If Nelson Mandela were still alive, he would talk about a 14-year-old girl who, back in the 1990s, during the heady days of the Convention for a Democratic SA, once tried to persuade him to get the ANC to negotiate that 16 be the voting age.
President Cyril Ramaphosa was present during the interaction.
It turns out that the adolescent is now the new minister of small business development, Khumbudzo Ntshavheni. “I am sure my boss remembered it when he considered me for this role,” she jokes.
The interaction with Madiba would have planted the seeds of “focus and determination” in Ntshavheni, who says these are the same character traits that, years later, defined the role she played as municipal manager of Ba-Phalaborwa Local Municipality in Limpopo – in particular, the lesson that “age, gender and race have no bearing on my ability to achieve my set targets despite the obstacles”.
At age 42, Ntshavheni is one of the youngest ministers in the new Cabinet.
Although a sit-down with Ramaphosa is still pending, Ntshavheni is already looking at requesting Parliament to amend the Small Business Act to better deal with current issues facing the sector.
This will entail updating the act to help small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) to access funding from state agencies and the banking sector, and to ensure that small businesses are paid within the prescribed 21 days.
She says big business, too, ought to assist in creating access to markets for small traders and, as a measure of last resort, “if we need to set quotas, it should be so”.
Ntshavheni says the support of her two homeboys from Limpopo in the finance ministry – Tito Mboweni and his deputy, David Masondo – will come in handy should she have to pick a new fight to advance the interests of small businesses.
She says the country’s economic growth prospects depend on boosting the confidence of local business in order to attract international investment.
Ntshavheni adds that Ramaphosa is taking the right course of action.
She says if small businesses were able to survive the first five years of being established and could grow to medium-sized businesses, job creation would boom.
“To achieve this, we need to remove the red tape, improve their cash flow through paying them on time, help them access markets for their products, and upskill them for proper financial management.”
Sufficient groundwork has been done, she says, and now it is time for implementation.
Ntshavheni, who is also a businesswoman, describes herself as “a product of SME. I take after my mother in this, and I have been active in the sector for a while”. Hence, she sees her new role as minister as “an opportunity to do for SMEs what I wished someone did for my business”.
Ntshavheni acknowledges that she will be scrutinised in her new ministerial role, particularly given her reported suspension in 2013 from the State Information Technology Agency (Sita) – where she held the post of chief operating officer (COO) – which “attracted negative media attention that was not based on facts”.
She pleads her case: “The then board of Sita publicly declared they were not party to my suspension, but the media did not find it amiss that an interim chief executive officer (CEO) suspended his COO without board approval. The Sita interim CEO could not support charges being made against me during the disciplinary hearing, and my position was disaggregated into three positions in the process, but the media chose their side.”
She says former deputy minister of public service and administration Ayanda Dlodlo – now the state security minister – would have been able to provide facts if she was asked “as I was barred from talking”.
“Sita paid my legal fees and opted to retrench me. Nobody bothered to ask Sita for any documents. Equally, despite my having been appointed to the Denel board more than 10 years after [Gupta-linked] VR Laser was awarded work at Denel, the media chose their own narrative,” she says, referring to the controversies at the government parastatal.
But, adds Ntshavheni, the experiences taught her to focus on the task at hand. “I am lucky that my mother is too old and my children too young to read newspapers. And the many people who support me know me better than to be influenced by what gets written in newspapers. So, I am also ready for the negative publicity that is mainly targeted at female leaders.”