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Uganda’s First Lady: ‘Write Your Own Story’

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The Nakasero State House is a green lung in the heart of Kampala not far from the city’s raucous, chaotic traffic.

Past the grey gates, red brick walls and rigorous security checks, armoured, multi-purpose vehicles come into view. They lead up to the State House, and further, down a small unassuming pathway to the right, the residence of Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni.

On the balmy Saturday afternoon in September that we are there, this is a tranquil universe of flower beds, manicured lawns and tall, swaying trees. We are first welcomed to a banquet room at the State House, showcases here filled with awards, certificates, crystal, portraits and porcelain.

There is a simple buffet set up at the far end of the long white linen-topped table for people both inside and outside the room in the airy corridors that also have seating. They look like staff on a lunch break, as everyone helps themselves to plates of steaming rice, boiled spinach, chicken and matoke (a banana dish).

It would seem hospitality is a norm here. Anywhere in Uganda, any interaction is preceded by an invitation to what will be nothing but a sumptuous meal. The Ugandan pineapple, the sweetest in all of Africa, will be offered too, and so also hibiscus juice.

The ubiquitous hibiscus, the chirping birds and the calm afternoon breeze here at Nakasero are a far cry from the life Uganda’s First Family and the people led in exile, during the country’s painful years of political turbulence and tumult in the last century.

READ MORE: ‘The Greatest Lesson In Life Is People’

For a country of about 42 million, celebrating its 55th year of independence, this is a quiet moment in history.

As it prepares to fulfil its goal of becoming a middle income country by 2020, and tap into new opportunities in oil, agriculture and the services sector, this is a country that will never forget its past in a hurry.

“That was the life we led,” says Janet Kataaha Museveni, Uganda’s First Lady and Minister of Education and Sports, just before her exclusive, on-camera interview with FORBES WOMAN AFRICA and CNBC Africa, in a short sentence alluding to those long years away from her country and her husband, when she had to muster courage and conviction to stay in exile with her four young children.

Janet Museveni with two of her daughters, Diana Kamuntu (left) and Patience Rwabwogo (right). (Photo by Lovington Kambugu/Blush Media)

The First Lady is in a colorful traditional floor-length wrap dress, tall and statuesque as she appears on the lawns. The years have been kind to her. She is soft-spoken and has an air of quiet dignity, as she unravels what it means to be a wife, mother, First Lady and minister.

In her book, My Life’s Journey, published in 2011, she recounts most of it, in a lucid, evocative way. She had started writing the book on her 60th birthday in 2008.

Born in the district of Ntungamo in southwestern Uganda, she recounts “beautiful lands with hills and valleys, streams and rivers” and an idyllic childhood.

Her initial – and rather humorous – encounters with President Museveni leading up to their wedding – which he almost couldn’t attend – in 1973 in England, and the years of hardship when she lost her brother and mother, and lived fearing death and danger in exile in Kenya, Tanzania and Sweden, make for engaging reading.

The future frightened her, but she never lost hope she would come home to Uganda. She later talks about it at our interview.

“I believed and prayed and hoped Uganda will one day be free. That was a hope that truly had to stay in my heart so I could manage day by day and as you have read [in the book], it took many years waiting for that hope, but it happened one day.”

The young Museveni brought laughter back into her life. She says in the book he gave her a sense of purpose.

After a drawn-out civil war, Museveni eventually became President of Uganda in 1986. But she says she never aspired to be First Lady.

“Indeed, when he became President, I was made to know that now as the wife of the President, I have to serve as the First Lady,” she tells us during the interview.

“It was very difficult for me because I was a private person. I wanted to do my voluntary work privately and quietly and live a private life but it’s not possible. Somehow, you’re drawn into politics and public life, and slowly I accepted to be what the public would want me to be and it’s a learning experience.”

READ MORE: ‘It’s Time We Tell Our Own Stories’

She has a Bachelor of Arts in Education from Uganda’s Makerere University and a Diploma in Early Childhood Development from Sweden. She previously served as the Minister for Karamoja Affairs in the cabinet in 2011 and as elected Member of Parliament representing Ruhaama in Ntungamo.

Since mid-2016, she has been Minister of Education and Sports.

Not just politics, she’s also involved in philanthropy. She founded and has been patron to Uganda Women’s Effort to Save Orphans (UWESO) that cares for war-related and HIV/AIDS-affected orphans in Uganda; and the Uganda Youth Forum (UYF), an NGO that engages the youth for purposes of character and behavior formation particularly with regard to HIV and AIDS prevention.

Known as ‘mama’ by Ugandans, she is regularly seen at forums advocating for women and the girl child. Recently, on International Day Of The Girl Child, before a mammoth gathering, she launched the Gender in Education Policy to provide inclusive and equitable quality education and sports for all.

The First Lady says Uganda’s women are successful as doctors, lawyers, nurses, entertainers, farmers, teachers and in commercial enterprise. In March 2017, the Mastercard Index of Women’s Entrepreneurship (MIWE), revealed 34.8% of businesses in Uganda are owned by women.

