PRO­FILE: DR VUYO MAHLATI

Mul­tiskilled busi­ness­woman Vuyo on how her lat­est ven­ture as a cash­mere pro­ducer is a ve­hi­cle for so­cial change

Fairlady - - CONTENTS - By Kate Sidley

in the smart board­room of Dr Vuyo Mahlati’s Rose­bank of­fice in Jo­han­nes­burg, we’re talk­ing about goats. Specif­i­cally, the im­buzi goats that are in­dige­nous to the East­ern Cape and other parts of the coun­try, and that have his­tor­i­cally been kept for rit­ual pur­poses and for their meat. Now, they’ve be­come a source of in­come for ru­ral peo­ple, thanks to Vuyo’s com­pany, Ivili Loboya, which has pro­duced South Africa’s first cash­mere by pro­cess­ing the soft, fine in­ner hair of the coats of th­ese goats.

Ivili Loboya re­cently launched its Dedani col­lec­tion, a line of clothes made of cash­mere har­vested from th­ese goats, and spun, wo­ven and pro­cessed in ru­ral East­ern Cape us­ing nat­u­ral dyes.

Th­ese nat­u­ral dyes were sourced from leaves, fruits, bark and flow­ers to cre­ate the col­lec­tion’s pal­ette of earthy tones, such as ochre, bone, nut, marula and wild peach. The fab­rics are vis­ual evo­ca­tions of na­ture, as well as spir­i­tual and an­ces­tral im­agery.

This ven­ture is the cul­mi­na­tion of some of Vuyo’s many in­ter­ests, her his­tory and in­flu­ences: grow­ing up in the East­ern Cape, her mother who was a shep­herdess and cul­ti­vated Vuyo’s in­ter­est in farm­ing, her pas­sion for em­ploy­ment cre­ation and em­pow­er­ment, her cre­ativ­ity and her stud­ies in the field of de­vel­op­ment eco­nomics. Fun­da­men­tally, all her choices have been gov­erned by one thing: to drive so­cial change.

In fact, Vuyo’s CV and life ex­pe­ri­ence would be enough for a cou­ple of women, or a cou­ple of life­times. She’s on the In­ter­na­tional Women’s Fo­rum board of di­rec­tors, is pres­i­dent of the African Farm­ers’ As­so­ci­a­tion of South Africa, and she’s serv­ing a sec­ond term as a na­tional plan­ning com­mis­sioner in the Pres­i­dency. She’s served on sev­eral boards, com­mit­tees and strate­gic think tanks, from the 25-year Gaut­eng Trans­port Strat­egy to the SA Post Of­fice, and has been in­volved in me­dia, fi­nance, busi­ness and so­cial en­trepreneur­ship. Oh, and did we men­tion the awards? There are lots.

A youth­ful-look­ing and glam­orous 50, Vuyo has such a full plate and

‘My brain seeks so­lu­tions; it doesn’t see just one thing, but draws from all as­pects of life.’

wide range of in­ter­ests that you won­der how she man­ages them all. She sees her life as di­vided into three parts. ‘There’s me as the mother, wife and daugh­ter, and that’s my cen­tre. Around that, there are a lot of in­no­va­tions, but they’re ba­si­cally in two ar­eas: the policy ac­tivism work and the en­tre­pre­neur­ial side.

‘It’s all part of the same thing; there’s a thread. My hus­band says so­cial change is at the heart of it – I’m ob­sessed with so­cial change. My brain seeks so­lu­tions; it doesn’t see just one thing, but draws from all as­pects of life.’ And this isn’t an in­di­ca­tion of a per­son who is all over the place, she points out. ‘There are cer­tain in­ner “yous” that present them­selves at dif­fer­ent times. It’s a mat­ter of be­ing attuned to that; you’ve got to know your­self. Peo­ple of­ten say you should fo­cus on one thing. I tried that once. I de­cided to do just one thing: busi­ness. I stopped my re­search and re­signed from the boards. But I got so de­pressed! Then I re­alised: my brain can han­dle the di­ver­sity of life, so why am I mak­ing my­self mis­er­able?’ Like many suc­cess­ful women, this mom of two cites her mother as a pro­found in­flu­ence. ‘She was a strong woman who was in­volved in women’s is­sues. She still is, at 85 – she’s fight­ing for pen­sion money for women. In those days, a black mar­ried woman couldn’t get a per­ma­nent teach­ing post, so she worked in farm schools, teach­ing the kids of farm labour­ers.’ Her mother was also in­ter­ested in farm­ing, in tra­di­tional and com­mer­cial meth­ods, and urged Vuyo to ed­u­cate her­self to help the lo­cal peo­ple with farm­ing.

Her late mother-in-law was also a big in­flu­ence, says Vuyo. ‘She was a princess of the Bhaca tribe and is a grad­u­ate of the Univer­sity of Fort Hare. She was a very un­usual woman, ex­tremely tra­di­tional yet very open­minded. I feel blessed to have had th­ese peo­ple in my life who are in­tel­lec­tual but at the same time emo­tional.’

