It’s hard to believe that the first woman appointed to South Africa’s Public Service Commission in 1994 is so warm and humble, yet that’s the abiding impression Yvonne Muthien leaves as she rushes off to her next meeting. We’re talking at the imposing Thebe House in Rosebank, Joburg, home to Thebe Investment Corporation, where, Muthien says, she feels completely at ease “because the value systems that marked its founding, by Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu and Beyers Naudé, have not changed over the years. As such, they fit in with mine.
“We don’t only make a profit – we’re also driven by a commitment to serve the broader interests of the community,” says Muthien, who sits on its main board and chairs the Thebe Resource Incubator.
This is a nonprofit subsidiary that helps junior players in the mining industry and other entrepreneurs to access skills.
“We want to bring more of them into the supply chain,” she says.
After a lifetime working in powerful posts at huge corporations, including MTN to Coca-Cola Africa, and serving on the boards of the SABC, Mossgas and Transnet, Muthien is giving back to a country she loves, but clearly hopes will do better.
She’s also passing on the valuable management skills she acquired during her career.
“Probably one of the most important things is learning how to manage your boss, a skill not many people possess.”
It seems like common sense, but if we cannot work effectively with a boss, it can be career-limiting, and business schools all over the world today are teaching “managing up” courses.
“What drives me now is making a difference in large and complex organisations because solving complex problems appeals to me,” she says.
Another pearl of working wisdom from Muthien concerns having a work-life balance.
“Every so often we need to pause in our careers, take a breath and reflect on where we are going.
“I took time out to raise my children and that, as well as other breaks, inspired my career changes.”
One of the quietly efficient, gentle-mannered Muthien’s major propellers “is to always be innately self-driven”.
“I go the extra mile – for myself – and then the rest of the world doesn’t matter so much. What I do is inner-driven.”
So it’s not surprising to learn that Muthien chairs the Sasol Inzalo Foundation because at its heart is a passion to help create excellence in science, technology, engineering and maths
Always be authentic. You cannot be a leader without authenticity at all levels of education.
“We help to train teachers and partner government in certain areas such as supplying work books,” she says.
Education has been one of the central themes in Muthien’s interesting life – not only has she studied at Oxford University in the UK, Northwestern in the US and the University of the Western Cape, but she and three of her seven siblings ensured they all attended more than one university. Muthien was one of the founding council members in the creation of Kimberley’s Sol Plaatje University, which opened last year.
“We’ve just launched our first bachelor of education degree in maths and science there,” she says with evident satisfaction.
This busy woman, although she disputes the word ‘busy’, claiming she now does only a quarter of the work she used to do, still has an interest in the pure business world.
She chairs the Rhodes Food Group, one of the oldest foodproducing companies in South Africa – which dates back to 1893.
“It’s a private company that used to be family-owned. To list on the JSE, they wanted a woman to lead the board and they approached me.”
Because working for such a company was a new challenge in Muthien’s life – it’s been a trend of hers not to repeat experiences – she accepted.
It certainly wasn’t the first time she had broken the glass ceiling.
She was an associate professor in sociology at the University of Natal in the early 1990s, when Nelson Mandela “personally called me and twisted my arm into joining the Public Service Commission”.
“Then, the entire civil service was enshrined on inequality between men and women.”
Muthien is a feminist and is committed to gender equality, so she accepted the position and attended meetings with 27 male directorsgeneral.
“I learnt early on that I needed to be more than prepared. I could never busk it.
“I slept with management manuals next to my bed – even on holiday.”
Muthien values respect, something she had not received as a child growing up in the coloured community in Cape Town’s working-class suburb of Ravensmead, near Elsies River.
Her parents were not educated and her father taught himself to read.
“But they imparted the vital necessity of learning from an early age in all of us eight children,” she says.
The result has been a lifetime of selfeducation and of treating people “the way in which you would like to be treated”.
Always strive for excellence to the extent that it becomes a habit
Professor Jakes Gerwel
Toni Morrison’s profound God Help the Child. She writes about the bumps and hurts of childhood and striving to overcome a poor background
I am still living Nelson Mandela’s values and ethos. They provide the “wholeness” in me
Receiving national honours at the same ceremony as Nelson Mandela