A woman who commands respect

2011-10-15 14:29

Starting out in a male-dominated police force Mokwena is now Assupol CEO

Bridget Mokwena is imposing.

At least 1.75m tall with an athletic build and an authoritative stride, it’s easy to see how she managed to have a successful career in the male-dominated police force.

The former police officer says: “I have a gym at home which I upgraded about two years ago and I make full use of it.”

I met Mokwena, chief executive of Assupol Life, at her office in Pretoria. It’s been a year since her appointment as chief executive.

She joined the company 16 years ago as a part-time agent, a job she took to augment her meagre salary as an officer.

Mokwena has just returned from the US where she went to “copy” best practices in the use of technology to improve efficiencies.

Established in 1913, initially as a burial society for members of the South African police, correctional services and other government employees, Assupol Life has grown over the years to cater for the general public.

Its particular focus is on the lower- to middle-income and previously marginalised groups.

Considering the competitive life insurance market, the company is set to embark on a new chapter. Part of the holding company Assupol Group, has began the countdown to its listing in a couple of months. Mokwena describes this experience as the most eye-opening.

Explaining the rationale behind the listing, she says the rise in interest in the low- to middle-income market, particularly from the company’s competitors, has reaffirmed the group’s “winning recipe”, which deserves to be taken to the market.

“I think what has worked for Assupol and led to its success is that from the beginning, the company would enquire from its black agents what the market out there wanted,” she says. “And what management would do then is come up with the best way to cater for that need.”

This included, among others, aligning the group’s claim payment system to cultural practices focusing on fast turnaround.

“This was done because we understood that with black families, whenever there’s a funeral, there are a lot of expenses in the days leading up to the funeral.

“And therefore, we looked at having quick turnaround times to make sure that we serve our client the best we could.”

Born in Giyani, Limpopo, to a family of nine children, looking at Mokwena sitting in her recently renovated meeting room, dressed in a light pink summer suit, it’s difficult to imagine her in a police uniform.

The mother of two says she chose the police force because she wanted a career that was different to that chosen by most of her siblings who, like her father, are teachers.

She started as an instructor at the Hammanskraal Police College in Pretoria before joining the Soshanguve police station where she worked as a charge officer.

It was at Soshanguve where she met her mentor, a Major Soko, who exposed her to the various departments within the police force.
And through sheer determination, her evident people skills, sharp wit and passion for studying, Mokwena was soon climbing up the ranks. At her peak, she was second-in-command of an investigation unit in Soweto.

Her most memorable experience in the police force, was when she had to go and restore order at the Diepkloof vehicle theft recovery unit in Soweto where officers had gone on strike in protest at anti-corruption measures introduced by a senior officer.

Because the senior officer was Indian, she says, protesting officers accused him of racism, among other allegations.

As the area senior officer, Mokwena was forced to go and reinstate order. “That was one of the incidents that taught
me how to ensure that you’re respected by your male colleagues, particularly if you’re in charge.”

She lists firmness, the ability to nurture relationships and insistence on standards as the necessary elements of leadership, adding: “I’ve learned that you need to make them (male colleagues) understand that you are at the same level as them and that they should treat you with the respect that comes with the position.”

Discipline is something that comes naturally to Mokwena. Her father was a school principal and together with
her mother, they expected nothing but the best from their children.

“Studying, for example, was non-negotiable,” says Mokwena, who lists among her qualifications a Masters in Business Leadership from the University of South Africa.

She is currently studying risk management with Wits Plus, the University of the Witwatersrand’s centre for part-time studies.

She says she has instilled the same principle of discipline in her children – a 17-year-old daughter who is responsible and a son (20), who despite being mentally challenged is quite self-sufficient.

Not a day goes by without her touching base with her five sisters, who are her best friends, she says with a smile.

“I love my sisters. They have played a very important role in bringing me up. I’m very fortunate to have them.”

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