Proving the sceptics wrong

2011-09-17 14:02

When Monhla Hlahla’s mother found out that she was leaving Airports Company South Africa (Acsa) after 10 years at the helm, she offered to look after her with the little bit of money she has saved over the years.

“She showed me her bank statements. She had not touched a cent of the money I had been sending her monthly since I started this job,” she says laughing.

“I was shocked. Based on our conversation, I could tell she was even suggesting that I was free to move in with her should I need to, that she would be able take care of me.”

It seems the retired teacher from Limpopo, who had raised three girls and a son single-handedly, had always been worried that her daughter would one day be unceremoniously shown the door like many heads of state-owned enterprises.

“I reassured her that I was leaving by choice, that after a decade with the company, I was ready to move on,” says Hlahla.

It’s less than a month before Hlahla’s departure from the parastatal she’s helped grow from a R1.5 billion revenue-making entity when she took over in 2001 to the one that reported revenue growth of 32% to R4.7 billion in the year ended March. And she’s excited about leaving. She’s already been on a tour to bid farewell to her 2 600 employees countrywide.

At the time of the interview, the outgoing managing director was scheduled to leave for Mumbai, where she was recently recognised for her human capital development efforts.

In 2006, a consortium made up of Acsa, Bidvest Group Limited and Indian infrastructure company GVK, won a US$1.5 billion (about R9.25 billion) tender to modernise India’s Mumbai International Airport.

Sitting on a leather sofa in her modestly decorated office in Bedfordview, Johannesburg, Hlahla (48) is the picture of contentment.

Her trademark corporate suits have been replaced with a pair of formal black pants and a passion pink linen ­kaftan-like shirt. Her waist-long dreadlocks are hanging loose.

It’s been a long and eventful 10 years, a reality that’s reflected by the array of accolades in Hlahla’s office.

As head of a parastatal, she says one of the things she had to become accustomed to quickly was being the subject of heavy criticism and public scrutiny. “That’s when having support is very important, where you have people around you who say ‘it’s okay even if they criticise you. Let’s do what needs to be done. They will thank you later.’ I’ve been supported across the board.”

Among those she lists in her corner are human rights activist and businesswoman extraordinaire Dr Mamphela Ramphele and Tiger Brands chief executive Peter Matlare, whom she has known for years. Matlare, she says, is to her “that one person you need, who’s also at your level, to laugh with when things get hard”.

An anomaly in South Africa where the tendency has been for chief executives of state-owned companies to leave their positions amid controversy, often with little to show for their tenures, Hlahla says her drive came from a need to prove the sceptics wrong.

“I wanted to prove that black people can do what I did because there was so much noise at the time, even from other black people, that we can’t. So, I decided to stay and allowed myself time to learn. Today, you can call an engineer or someone from aviation and put them in front of me, and I’ll be able to tell them a thing or two,” she says, laughing.

It is clear from our conversation that it is very important to Hlahla that she leads by example and is a role model for young women.

She grew up in Limpopo where she used to walk long distances to school every day. Her father died when she was 11, leaving her mother to raise her and her three siblings

But she refuses to say she grew up poor. “I’m scared of the poor mentality mainly because of the way it makes people behave. I had parents who said ‘We are taking you to school to make our lives easier’. They never said they were poor nor did they complain when they had to get up and go to work.” This instilled in her a sense of doing what needed to be done at all times – a trait that has worked for her.

I ask her the question that’s been on many people’s lips, and that is: where to from Acsa?

“I don’t know what I want to do yet,” she says, sipping on ginger and honey tea. “I’ve been out of the job market for such a long time that I think it’s only right that I take a break.”

Does this have to do with the prospect of turning 50 soon? “No,” she says, bursting into laughter. “Worldwide, the average chief executive leaves at 56. I’m not yet there. I’m still finding myself. I need to expand rather than contract.”

She admits though that she’s looking forward to spending more time with her family. In 2008, Hlahla got married to her best friend of 10 years, businessman Greg Els.

She’s also enjoying motherhood, describing her seven-year-old step-daughter as “the cutest and most talkative little blonde who speaks Sepedi”.
“I’m really looking forward to more weekends together,” she says.

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