Winning Women – Vanessa Phala: Negotiating consent

2014-04-28 08:00

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Vanessa Phala strides through the hotel lobby, elegance personified, exuding an aura of confidence and capability.

And she might well because at 34, she’s young to have achieved as much as she has. She has worked at top levels for the departments of foreign affairs, and public service and administration. Now she is at Business Unity SA (Busa), where she’s executive director of social and transformation policy.

“Busa is the principal representative of business in South Africa and its role is to ensure that legislation is business-friendly and doesn’t stifle growth and development,” she says.

Clearly, then, the amount of red tape blocking the development of small and medium-sized enterprises must be an issue, and Phala agrees.

“We represent small business interests and we are at the forefront of raising these issues with the government. We do so on the platform that Nedlac [the National Economic Development and Labour Council] provides. I lead our delegation to it.”

She had only been at Busa for a fortnight, back in January 2012, when trade unions demanded the use of labour brokers be discontinued.

In the furore that followed, Phala had to keep the media informed about Busa’s intentions and policy around labour brokerage. “It meant I had to learn everything about it – and fast.”

No wonder the midnight oil burnt for weeks in Phala’s office as she accessed every bit of information she could find.

“It’s challenging becoming the voice of business concerns about laws that affect it, and proposed legislation that could impact on it.”

She studies everything she can so that she is “armed with all the necessary information to help put Busa on the map”.

That’s an activity this mother of three sons aged between five and nine is accustomed to – she’s currently reading for her PhD in psychology and professional leadership at the University of Johannesburg.

She graduated with a master’s degree in international relations in 2004 from Wits and got the job she’d set her heart on, working for the department of foreign affairs, now the department of international relations and cooperation.

As she studied for her master’s degree, she worked at Wits’s Link Centre, which is regarded as South Africa’s leading information and communication technology academic research and training body.

“I wanted to have options because I am always looking ahead in life,” she says. But the Link Centre was such an innovative and creative place, she initially found government bureaucracy a shock.

“[But] I enjoyed my time there because I worked in areas ranging from South Africa’s foreign policy to doing research into the Middle East peace process. And I travelled – that changes your perspective on life.”

When she joined the department of public service and administration, she travelled even more as acting chief director of its ethics and integrity management unit and special anticorruption unit.

“I was at the forefront of putting together a unit that would ensure the department of public service and administration’s work in fighting corruption didn’t interfere with, for instance, the work of the Hawks.”

Phala forged working relationships with the latter, as well as with the special investigating unit, the SA Revenue Service and the National Prosecuting Authority.

Her life became as interesting and intense as it was busy. She represented South Africa in the G20 Anticorruption Working Group, flying to Europe and China frequently.

In July 2011, she played a pivotal role as a member of South Africa’s team of experts in assessing the UK as part of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development’s evaluations process.

She also represented South Africa at the UN Convention Against Corruption. Part of her work involved creating measures that made it easier for countries to cooperate with each other in areas of corruption.

“So it was fascinating – but after I’d been there for five years, I felt I’d played my part and when Busa approached me, I was ready to move on.”

Phala, who is married to a PhD graduate, copes with her busy life by using all the help she can get. She says her husband understands her pressures.

But those who support her include her mother and an au pair, “who comes at a price”. But she adds: “It’s worth it for the peace of mind I have at the office. She fetches the children from school and supervises their homework.”

Phala relaxes by playing golf and walking.

One of her aims is to help women progress in life. She says: “If I could do what I have done – coming from a single parent background and a Meadowlands, Soweto, education – anyone can.”

Her childhood was rich in family. She grew up in an extended home with grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins.

She set out, armed with excellent matric results, intending to become a medical doctor. But a visit to Wits changed her mind and she studied international relations instead.

“I knew education was my way to a better life,” she says. Her long-term goal is to obtain her PhD and then become the CEO of a successful company using the skills she has acquired “working in civil society, government and now business”.

Phala admits, with refreshing candour, that she’s ambitious. She clearly has the right credentials and attitude to go with that mind-set.

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