If Naledi Pandor has her way, an overhaul of South Africa’s higher learning system is on the cards, transforming its institutions into enterprise creators and the vanguard of the country’s march into the fourth industrial revolution.
Two months into her second tenure in education which now includes skills training, Pandor has become a student again as she seeks to understand the forces leaving many of the country’s children unemployable. In her austere office in the Central Business District of South Africa’s capital Tshwane, Pandor, 64, speaks with the enthusiasm of a pioneer.
“We tend to be one-dimensional in our thinking that a qualification will lead to a job and so in speaking to young people, I have been saying more and more that I want to hear about the people that you are going to employ. I want to hear about the enterprise you want to create. I am less interested in hearing about who is going to employ you,’’ she says.
Conversations have already started with the colleges, sector authorities, universities and private sector associations on improving the higher education curriculum and coordinating the country’s drive to be more competitive as the fourth industrial revolution transforms industries and economies, threatening to widen the gap between developing and developed nations.
According to the World Economic Forum (WEF), very few developing countries are paying attention to the impact of technological advances associated with the fourth industrial revolution, which have the potential to widen the divide between rich and poor nations by worsening unemployment, increasing the concentration of economic power and wealth and spreading biases in influential algorithms.
Pandor takes over a department with huge demands such as reform of the curriculum and its decolonization, and a skills-set that needs to be aligned to the real economy, says Mzoxolo Mpolase, Managing Director of Political Analysis, a political consultancy in South Africa. But she has the intellectual strength and forthrightness required to tackle the task, he adds.
“She is one of those people in cabinet who has a message-driven approach which is quite unlike some that like to talk big game. She understands the multifacetedness of things and she will be able to address things at that level. She has the policy understanding that will enable her to address the issues and she can listen to experts as well. For a politician, that is a huge compliment,’’ says Mpolase.
Pandor, appointed Minister of Higher Education and Training in President Cyril Ramaphosa’s first cabinet this year, is setting up a multi-sectoral task team to assess fourth industrial revolution-related work in research and teaching in the country’s universities, colleges and community education.
“It includes certainly skilling and upskilling but for me, what it really would be focused on is where our universities are in terms of research in this area, what we are doing with respect to technology transfer and what we are doing in the areas of innovation. Because this fourth industrial revolution has so many components to it; it’s much more than that. It’s bioinformatics, it’s the bioeconomy, it’s technology in education,’’ she says.
“We are active and are also working with the CEOs. You’d be surprised how far down the road we are but the scale is small because we’re not investing sufficiently.’’
South Africa’s education system has been faulted for the country’s high unemployment rate of 26.7%, ranking 75th out of 76, according to an Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) study in 2015, and is 114th out of 137 countries in the 2017-2018 WEF education quality survey.
This despite one of the highest spending rates on education in the world. The country spends more on education than either the United States, United Kingdom or Germany, according to United Nations statistics and yet has one of the lowest returns on investment because of poor teacher training, financial mismanagement and underspending on black education during the apartheid years.
In the last national budget, the entire sector, including basic education, again took the lion’s share of state resources, comprising 21% of all spending, or $28 billion. Over the next three years, the government plans to up that to about $89 billion, covering teacher and learner support and free education for the indigent.
While preparing Africa’s most industrialised for a digital future, Pandor is adamant that, that future includes changing the mindset of South Africans on education and the jobs market. Her in-tray, she says, a flicker of a smile breaking out on her face, is huge. Aside from the universities, it also includes work on skills training in the workplace as well as training in the formal education systems.
“So this tray is massive and the priority really is to ensure our young people have opportunities in South Africa and that we also pay attention to the skills needed in South Africa. It would not make much sense for example to have many young people entering our institutions but we still lack electricians, plumbers and bricklayers. So, I think my department should be attuned to the skills needed in South Africa and it should be able to link the opportunities we provide to the skill demand out there.’’
Pandor is as unassuming as she is forthright. She takes a dig at herself and other parents for outdated thinking when it comes to young people, recalling how her son Haroon, recoiled in horror when she asked who he was going to work for when he finished school.
“I was a bit surprised when he turned to me and said ‘Mummy! Me work for somebody? I’m going to start my own business!’ You know my initial thought was of horror, because I thought ‘oh no. he’s going to be at home for ever’. And he’s actually looking after himself. He’s running his own small business. He’s happily doing what he enjoys and he’s an entrepreneur. So I’m also at fault here as well.’’