“I think women feel called upon to participate in taking care of their families and because many of them will not go for employment in public life, they employ themselves in business and they are doing very well,” says the First Lady.

“In many areas, it’s women who are doing business. Many of them are in agriculture but they are also in food processing, sell food in the market places, they are in commercial enterprises in towns, even in rural towns. So you find many women are the ones managing commercial enterprises in the country.”

READ MORE: Connected To Her Land

Her three daughters are successful in their own right too, but heap praise on their mother when we meet them. Diana Kamuntu, the Musevenis’ youngest, an entrepreneur in tourism, calls her mother her role model. The middle daughter Patience Rwabwogo, a pastor, extols her mother’s commitment to family.

Natasha Karugire, the eldest of the three, a designer turned filmmaker, has seen her mother closely the years she was in exile: “She was very resourceful, always doing everything she could to make sure we were clothed and eating… she didn’t have lights or electricity, but we survived.”

Irene Kauma Tewungwa, who has been the First Lady’s Principal Assistant for the last eight years, says of her boss: “Working with her is a privilege. It’s hectic work but her personality makes it interesting… She is a very authentic person. When she is serving, she is genuinely serving the people, and not doing it for the cameras. Everything she does is anchored in her faith in God.”

As we wind up our cameras at the end of our meeting, the First Lady turns to me, and says softly: “Thank you for coming here and letting me tell my story. God bless you.”

Janet Museveni (Photo by Lovington Kambugu/Blush Media)

‘We Are A Country On The Move’

Excerpts from FORBES WOMAN AFRICA’s interview with Janet Kataaha Museveni at the Nakasero State House, where she talks about Uganda’s economy, her role as minister, her country’s progressive approach to refugees, and her life driven by faith:

 

Q: It is often perhaps wrongly perceived the First Lady is a mere shadow of the President or plays a supporting role. How have you managed to rise above those perceptions?

For a long time, I agreed with that perspective. I supported my husband for the largest part but the change came and I felt called upon to directly serve the people myself. I’ve always wanted so much to be able to participate directly to serve the people because, first of all, I am grateful that my family, having lived a very difficult life in Uganda, managed to come back home safely, and I wanted in a way to say thank you to God because for me, my whole life is directed by God. So I felt I had a debt to pay, I needed to help somebody else and so that’s how I felt called upon to go and serve in public life. And I had to go and represent my family constituency in Parliament and that’s how I came out  and started something different, not just as the First Lady but  as an Ugandan woman, and to serve  the people I believed I owed it to.

It was not understood initially, but eventually people realized that First Ladies also have the right to serve their country in their individual capacity… I still support my husband’s work from time to time. I still participate in some of my voluntary work that I used to do before, but now I also have the contract with the people to serve them.

Q: You recently finished a year as Minister of Education and Sports. Uganda has one of the fastest-growing youth populations in the world. Where do you see them headed?

We have a challenge with employment presently, and are focusing on giving skills to our young people. We have now many public universities and a big population of young people come out of them annually. But also a large percentage does not get employment straight away and that’s because many of them really train to do white-collar jobs in our economy, but those jobs are not many. So we are focusing on skilling them so that they are able to employ themselves. So we are hoping we’ll get a critical mass of them to become truly skilled and be able to provide their own employment and employ others. We are hoping many of them can still go to agriculture and industrialization. We are a country on the move and expanding our industry base, expanding our service sector, and so we are hoping that many of our young people become skilled themselves, then they can enter those sectors and be employed and also employ others.

Q: There’s much talk about the oil economy in Uganda, and young women becoming entrepreneurs in that space. Are you looking at developing that?

Yes, we are planning and trying to really start an oil industry complete with its refinery, and so we know that a good number of our young people will be trained in the oil industry.

Q: What are the efforts to empower those in agriculture and bring them into the formal economy?

We are now working with some partner countries that help us train young people for commercial agriculture… so we are having some of our young go out and train and come back to train others, to start farms where others can train from in Uganda. Because then we can provide a lot of food and we’re hoping that we can be the food basket for this region. And if that can employ more of our young people then that’s what we are trying to do.

Q: As Uganda celebrates 55 years, where is the economy headed?

Fortunately, our economy has been growing – many years in the past, it has never grown at less than 6% or 7% per year – so we are hoping it will continue, and if we expand our industry base, because we are still an agrarian country basically. We are moving to industrialization and hoping we will grow our economy more, and indeed the oil industry, our real estate and services sector. We hope all those put together, our economy will continue to grow. We are a young country, so we think we have a good trend we are following right now.

Q: You set up the Uganda Women’s Effort To Save Orphans. What are your continued efforts to improve the plight of orphans and women in need?

My time now is the challenge. Because the Ministry of Education is a huge ministry, I spend a lot of my time at the ministry, but I still try as much as possible to make some time to work with the NGOs I founded because we still have those very vulnerable families and children who need our support. But I have a big support group in those NGOs that continues with the work, and so just from time to time, I meet with them, I have some input in their work but basically they are now continuing with the work I used to do with them.

Q: Uganda has always opened its doors to refugees. With an influx of one million refugees from South Sudan, how are you dealing with that challenge?