Back at the fam­ily home, Vuyo, who grew up with three brothers, re­calls the house al­ways be­ing full of peo­ple.

‘My daugh­ter asked me once why I al­ways cut fish into smaller pieces in­stead of cook­ing full pieces. I re­alised that’s what my mom used to do. I asked her about it and she said she’d cut the fish like that be­cause she was feed­ing 12 peo­ple and cook­ing on a primus stove! I use that anal­ogy when I talk about change – it’s im­por­tant to un­der­stand the con­text of why things are done the way they are.’

This busi­ness­woman says she’s been an ac­tivist for as long as she can re­mem­ber. ‘Every­one was con­sci­en­tised – our neigh­bour­hoods were neigh­bour­hoods of strug­gle; our schools were schools of strug­gle. In 1976 I was in pri­mary school, but I was very aware and con­cerned about what was go­ing on around me.’

She at­tended farm schools be­fore go­ing to a mission school. Vuyo’s first de­gree was in the health sci­ences. She started work­ing with peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties, was drawn into is­sues around the rights of the dis­abled, and even­tu­ally be­came in­volved in the process of draw­ing up the Con­sti­tu­tion.

She was, she says, very af­fected by peo­ple’s strug­gles and suf­fer­ing, and this is what drew her to the ‘car­ing’ side in her ca­reer and pro­fes­sion. But she recog­nised that the prob­lems peo­ple in South Africa faced re­quired a dif­fer­ent ap­proach. ‘When I was do­ing my hon­ours project on is­sues around ur­ban­i­sa­tion, Cross­roads, a town­ship in Cape Town, was burn­ing. Peo­ple would bring blan­kets and clothes, but that wasn’t the so­lu­tion. Wel­fare wasn’t deal­ing with the struc­tural and fun­da­men­tal is­sues. We needed to do more.’

This re­al­i­sa­tion drew her into the field of de­vel­op­ment eco­nomics, which has be­come her life­long pas­sion and in­ter­est. ‘The ques­tion that in­ter­ested me was: how do we de­velop the econ­omy in a way that it helps peo­ple? I de­cided to delve deeper, to in­vest in my­self and my stud­ies, so I en­rolled for a mas­ter’s pro­gramme at the London School of Eco­nomics.’

She went on to ob­tain a PhD from the Univer­sity of

Stel­len­bosch. Her the­sis was on ru­ral com­mer­cial­i­sa­tion and sus­tain­able de­vel­op­ment. Which brings us back to goats! Ivili Loboya means ‘wheel of wool’. The en­ter­prise is con­scious of op­er­at­ing within the so­cioe­co­nomic value chain, and of the im­pact it has on the com­mu­nity. Twen­ty­four per­ma­nent jobs have been cre­ated, as well as sea­sonal jobs and seven weav­ing co-op­er­a­tives, each em­ploy­ing sev­eral peo­ple. More than 300 small farm­ers, many of them women, now have an in­come stream from the goat fi­bre. The com­pany has even de­vel­oped an app to con­nect the farm­ers, weavers and oth­ers in­volved in the process.

Vuyo whips out her phone to show us the app, then ca­su­ally flips through to a sketch she’s made to pass on to the de­sign­ers as an idea for an ad­di­tion to the Dedani line – an el­e­gant cross­over top with echoes of the rib­bons that run along the bot­tom of a tra­di­tional Xhosa skirt. And while her phone is out, she plays a cou­ple of songs she’s writ­ten. There are po­ems, too – she’s writ­ten one for each de­sign in the col­lec­tion. One can’t help but won­der if there’s any­thing this woman can’t do. ‘Ex­er­cise!’ she says with a laugh. ‘I’m ter­ri­ble with ex­er­cise and that stresses me.’ To cope with her busy days and ac­tive mind, she sleeps at least eight hours a day, 10 if she can man­age it.

‘I’m ca­pa­ble of switch­ing off,’ she says. ‘I have a vil­lage home in Mount Frere, in the East­ern Cape, where my hus­band’s fam­ily is from. Be­ing there and also do­ing the hard work of clean­ing and so on re­ally re­laxes me. I’m nur­tured by be­ing in na­ture – I love for­est walks and game drives – and by be­ing with the peo­ple I love.’

De­spite her im­pres­sive his­tory and achieve­ments, she says she doesn’t think of her­self as par­tic­u­larly spe­cial. ‘I’m a legacy-ori­ented per­son. As a child, I’d grow lit­tle avo­cado trees from the pips, know­ing those trees would be some­thing in the fu­ture. I’ve al­ways thought of what I can do be­yond the present.’

‘I’m nur­tured by be­ing in na­ture – I love for­est walks and game drives – and by be­ing with the peo­ple I love.’

THIS PIC AND

BE­LOW: Vuyo’s com­pany Ivili Loboya pro­duces beau­ti­ful hand­wo­ven tex­tiles.

Vuyo at the African Fi­nan­cial Group, of which she is deputy chair­per­son.

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