Daughter, Wife, Mother, Sister, Aunt, friend – grateful for a life well lived by 50 years, Makamba Online sat down with Dr Vuyo Mahlati. She recently served a second term (2011-15) as the President of the International Women’s Forum (IWF) South Africa, and was appointed in 2013 global director of IWF Leadership Foundation Board member. In May 2010 she was appointed by the President to serve as one of the inaugural members of South Africa’s National Planning Commission for five years responsible for crafting the National Development Plan. She shares her story with us, and offers advice to other business-minded women.
“I was born in South Africa, Eastern Cape Province. I started my education on a farm school where my mother taught, and later went to boarding school for my higher education at a missionary school.”
“Schools in South Africa under the apartheid Bantu education were a battle against oppression, especially after 1976 when some of us were still in primary. The mindset of seeking alternatives to the oppressive system commenced then. Somehow I never saw myself as a future employee of the system, I chose to be an agent of change.”
“My life as an activist was enabled by education commencing my career as a young researcher in disability, children and women issues and later Small Business Development Agency (SBDA) Business Linkage Mentor. This led to my participation in South Africa’s Constitution making research process (and UNICEF, the first Status on women and children report in South Africa) after the release of former President Nelson Mandela from prison. During this period as part of my research I visited Zimbabwe (for the first time in 1992) received by Joshua Malinga, then mayor of Bulawayo (and disability activist), interviewing other leaders who exposed me to Zimbabwe’s change agenda and indigenization. Seeing the possibility of redress gave me new insights and inspiration. I went back home and registered my Consultancy company, which allowed me to frame and drive the change agenda.”
Q: Who inspires you?
A: Everyone and everything, the good and the bad. Beating the system was the driver. Freedom fighters (men & women) inspired me. The achievements of my peers inspire me (giving the feeling of we are conquering). I now draw inspiration from Africa’s youth and the promise of a better future and the little role I can play as a catalyst. My mother (now 84years) remains my biggest inspiration of all time.
Q: One of the businesses you founded is a TV station, why the media industry?
A: This is one of the excitements of my life, the joy of creating a platform for Africa”s voice and youth creativity. It is however a difficult industry with a strong dominant player which makes entering PayTV tough. Siyaya TV, our PayTV worked hard to acquire the Pay TV license, engaged in a successful trial for Digital Terrestrial Television (DTT) in rural South Africa (Bakgatla Ba Kgafela, North West Community), where a high tech Broadcast Training Facility was established from which youth are being trained and graduate to work for existing agencies and establish as entrepreneurs. We also acquired Bafana Bafana soccer rights (for ten years, TV, Radio, Internet). Come 2016, we enter the stage fully. This is a 100% black owned entity with 40% owned by the rural community. I am the Chair and a shareholder.
Q: Briefly outline some of the businesses you helped start?
A: An Egyptian woman once said to me whilst complaining about starting things and moving on, “your phase right now is to throw the stone and rattle the water, you’ll see the little waves forming and disappear”. I didn’t understand that the message is don’t despair, the big wave is being formed underneath!
I have now established a natural fibre production factory ( Ivili Loboya) in the Eastern Cape with communal farmers as partners. It processes wool for insulation and soundproof uses, insole for safety/industrial shoes, filter bags, etc. It is the first and only producer of cashmere sliver in Africa with various blends of natural fibres for woven and Nonwoven uses. The excitement is to implement the rural value chain I have researched and written about working with young people also developing an app for rural logistics.
Q: What makes a successful business woman?
A: Three things stand out for me. Strength of Character, Resilience, Support base (in my case my dear husband mainly, my kids, mother and brother)
Q: How does your academic prowess impact on your business skills?
A: There’s one answer, commitment to my change agenda. The PhD was part of the investment I made and it had to payoff. I focused my thesis on rural value chains and commercialization using trans-disciplinary methods for inclusive and sustainable development. It wasn’t about the certificate, am happy not just me but various people of the world are using it. I have just been requested by a publisher to refine it for book publication. I hope I find time.
Q: What advice would you give to aspiring business women?
A: Believe in yourself even when no-one does. Understand and nurture your support base, keep bettering your capabilities towards fulfillment of your purpose. Always assess the nobility of your purpose to avoid self-destruction.
Watch Dr Vuyo Mahlati discuss empowering women in business: