She could practically work anywhere in the world, but Gqeberha, the city where she grew up, is where Siphokazi Sonjica decided to sink her roots after her mother passed away in July 2020.
The passing of her mother, Dr Elizabeth-Mamisa Chabula-Nxiweni – renowned for her work in institutionalised safe circumcision training and founding an HIV/Aids daycare facility and crèche, the Emmanuel Haven in Motherwell – led Siphokazi to re-assess what mattered to her most and align her priorities towards that.
So the Mthatha-born CA decided to leave Joburg and move back home to Gqeberha, where she’d grown up, to be closer to family.
“We were very lucky. My mom was a pusher. So from a very young age, education was the thing.”
This is why Siphokazi decided she’d do her master of business administration (MBA) after qualifying as a chartered accountant. It turns out to have been one of the best decisions she could have ever made because it positioned her for her current role, Isuzu Senior Manager for Finance Business Performance, which brings together her love for number-crunching and her passion for business and helping enterprises grow.
The focus of her MBA research, titled The evolution of the function and role of finance within the current South African business environment, was how business finance can move from being merely transactional to being a business enabler that adds value beyond capital, partnering with a business in meaningful ways that help it grow.
The CA says she is grateful that she obtained her MBA before starting to have kids. “It’s the best thing I ever did. I remember, because my sister was also doing her MBA at the same time, the pressures she was going through. You know, trying to keep up with the mothering and the working and the schooling.
“So we always had to make group study sessions at a time that would accommodate her and, I must say, it becomes hard. To do it now that I have kids would be hard because in the evenings you come home and you’re tired. And then you’ve got these three mini mes wanting your time. So now you have to pucker up, then the weekends are taken by school,” says the mom of three girls aged seven, five and one.
But the idea of how grueling the road to MBA can be should not dissuade any mom who’s considering it, says the 39-year-old.
It’s doable, as her sister proved to herself, and as their mom did too by studying to become a doctor while raising seven small kids.
“Her and my dad were maths teachers, then she stopped teaching maths and went to medical school.”
Watching her mom work those long hours as a medical doctor made Siphokazi realise she did not want to be a doctor, she shares.
“The hours were crazy! But I guess those were the hours she needed to put in in order to be able to provide for us, to give us a good education, to give us a good life. And I guess that’s what we’re trying to do for our kids as well.”
Dr Nxiweni, aside from being a well-loved doctor, was a Presbyterian minister and had the Eastern Cape’s first field hospital – sponsored by Volkswagen and the German government – named after her. Having such a trailblazer of a mom had a profound effect on Siphokazi and her nine siblings, she says.
“By the time she passed away, she had done so much with us and with the community. So I think coming back to Gqeberha, that was one of the reasons that drove me to come back.
“I want to try and give back to the community in one way or another.”
In her new role, which she started in April 2022, Siphokazi is responsible for financial planning and analysis, product finance and cost control at Isuzu.
The Nelson Mandela University alum says the best career advice she has ever been given is, “Don’t sell yourself short.”
Even with all her work experience and her professional certifications that include an MBA, CA(SA) and BCom accounting honours she, like many young professionals, is susceptible to sometimes doubting herself, she admits.
But she’s grateful for having a trailblazing mom, diligent siblings, a supportive husband and career mentors and supporters who have always rooted for her along the way.
Her former bosses have also played a huge role. “In corporate you always need a mentor and a supporter or cheerleader. The cheerleader is the one who, when they are in meetings, always says, ‘There is someone like Siphokazi, there is someone like this’; who always makes sure they look out for you.”
Your part then becomes to just show up. "Show up for yourself and not for anyone else", says the senior manager.
“In my career I’ve been lucky to have great mentors and great supporters, and my supporters were my bosses. I had great female bosses in Accenture and in Edcon. And my boss at Accenture is the one I’d say directed me to be the leader I am today because she was very supportive but also left you to do you.
“That’s the kind of leadership I prospered under and that’s the type of leader I became.”
Siphokazi adds that although her qualifications were demanding to obtain, the real pressure did not come so much from the actual work itself as it did from her siblings.
“I passed all my subject first time,” she admits with a laugh.
“But the thing is, before me, my sister and brother had already qualified as accountants, so the pressure was on,” says the CA who obtained a BCom Accounting Degree from the Nelson Mandela University in 2004, completed her honours at the same institution in 2005 before passing the South African Institute of Chartered Accountants Board Examination the following year, then gaining admission into the Independent Regulatory Board of Auditors in 2008.
The honours year was tough, though she adds, saying she remembers the dean of accounting at the time giving them a pep talk.
Luckily for Siphokazi, she was single at the time. She and her husband started dating when she registered for her MBA, but they were of one mind as far as prioritising studies was concerned.
Still, we all sometimes have to sacrifice one good thing for another, and the sacrifice Siphokazi is glad to have made when she was younger, aside from delaying starting a family, is moving around a bit in her career in the beginning, saying it allowed her to discover her strengths and weaknesses as she grew.
“It was from one role, and then the next role built on the previous one, so I didn’t accelerate because you know when we finish articles we all think we can be CFOs the next day!”
Ultimately, when all is said and done, the things Siphokazi hopes to achieve are being a great mom, inspiring leader and someone who, like her mom, prioritises her family and gives back to her community.