Pandor isn’t your typical feminist. Does she believe women should be given more opportunity to make up for years of exclusion from mainstream economics under apartheid and the impact of patriarchy? Of course. But she says it’s everybody’s fight and interventions should be strategic.
She is withering in her assessment of women’s advances in higher education: four women vice chancellors out of the country’s 26 universities? “That’s not good enough,’’ she says, while condemning the prevalence of sexual violence in universities.
But it’s not just about numbers, she adds. While girls were beginning to outnumber boys at institutions of higher learning, also important was the representation of women in key fields such as engineering, science and further study.
“We will make a difference if we ensure we are a majority in non-traditional disciplines so what I’m learning is that you can be a majority but that majority may have no effect if you’re not being strategic about ensuring that actually that presence is in areas that make a real difference and that’s where I think we need to become better. We need to move beyond the notion that it’s a game of numbers.’’
And it’s also about how women conduct themselves, she says. It’s not enough to ask for the advancement of women when role models are misbehaving, she cautions.
“As women leaders, we need to set the tone on values and ethics and articulate this tone not by making speeches of rhetoric but in the way we conduct our lives.’’
But shouting slogans and making political speeches was never part of the original plan, says Pandor even though she grew up in exile, the daughter of political stalwart, Joe Matthews, one of the 156 African National Congress (ANC) members charged in the 1956 Treason Trial that eventually sent Nelson Mandela to prison for 27 years. Her grandfather, ZK Matthews, was a global anti-apartheid fighter.
“I actually hated politics because I blamed it for the experiences we went through. My parents would always talk about the movement, the ANC and the ANC. So we had to go to London or we needed to go to Zambia, and I thought; ‘this ANC is stopping me from having friends and changing schools’,’’ says Pandor.
Education changed all that, she says with a laugh. “I became a teacher in other young people’s education and education led me into politics.’’
Grace Naledi Mandisa was born in 1953 in Durban and ended up going to school in Botswana where she matriculated at Gaborone Secondary School. She attained the first of her three degrees at the University of Botswana, majoring in English and History in 1977. Next was the University of London where she graduated with a Masters of Arts and then back home in South Africa in 1997, Stellenbosch University awarded her an MA in Linguistics.
Pandor taught English in Botswana, the UK and at the University of Cape Town. She entered parliament in 1994 with the dawn of democracy, rising to Deputy Chief Whip of the ANC the following year. She has also served as Deputy Chairperson of the National Council of Provinces, the second of South Africa’s bicameral system whose members are selected by the provinces.
She first served as Education Minister from 2004 to 2009 in the second cabinet of former President Thabo Mbeki where she inherited the widely criticised Outcome-Based Education system introduced in 1998 by the late Kader Asmal. The system was scrapped in 2009 as she exited cabinet. She would return in 2012 as Home Affairs Minister in former president Jacob Zuma’s first administration.
Growing up in exile also meant she was never able to develop friendships amongst her own people.
“Sometimes, that makes me sad because I feel that I missed out on developing long-term relationships in my country because the relationships that I have are family primarily because I didn’t go to school here. So I don’t have friends I can say went to school together with.’’
Could that have cost her the chance to be deputy to Ramaphosa at last year’s elective conference? Pandor doesn’t believe so, pointing out she declined a nomination.
“I was fairly happy to be a member of the national executive committee and made my name available for that and I think I know my limitations and I know my temperament as well and some people have a temperament for certain things and others don’t. I don’t have the temperament for the blue light convoy. It would drive me nuts.’’
It’s the same down-to-earth temperament that frames her approach to her religion. Few know, for instance, that the mother of four is a Muslim who converted from Christianity when she married Sharif Joseph Pandor who she met in Botswana.
“I do practise it openly in the way that I dress I hope. But I believe that religion is part of one’s life and that we derive our values from the principles we acquire at home or from what we learn in our spiritual domain so there are many shared principles in the world religions and so I found that my embracing of Islam was rendered easier by having been a practising Christian. So I don’t see our world religions as being incompatible and so, no, it wasn’t difficult for me.’’
Does she see a better future for South Africa under President Ramaphosa after the economic stagnation of the Zuma years?
“I’m certainly hopeful that it will but it’s early days but looking at the character of the man and the bold initiatives that have been undertaken and the courageous stance he has taken, I think we have good reason to be very optimistic.’’
Ramaphosa, a former trade unionist, has set a target of attracting $100 billion to South Africa in five years, creating a million jobs.
Pandor has been less successful in trying to pass on her political activism to her children and she says it’s no bad thing even though she has encouraged them to play a role in the branches. Politics isn’t easy and besides, she adds deadpan: the country needs more professionals and entrepreneurs.