It’s not just South Sudan, it’s also Somalia, and it’s a big challenge. But we have opened our doors to them, and accept them to come and share what we have. We share our education system, health system, they use everything we have just like Ugandans but that indeed [overwhelms] our own system and that’s a challenge. So we are trying to raise awareness in the world that those willing to give us some support should support our refugees through us, so we can expand our service sector, so as we serve, the communities that house the refugees will also serve the refugees… We cannot forget there was a time when we also needed support and people opened their doors to us. So now it’s our time.

Q: Uganda had some success in reducing rates of HIV and also ending child marriage, and you work very closely with OAFLA (Organisation of African First ladies Against HIV/AIDS)…

Our work in Uganda was to educate young people so they know how to protect themselves from HIV, because when we first started facing that pandemic, it was a major challenge. So what we needed to do was to give education and information to our young people, that the best possible way to protect themselves is to make sure they don’t open themselves up to premarital sex, and those who are married to be faithful to their partners in marriage, and not to allow themselves to have more than one spouse and also for those who live reckless lives, to make sure at least they use condoms.

And that changed people’s lives very quickly, especially young people, and because of that, the reduction came down so quickly and made a tremendous impact on the young population. But after some time, we also slowed down – we believed everybody now has a story, they got the drugs, and so we relaxed – but people still suffer from HIV and AIDS, and therefore because of that, we continue to educate young people especially.

Q: Neighboring Rwanda has 63% representation of women in Parliament. Are there any policies in Uganda to increase the number of women in cabinet and the private sector?

Yes, we have a big percentage of women in politics. At least 33% members of Parliament are women, and in cabinet, it is 35%. We do have a big number of women leaders in leading organizations of government. It is our government’s policy to promote women’s leadership and it is happening.  So there are certain areas that can only be represented by women in politics and Parliament.

Every district must have a woman representative, in addition to constituency members of Parliament. So most of the women come through that and they are also free to compete at the constituency level, that’s why we have a big percentage of women in Parliament. But by and large, I think we have a huge percentage of women leaders now and considering our population, that also increases the number. Smaller countries like Rwanda have a big percentage in Parliament, but because their population is smaller, the numbers are not as big as those in Uganda.

Q: You say in your book, My Life’s Journey, through your years of hardship, you relied on Africa’s extended family system. Do you see that in society today?

It’s not as strong as it was unfortunately. People have become more self-centred and they do their own business, and the extended family is not as strong as it used to be. Our lifestyle has changed, people just know their small family, that is it… Our generation knew a lot about our extended families – they were stronger, they really relied on each other for support, for livelihood, for everything.

Q: Do you think Africans are saying their stories enough?

No, but I’m hopeful it will happen. I am really hopeful women would see the need to tell their own stories to their own children, just like I did. I didn’t [initially] think there was a need for me to talk about my life and bring it into public. In fact, I believed very strongly my life was mine to keep  and perhaps share with my own children, but I was convinced at some stage that I wrote my own story and I have heard from many women  lately they want to do that. I’m hoping more and more women will do that and our population, now that we are stable, can also begin to read because we were not a reading community. We just used to hear word-of-mouth stories but I’m hoping now there will be time for people to read and it will compel them to write their own stories too.

Q: You have three daughters. Do you see any of them taking to politics?

I would like you to ask that question to them directly. I would like to hear that answer from each one of them.

Q: In the book, you mention the President’s indefatigable spirit and sense of humour. What is it like working with him?

I work very closely with him. It’s motivating to have him around because you watch and see how he works and works, all the time for many hours, and so it just gives you the drive to see that you just can’t be tired. Because this person is continuing (laughs), you must also have that strength to go on, and so it is always a challenge to learn from what he’s doing, and attempt to do what you see him do all the time.

Q: Do you get time for yourself, between work and family?

I really do work long hours through the week, but I struggle to keep the weekends for myself. Many times I fail even at that. As you can see, this is the weekend and I’m right here (laughs). But when I can get the weekends, I am with my children and grandchildren, but it’s not always possible.

Q: Do you have any regrets, anything you would like to change?

No, because my public service started very late in life. I have done what I needed to do, I was very happy to serve where I felt called upon, but in the shortest time I have served in public life, I feel gratified that at least I have also added my own brick on the building of my nation… I think it’s a duty for every person to do something for their country.

Young countries like Uganda need each one of us, each individual Ugandan ought to do something   for Uganda and unless we do that, we can’t really educate our children about what they are required to do. If we want to see Uganda become better, we must be willing to do something that will make it better than it was yesterday. So I don’t have any regrets, I just pray I can be used by God for as long as I can to serve my country, to make it a better place than I found it. That’s my mission.

Q: You have a deep faith in God, what was that life-changing moment for you?

It’s a special place when I found God because it changed my life forever… I lived a big part of my life without knowing God, and I regretted that when I found Him. I was fortunate to be able to tell my children my own experiences and I believe it helped them make their own decisions about their lives.

Q: And as you have said in your book, the best years are yet to come?

I hope that. At my age, I hope that!

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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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