attesting to the country’s progressiveness, she’s not the first either. Myra Sekgororoane is encouraging about women in the industry saying, “I have not encountered any significant challenges because of my gender. Perhaps, I have been lucky in that the hospitality and tourism industry tends to have a high predominance of females globally.”

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

According to National Geographic, research shows working women in developing countries invest 90% of their income in their families, compared to the 35% generally contributed by men.

Tumie Matlhware and Ruth Stewart, managers for Travel For Impact, wholeheartedly agree. The Maun-based NGO aims to spread the wealth generated from tourism activities into the community, providing a direct and tangible link between conservation and its benefits.

“We want tourism dollars working beyond the traditional tourism world,” says Stewart, when we meet for coffee at the charming Tshilli Farmstall, another female-run establishment in Maun.

Travel For Impact has a powerful goal, with the slogan of “If every tourist who slept in our beautiful country paid 1 USD for every night they spent here, we would raise in excess of 300,000 USD per year”.

By partnering with exclusive lodges, camps, tour operators and hotels in Botswana, funds generated are put into local community partners, such as support for basket-weaving cooperatives. Looking at the company profile, the NGO funds many projects that support women.

Stewart shares the scientific standpoint endorsed by National Geographic, saying: “Women are the backbone of the community. If you support women, it gets passed down. They buy food, school supplies and more. They are the pillars of society.” 

The corporate social responsibility choice at Kwando Safaris concurs. Smart believes that “the ultimate saviors of animals are people, which is why we sponsor the grassroots initiative, Mummy’s Angels, instead of a more usual conservation project”.

Mummy’s Angels started in April 2018, spearheaded by three women in Maun, to empower mothers with newborns who have little by way of financial support.

“We had second-hand clothes and other baby items in good condition and wanted to donate somewhere it would make a difference,” says one founder, Rochelle Katz.

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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.

READ MORE : Businesses Of The Future: 20 New Wealth Creators On The African Continent

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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