Winning Women: How the power of knowing changes lives

2014-03-03 08:00

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Totsie Memela’s life has taken her from the 1976 Soweto student uprising to setting up ANC cells in Swaziland and gunrunning in apartheid South Africa. Along the way, she educated herself, which is why being CEO of Eduloan is the perfect position for her, writes Sue Grant-Marshall

The pint-sized Eduloan CEO, Totsie Memela, welcomes me warmly into her floor-to-ceiling glass windowed office on the West Rand, one wall of which is covered with ethnic art. She’s wearing killer high heels, an elegant, formfitting suit and a smile that would dazzle the sun.

She’s created just the ambience that nervous studentsof any age would feel at ease in when discussing loans to gain the kind of education that will lift them in life.

Memela clearly feels comfortable in her situation for she has spent a lifetime helping others help themselves lead a better life, ranging from accessing home and agricultural loans to funding their education.

She has arrived via a circuitous route that’s taught her much of what she needs to know both in her role as CEO and in life, to almost being back where she started from, on the SRC of her Soweto high school in 1976.

She grew up one of nine children in a four-roomedDiepkloof home. Her father had almost completed his studies for the Roman Catholic priesthood when he decided he needed a woman in his life and became a Johannesburg Securities Exchange clerk.

Her mother was a domestic worker by day and an after-hours community worker who welcomed everyone into their home.

When the 1976 riots erupted, Memela went into exile in Swaziland with her mother’s advice, “the only thing that can change your life is education”, ringing in her ears.

She obtained her O levels by studying through a correspondence course at night and working as a domestic for a police officer’s family during the day. “It’s the worst job I’ve ever had,” she says.

She was hitchhiking to get her exam results when she met an ANC comrade who asked her to join the organisation. It then made her responsible for recruiting other young people at the University of Swaziland, where she was studying politics and business administration.

Several of her recruits are now in the highest echelons of government.

The bright young student was then tasked with smuggling guns and leaflets into South Africa, where she hid them.

“I wasn’t scared because I had a cause and I’m fortunate I lived to experience our democracy.” Memela’s face creases as she adds: “But we’ve lost our way a bit in terms of the ideals we once had.”

It saddens her that many youngsters today don’t think about how they could make a difference to society, “it’s the me, me, me generation who think about clothes instead”.

She returned to South Africa in 1991 along with many other exiles and was responsible for administration in the office of then ANC secretary-general Cyril Ramaphosa.

But a year later, as her comrades prepared to go into government, she decided to work in the private sector. She began her banking career working in affordable housing at the Permanent Building Society, and has been “involved in the financial industry ever since”.

She then moved into agricultural financing at the Land Bank, working with its then managing director Helena Dolny. She was made acting managing director when Dolny came into conflict with the then minister. Later on, Memela moved back to the private sector, working in FNB’s home loans division.

Eduloan approached Memela in June 2010 to become its CEO. She accepted with alacrity for she had never forgotten her mother’s words about the importance of education.

Indeed, she had continued to study after her BA, eventually obtaining a master’s in public administration.

“Eduloan is the leading education finance specialist in southern Africa and we cater for all levels of tuition,” she says proudly. “Since our inception in 1996, we have helped nearly three quarters of a million South Africans unlock their true potential with more than R3.7?billion in study loans.”

The organisation does more than simply lend students money for tuition fees, it realises the multifaceted financial demands made on a student and manages a package of funds assistance that includes accommodation, food and study tools.

“We know transport costs are high and that it makes sense for a student to live near their college, university or even school. So we lend them money for that,” says Memela who has two sons and a foster daughter.

Eduloan also appreciates other education-related costs, whether that’s for textbooks, laptops, scientific calculators, stethoscopes, saxophones or cameras.

They’ve created the Eduxtras card that enables students to use their bursary funds wisely. The organisation has a relationship with selected merchants who offer competitive prices.

Furthermore, Eduloan makes it clear to students that they want them to repay their loan and the low rate of interest on it before they begin working.

“This is to free them from future debt, high interest rates and compound interest,” says Memela, adding that many students find sponsors to fund them through their education.

It’s a sensible approach from a practical organisation that is headed by a passionate chief executive who wants nothing more than her country to thrive.

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