Newsmaker– Charmaine Mabuza: SA’s new gambling queen

While incumbent Lotto operator Gidani and the department of trade and industry slug it out in court, the Lotto’s new boss, Charmaine Mabuza, is going about her very busy day.

“I haven’t drank my water, food, niks,” she says as she touches up her lipstick.

Are her days always this frantic?

“Today is just one of those days. I took just 30 minutes to accommodate you,” replies the 45-year-old.

We’re sitting in a small boardroom in the offices of her ­private equity firm, Zamani Group, in Johannesburg, where she has just concluded a meeting.

It is simply but expensively furnished. There are no works of art on the walls, although some of them have the padded panels that are fashionable in offices across the country.

Laptops and cellphones litter the oak desk, which Mabuza’s public relations officer quickly clears for our interview.

Another of Mabuza’s companies, Ithuba, was recently awarded the Lotto licence after a competitive bidding process that saw four consortiums paying a hefty R2.5?million bid fee, according to National Lotteries Board chairperson Professor Alfred Nevhutanda.

Gidani, which the board recommended to the department of trade and industry as its preferred bidder, has disputed Minister Rob Davies’ decision to award the licence to Ithuba, which scored the highest number of points. But a relaxed Mabuza does not believe there’s anything to fear.

In preparing for the bid for the third Lotto licence to be awarded in South Africa, Ithuba spent “a whole lot of money” researching, finding partners and getting a broad shareholder base, she says.

Afterwards, it had to send piles of documents for evaluation and ensure that its shareholders were compliant.

“We’ve won the bid fair and square,” she says.

Mabuza is perhaps best known as one of the first directors of the Women’s Investment Portfolio Holdings (Wiphold), the first women’s group to list on the JSE.

But the businesswoman has kept a very low profile. “I’ll tell you why,” she says with a smile. “I am very shy. I like to stay behind the scenes.”

But Ithuba’s public relations firm urged her to come out of her shell. She says it issued her with this instruction: “You have to take some media!”

She left Wiphold in 2001 and decided to strike out on her own to grow her “family of businesses”.

That’s not surprising, since the KwaZulu-Natal-born ­entrepreneur was first bitten by the bug while she was working in various family-owned businesses.

One of the businesses Mabuza started was Empilweni ­Payout Services, which distributes social grants.

It vied with Absa’s AllPay to distribute these grants to an estimated 15?million beneficiaries in the country before the national tender was controversially awarded to Cash ­Paymaster Services, a subsidiary of US company Net1 UEPS.

Mabuza also started Zamani, which has an “interesting ­portfolio” under its belt. But it was not easy to grow the company, she says. Finding money was one of the hardest things she had to do.

“Institutions are not very confident about small businesses. It took huge discipline to even grow our ­portfolio and our balance sheet.”

She adds that a great leadership team helped her ­businesses stay the course.

Mabuza, who says she gets very little sleep these days, ­unwinds by spending time with her family.

“Spending quality time – whether travelling together, eating together, outings...”

She has three children who have all finished their schooling – her youngest is 19. Family is the centre of Mabuza’s life. On a normal day, she has what she calls dinner dates with them in the evening.

What can those millions who fork out for Lotto tickets expect from Ithuba now that it’s at the helm?

Mabuza says the overall game needs to be reflective of the country’s demographics and Ithuba is brimming with plans for new games.

“If you haven’t played the Lotto, I guarantee that you will play in the coming years,” she says.

Mabuza says she plays the Lotto because she likes to give back to charitable causes.

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