NOMPU SIZIBA: It’s our business executive leadership feature, and today, Wednesday November 13, we speak to a man who has worn many hats over his career. He’s been a teacher, a CA (chartered accountant), and he set up his own audit firm – the first black audit firm in KZN at the time. He went on to become the CEO of Telkom and the FirstRand Group. In line with his passion for learning and education, he has played important roles in the education sector. He has even set up schools.
I’m joined on the line by Sizwe Nxasana, a man who, like I say, has worn multiple hats. Thank you very much, sir, for joining us on the line. Just take us back to your background – where you grew up and your socioeconomic circumstances at the time.
SIZWE NXASANA: I was born in Newcastle in KZN, KwaZulu-Natal, and that very year I moved to Lesotho because my father was a schoolteacher. He decided, he and his friends, that he was going to teach in Lesotho. So, that’s where I started schooling – in the cold mountains of Lesotho.
A few years later we went back to Durban, where I did the rest of my primary intermediate phase, sort of senior primary, and then high school. So I went to boarding school for the first time in what was then Form 4, which is now the equivalent of Grade 11.
NOMPU SIZIBA: Being a public figure, some of us are aware that you are passionate about education, having been involved in a number of initiatives and eventually setting up a school. What sort of value was placed on education by your family?
SIZWE NXASANA: The fact that my father was a schoolteacher played a very important role, because I grew up in a family where there was always discussion about education. My father was always doing work – whether it was marking exam papers or preparing for his classes and that kind of thing.
NOMPU SIZIBA: Yes.
SIZWE NXASANA: But also, after I qualified as a chartered accountant, as a young accountant I was a lecturer at the University of Zululand for a couple of years.
Even as I was setting up the audit practice, as you mentioned in your intro, I was also a lecturer at the time. I’ve always had this passion for education. Even when I was in corporate, I was one of the founders of the Association of Black Accountants, ABASA now, and one of my key roles was to go out to schools to educate learners or children about accountancy.
And then, even when I was at Telkom, I was always involved with the children of the Telkom Foundation. When I first ran it, it was the same thing. And the foundation’s key focus was education. So, I’ve always had this passion for education.
NOMPU SIZIBA: In 1989, when you established Sizwe & Co, the first black-owned audit practice in KwaZulu-Natal, and subsequently Nkonki Sizwe Ntsaluba with your partners, what prompted you to set up your own thing? Was it a case that you were conscious that, being a black CA, you wouldn’t really go that far in an established audit firm because of the dispensation at the time?
SIZWE NXASANA: Interestingly, none of the big firms at the time were prepared to hire us as black trainees accountants. We look at, I’d say, the first 20, 50, group of African chartered accountants, particularly who qualified in the early years, in the eighties, you would have done articles in what were very small Afrikaans firms that [would cover audits in the homelands], and it was similar with me.
When I had qualified, I had started looking at opportunities – in fact, a lot of people, particularly professionals, because there were no black-owned companies then. So, there were a lot of professionals, medical doctors, lawyers, a few NGOs, who wanted financial advice, wanted their books written, or even just audited ….. I was working for a corporate in the sugar industry at the time. So it was a very obvious development or evolution that was there was a need, there was a demand out there that was unmet. And that’s how [Nkonki Sizwe Ntsaluba was] established.
NOMPU SIZIBA: As you’ve already stated, you had a corporate career and you were appointed as CEO of Telkom in 1998. You were the CEO at the time when you took Telkom to list on the JSE and the New York Stock Exchange. Just tell us about your experiences there, being a CEO in the ‘New South Africa’, a black CEO in the new South Africa, and what reflections you have of that particular period of your career.
SIZWE NXASANA: There was a very clear objective in the new democratic government as to what Telkom was supposed to do. That included the fact that a lot of black people were not serviced in terms of telecommunications in the country at the time. That was 1995/6. And, secondly, the skills and development of people, especially in that Telkom is a highly technical environment, [left a lot to be desired], because black people were only found in the lower rungs of the organisation, as technicians or assistants, that kind of thing. So we needed to develop skills – for black people, particularly. It was important to then drive efficiencies in this company, because it had just been separated from the Post Office, and therefore it came upon the route of being a government department, which was inefficient and didn’t really look at people as customers and that kind of thing.
So, that was very exciting. If you look at just those objectives, including the listing of Telkom in 2002/3, it was a very exciting time of restructuring the company. I’d been running the consultancy practice of the audit firm, where for me it was an opportunity to look at some of the (advice) or proposals that we were giving to the clients, and see if this actually worked. It presented major opportunities for some of us who were really privileged at the time to be in the kind of positions that we were in.
We accomplished quite a lot in the eight years I was at Telkom in terms of all those key indicators or objectives that the country wanted to pursue.
NOMPU SIZIBA: Of course, being a CA, your skills are very transferable. It doesn’t matter what sector. But then you went from a telco to a financial services company, the FirstRand group. Like you say, you were there initially as a regular worker, and then you later on became CEO. You’ll remind us of your tenure as CEO at the FirstRand Group. Tell us about your experience there. I think in a way you were fortunate to be presiding over a major financial services company at a time when the economy wasn’t doing so badly. The situation is a lot different now.