“It’s a whole of set of interventions we need to work on to get South Africa thriving,’’ she says, determination etched on her face.
And if that were achieved, South Africa’s future would certainly be secure in an increasingly complex, economics-driven and globalized world.
– Story by Godfrey Mutizwa
‘She Is Unfailingly Ethical’ – Aisha Pandor
Naledi Pandor’s daughter, Aisha Pandor, is a Cape Town-based entrepreneur. She runs SweepSouth, an online platform for booking, managing and paying for regular and ad hoc home cleaning. Via app and website, it connects homeowners with ‘SweepStars’ (home cleaners). Recognized by the World Economic Forum as a breakthrough African Female Innovation, and backed by South African and Silicon Valley venture capital, SweepSouth employs sophisticated algorithms to match its customers and cleaners, creating work opportunities for domestic workers, many of whom are single mothers. Aisha was a FORBES WOMAN AFRICA cover star as part of The Millennials in the February/March 2016 issue of the magazine. Here, she speaks about her greatest influence:
A few words on your mother’s work ethic…
My mom is honestly the most hardworking person I know, leaving the house just before 8AM each morning (usually having done some calls to her staff or radio interviews prior), and then only arriving back home in the evening with a 3kg-thick file she then immediately gets to work on before going to bed very late at night. It’s been the same way for as long as I can remember. My mom has instilled in us the idea of service. She has a simplistic, logical and moral approach to life. Despite all of the hard work, she somehow also manages to be an attentive, caring and available mom who knows exactly what is going on in the lives of each of her four children, even as we’ve become adults. She is also unfailingly ethical, and I remember being extremely frustrated as a child when she would refuse us complimentary concert tickets or plane rides from voyager miles that she’d earned traveling, because ‘we hadn’t earned them’. She is also a master debater who reads voraciously and is extremely knowledgeable across a range of fields, meaning if you challenge her on something you’d better come prepared. There were many a time myself or my siblings would get a savage cut-down after trying to challenge our mom (unprepared) over the dinner table on some current event. We often attend her debates in parliament or listen to her on the radio and have a bit of a laugh seeing her do the same to the opposition, as we know exactly how it feels.
Memorable anecdotes on her when you were growing up…
My mother and father were apartheid activists living in Botswana, which is where two of my three siblings and I were born. We returned back to Cape Town in late 1989, when it was confirmed safe for us to return and that Nelson Mandela would be released from prison, my mom received a post as a senior lecturer at the University of Cape Town and we lived along with my sister in a little flat near the university. My brother and dad lived apart from us for a year, waiting to be allowed into the country, and each morning my mom would walk my sister and myself up the very steep hill towards the university, which sits on the foot of Table Mountain. Driving past that tiny flat, or up that road towards Table Mountain, always feels like a reminder of the difficult start we had coming back into the country and that uphill walk feels symbolic of the progress my mom made.
Also, my mom was very strict as we grew up and although we were never punished physically there were times when we’d get a pinch for particularly bad behaviour. Corporal punishment was still allowed in schools, though, and we were the first black children to be accepted into previously white-only model C schools. As a result, my brother would get into lots of fights due to racism and in some cases when he retaliated would be caned by the head master of the school. Eventually, my parents had enough and my mom marched into the school and told the old headmaster very sternly that he was never to lay a hand on any of her children. He looked very embarrassed after the scolding and true to my mom’s warning my brother was never caned again.
Despite what must have been an incredibly difficult time for my young parents coming back into the country and facing open hostility and racism, I have really fond memories growing up and we were a close family unit, with strong parents who sheltered us a lot from the more unpleasant aspects of pre- and post-apartheid South Africa.
What you think of her now as an entrepreneur yourself?
I’m struck by how many sacrifices my mom must have made to be a working mother who still kept a happy family and marriage, and also by the courage she must have had as a working woman ascending to powerful positions within government. As an entrepreneur in a male-dominated space (technology), I understand how she had to sometimes come across as unfriendly to get things done and overcome being undermined. On another note though, as an entrepreneur and somewhat more of a risk-taker, I also wish my mom would put herself out there more and take more career and life risks.
– Interviewed by Methil Renuka
Mastercard: Diligent About Digital In Africa
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.
“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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
Pioneer For Women In Construction Thandi Ndlovu has died
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.
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
Feisty And Fearless Pioneers Thandi Ndlovu & Nonkululeko Gobodo
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: 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.
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.
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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