Winning Women – Grace Matlhape: Topping up from the bottom

2015-03-02 10:00

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Grace Matlhape, CEO of loveLife, has imbued SA’s largest national HIV-prevention initiative for young people with her passion for helping those at the bottom of life’s pyramid, writes Sue Grant Marshall

Just when we feel most desperate about our jobless youth and the ills that spring from massive unemployment, a Grace Matlhape comes along.

Her dreams and hopes for youngsters shower, confetti-like, over all she meets.

“We spend too much time focusing on the bright young things at the top of the pyramid. We also need to draw from the bottom and build them up,” Matlhape declares.

That’s the message in the book The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid by CK Prahalad and it is, in essence, what loveLife has been doing for many years with its GroundBreakers programme.

The programme identifies youngsters with a bit of a spark in all sorts of communities, including the deeply rural and hugely disadvantaged.

They become part of a national youth volunteer service corps that works with more than 200 community-based NGOs, 5?600 schools and 500 clinics.

The programmes reach half a million young people every month and do so at the most impactful level, with direct face-to-face interaction.

“We start with self-belief, because so many out-of-work youngsters think they are worthless and are riddled with doubt about their capabilities. Yet many described as ‘failures’ are some of the sharpest people around,” Matlhape emphasises.

GroundBreakers go on a yearlong course to develop their leadership abilities and knowledge. They then go back into their communities.

There they work on programmes that include an emphasis on healthy sexuality, positive lifestyles, sporting activities and arts and culture.

“We use GroundBreakers for a multiplier youth effect because the HIV-infection message alone has ‘fatigued’ them. We need to move on by helping them to envision a brighter future for themselves and then focus that energy on making that future happen.”

Matlhape mentions, proudly, that one of their GroundBreakers is now a medical doctor.

When Matlhape joined loveLife in 2002, her mandate was to extend and roll out loveLife’s programmes, “so I scaled up GroundBreakers. Over the years, more programmes were developed under my leadership.”

The friendly, strong and determined woman was headhunted ceaselessly when she joined loveLife due to her impressive qualifications. But nothing could shift her.

“I’m not at loveLife because of all the problems we face. I am here because there are so many opportunities to do so much more,” she says passionately.

loveLife’s latest venture is developing a leadership-entrepreneurship academy with corporate partners. The first to join them is Absa Bank which, in tandem with the NGO, has drawn 675 young people “from the bottom of the pyramid. It is funding us to train them,” says Matlhape with clear satisfaction.

The threat of HIV infection has not diminished.

Although a 2010 study found that the incidence had declined by 35% between 2002 and 2008, in the 15-49 age group, “South Africa’s national rate is unacceptably high, at 10.8% of our total population,” says Matlhape.

She points out the burden of HIV is massive and the death rate among young adults has more than doubled over the past decade.

“Nearly 2?million children and teenagers have been orphaned.”

South Africa also needs to substantially reduce the rate of new infections due to the rising costs of antiretroviral treatment.

“If we can prevent 50% of projected new infections, we will save more than R5?billion over the next five years and R20 billion over the next decade.”

The importance of the GroundBreakers programme is underlined by the fact that 45% of new infections are among those aged between 15 and 24.

Matlhape’s own sense of worth was instilled by devoted parents and grandparents, although her young life was not without its challenges.

Her schoolteacher father died when she was only seven, leaving her neonatal nurse mother with four youngsters.

They lived with their maternal grandparents in Bloemfontein and Matlhape went to a boarding school in QwaQwa – “a great time in my life in terms of seeing myself in relation to others”.

“But physically it was horrendous, because it’s in one of the coldest places in South Africa, at the foot of the Maluti Mountains.”

Aggravating this was a total lack of hot water – even the cold water froze in the pipes. “We’d make a little fire under the steel pipe to get the cold water out.”

Though Matlhape says it was character building, she adds: “I wouldn’t like my two children to suffer as we did in order to become stronger”.

She decided, with characteristic determination, that she would go to university. Her mother sold the family car to pay for her BA social work degree at the University of Zululand.

She went on to do her honours at Unisa. She worked in the forensic unit of a psychiatric hospital in Bloemfontein before moving on to work at the Mental Health Society in the city.

When she moved to Johannesburg with her husband and two small children, she became CEO of the Witwatersrand Mental Health Society, “but I felt insecure about the business side of it”.

A Wits Business School professor who sat on the society’s board sensed Matlhape’s potential and offered her a bursary to do a management advancement programme.

Fired up by that, she went on to do her master’s in commerce at the University of Johannesburg and is now studying for her PhD in business strategy.

“My decisions on what to study are driven by what is happening in my life,” she says.

The enterprising woman, who was herself once near the bottom of life’s pyramid, has shown the way to its top by sheer perseverance.

What an example she is for the GroundBreakers she so enjoys helping.

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