SIZWE NXASANA: You remember that we had the global financial crisis in 2008/9. I was in banking then. It was a time when the financial services sector was in dire straits. There were a number of international banks that collapsed during that time, and South Africa, even though we were somewhat immune, or saved, from the global financial crisis, we were impacted, because banking, especially in a country that was open in terms of trade as in South Africa you get impacted because you have an open trading platform and so on, as well as currency.
But importantly, a couple of things here. You mentioned my migration from the auditing sector to telecoms to banking. We all talk about the fourth industrial revolution today. Lifelong learning, and understanding that as individuals we can unlearn and learn new skills is becoming even more important. I’ve sort of taught myself to take myself out of my comfort zone, to expose yourself to a new sector. It’s takes a lot work. It can be unnerving, because you are dealing with the unknown. But it’s an important thing that all of us can do.
But, in answering your question, financial services, looking at the bank at the time, First Rand with its divisions – which were FNB, WesBank, RMB – and when I started we still had the insurance companies, Discovery and Momentum – there were a number of opportunities to make sure that we were a leading bank in the country as well as in the continent, because, at that stage, if you look at, for instance, the retail bank, FNB, it wasn’t a leading bank. There were a number of things to be done to drive innovation, to expand how we were serving consumers, especially using digital platforms and so on. But everybody has now followed in the subsequent years.
So it was quite an exciting experience to be part of a team that was innovative, entrepreneurial, where we did a lot of things to position the bank. I think between ourselves we were quite successful in doing that. This cuts across not just FNB as a result, because RMB and WesBank were already leaders in their space and could sort of continue to drive customer service and growth of the business investments not just domestically, but also outside of our borders.
The other major things that happened in my tenure, was to, for instance, focus on Africa as well as India. So we built the banks using greenfield separation, starting from scratch, acquiring existing businesses. So we started the Bank of India, Tanzania, in Angola, in Ghana, in Nigeria, in Kenya. It was obviously a lot of hard work because starting any business is hard work. But very fulfilling in terms of redirecting where the group was going to pursue its growth.
Giving back to education
NOMPU SIZIBA: So, once you left FirstRand as CEO, you went back to pursue your passion of education. You set up the Future Nation Schools, you founded the Sifiso Learning Group, and you are the chairperson of the Ikusasa Student Financial Aid Programme, which helps to fund youngsters in tertiary education who come from poor and so-called ‘missing-middle’ families. You really went the whole hog with the whole education thing. Why are these ventures so important for you? And presumably it is gratifying to see the impacts of these interventions?
SIZWE NXASANA: One of the things that you didn’t mention is that I’m the cofounder of the National Education Collaboration Trust (NECT), which is a trust that brings together organised business, labour and teacher unions to work with government to improve the quality of basic education, so we work with the Department of Basic Education.
To answer your question, we are passionate about education. You can always set up private schools, but private schools in this country only cater for about 6%, 7% of school-going-age children, and therefore 93% or thereabouts are learners who are still in public schools. So we can’t leave those children behind, because they make the majority of our young people in this country. And that is why the NECT was set up. It’s particularly involved in working with government around policy, around service delivery in education, improving the quality of teaching, and as a result, we have developed a whole lot of tools around curriculum tracking, curriculum coverage, lesson plans, the training of principals, the training of school management teams, the focus on mathematics and English. Right now we are running the national reading campaign for government, for the Department of Basic Education, which is very important to improve the ability of our children, especially at a young age, to read, because we know we are not doing well in that area.
At the same time, areas like policy, the migration of early childhood development from the Department of Social Development to Basic Education, we are helping government manage that transition. We help government for instance, with the implementation in the rollout of the three-stream curriculum, which is not just the academic curriculum (CAT curriculum) that we have, but also the technical vocational curriculum, technical occupational curriculum which is now being introduced in our schooling system.
So, it’s quite important to do that because, as a country we can all talk about the fourth industrial revolution, but if we are not changing the way that learning and teaching takes place, we are going to be left behind and our children are going to be lost.
NOMPU SIZIBA: Yes, and getting the basics right.
SIZWE NXASANA: Exactly. We are adding a campaign using some of the lessons for futuristic schools that we started that are project-based, that develop all these 21st century skills like collaboration, communication, creativity and critical thinking. So we are running a pilot team in Limpopo, in the public schools right now, which looks at new ways of teaching and how we can make sure that we impart these critical competencies and skills to our learners, as opposed to just focusing on [the knowledge].
So it’s quite important to do all of these things, because we are about moving our country forward and making sure that our children can be set up for the future and can grow our economy.
NOMPU SIZIBA: Mr Nxasana, this is a very important question that I need to ask you. What are the few lessons you can share around leadership and its importance, particularly in the South African context?
SIZWE NXASANA: One of the most important things is to understand that, for the country to grow and develop, we’ve got to develop skills. That’s the first thing.
Secondly, if you are a leader, it is important to really listen to people. In other words, you hire the best talent that you can find and, once you’ve got that talent, you drive a culture of innovation through listening to people. In other words, you don’t have all the right answers as a leader, and if you are a savvy leader …… you can achieve a lot in any organisation, it doesn’t matter which sector it is. So those are just some of the important lessons that I can share.
NOMPU SIZIBA: Super. Thank you very much for talking to us, Mr Nxasana, and sharing your career journey with us. All the very best.