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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

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