Winning Women – Khanyisile Kweyama: Balancing the economic scales

Khanyisile Kweyama
Khanyisile Kweyama

The vision of Khanyisile Kweyama, who became CEO of Business Unity SA in January, is to ensure that organised business plays a constructive role in the country’s economic growth, development and transformation, writes Sue Grant-Marshall

We know that South Africa needs to grow businesses, jobs and investor confidence to once again become a winning nation.

The new CEO of Business Unity SA (Busa), Khanyisile Kweyama, is doing something about that.

A glance at recent newspaper headlines shows that she has not pulled her punches since she moved into Busa’s hot seat.

She has warned South Africa that it “cannot afford a single day of a strike”.

She also made Busa’s displeasure known when Eskom and senior government officials kept it in the dark about our growth-inhibiting lack of power.

South Africa needs “an energy mix”, she says, “in which we do not just rely on coal, but on many different energy solutions. Nor should we have a situation where everyone is reliant on Eskom.”

Kweyama has clout in heading an organisation that represents the interests of the country’s powerful business community.

Busa is an apex body, “with a membership representing various constituencies, from the Afrikaanse Handelsinstituut to Master Builders SA, the Chamber of Mines, the Banking Association and a range of others”, explains Kweyama.

Her job is to make sure there is a balance in their view and voice, “and this is less daunting if we speak with a common goal in mind”.

“Our aim is a better life for all. It’s a huge responsibility that at times seems overwhelming.”

Kweyama’s strong voice and direct gaze soon dispel any doubt about her being able to achieve Busa’s objectives.

She agrees that in the past there’s been a strained relationship between business and government. “There was a big trust deficit a couple of years ago, but I think that is lessening now because we need each other.”

Kweyama has brought to her position a wealth of business experience gained across a number of sectors.

She was the executive director of Anglo American SA, the first woman to hold such a position there, until it agreed to second her to Busa for a two-year term from January this year.

Prior to that, she was head of human resources at Anglo American’s platinum business.

She is vice-president of the SA Chamber of Mines. But she also understands intimately the problems faced by small businesses, as she had two of her own from 1998 to 2002 – the consulting company Nokusa Communications and Promotions, as well as a human resources consultancy, KTK HR Solutions.

Her background gives her a multifocused approach to any issue she’s working on.

“I’m glad I got the inside track, for when SMMEs [small, medium and micro enterprises] tell me big business doesn’t understand them, I can say ‘I have been there’. I know what it is like to have no salary, to rely on a husband to pay staff because clients haven’t paid me.”

She chuckles and spoons honey into her rooibos tea as we sit in the sparkling new Busa offices decorated in elegant grey and chrome in Rivonia.

Kweyama started her businesses shortly after she returned from exile in Virginia in the US in 1991.

There, she had been working with the ANC office in Washington, DC, while studying towards a degree in business administration. She began her business life back in South Africa by working for BMW “in an affirmative action position”.

“I’m sure they meant well, but when I was asked who I knew in government and to then take them out to lunch, it was actually an insult.”

Back in 1993, people in the workplace were not “used to having a professional black person working with them. So I decided to help bridge that gap in the communications and human resources area.”

In fact, Kweyama knew many people in government. As a small child growing up in Atteridgeville, Pretoria, she’d witnessed her parents sheltering young people on the run from the apartheid government.

Her father, who worked in sales and marketing for the SA Cooperative Citrus Exchange, and her schoolteacher mother always regarded education as a fundamental right.

They sent her to the best school they knew, Inanda Seminary near Durban, and then on to Fort Hare.

When strikes made life impossible there, Kweyama went to Northern Virginia with her two daughters and returned as soon as the ANC was unbanned in 1991.

“I worked for the Consultative Business Movement as part of its Codesa [talks between the National Party and liberation movements to map out South Africa’s democratic future] secretariat. Those were exciting times and I recall working through the night on one occasion when Nelson Mandela walked into the negotiation hall in the middle of the night to resolve a deadlock between parties.”

But she had always wanted to complete her education and graduated with a master’s degree in management from the Wits Business School.

She was recently recognised as one of the most influential women in mining in Africa by CEO Communications and was listed as one of the Top 100 women to watch in the FTSE 100 Companies 2014 report.

One of the many demands on her is being a trustee of the Sentebale Trust, founded by Britain’s Prince Harry and Prince Seeiso of Lesotho.

When she relaxes, she reads books, “increasingly spiritual ones, such as Deepak Chopra’s”, and she recalls growing up with Mills andamp; Boon and The Hardy Boys.

“But the older I get, more business books and ones on strategy join the pile that I read at any one time.”

Little black book

Business tip Become an expert in the field in which you work, and learn to speak its language.

Mentor My parents, who have mentored and motivated me.

Book Liberation Diaries: Reflections on 20 years of Democracy in South Africa. Edited by Busani Ngcaweni.

Wow! moment Returning to SA in 1991 after eight years in exile and hearing the immigration officer say: ‘Welcome home.’

Life lesson Decide what you are going to do in life, focus on it and then be at peace with yourself.

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