DON’T have to lead like a man. I’ve learnt that mariners will respect someone who knows their job irrespective of gender or race.”
These are the words of Durban’s newly appointed acting port manager, Nokuzola Nkowane.
She believes her 17 years of career experience have given her a sound knowledge of port operations as well as property, facilities, customer relations management and strategy implementation, equipping her well for her complex role.
Adding to her comments that it is not about leading like a man, she says: “When I realised that, I stopped worrying about being a black woman. I decided to be excellent and effective at my job.
“I don’t focus on the other noise. If you do not know your work, it’s easy to want to use gender or race as a scapegoat. I am confident of my capabilities, supported by my team, and failure is not an option,” she said.
She has participated in a number of strategic initiatives including planning and port precinct reconfiguration (land use), terminal compliance issues, regulatory issues and special projects.
But it is her love for ports, her warm approach and her unique sense of humour that will inject a great deal of life into one of
Africa’s oldest and busiest harbours. Amazingly enough, though, she says she landed in the maritime industry by accident.
Nkowane grew up in a number of places – including Lady Frere, Ezibeleni in Queenstown and Zwelitsha in King William’s Town – and always wanted to be an advocate.
She had been raised by a single mother and wanted to beat her lawyer father “at his own game”.
But, as she says, life happened and her university studies took her in a completely different direction.
She started out in property, working for Intersite and Old Mutual Properties in Cape Town before joining TNPA in 2004 as a property manager in the Port of Cape Town.
She then moved to Richards
Bay and later Durban, where she successfully managed their real estate and facilities management portfolios.
Moving into the maritime was a culture shock, she admits. “The principles were the same as for property, but the environment was completely different. I had to understand not only the operations but also the terminology.
“In our space, you can be a financial or a property manager, but you also have to understand the context and your environment to make sense of what you are working with technically.”
She changed course in 2012, moving into port operations, first as the senior operations manager for the Maydon Wharf Precinct and Joint Operations in Durban and then as executive: operations, development, performance and monitoring at TNPA’S Johannesburg head office.
She was both surprised and delighted when TNPA approached her to act as Durban port manager and fill the shoes of Moshe Motlohi who had been appointed the acting chief operations officer.
Because of her previous positions in Durban, she knows most of the key stakeholders and is reconnecting with them.
But, as a single mother to 9-yearold son, Ikenna (which means God’s strength), the move to Durban has not been easy. Like any mother balancing work and parenting, she has had to put strong support structures in place and, so as not to disrupt his schooling, she opted to leave him in Johannesburg.
She believes the work environment needs to accommodate women and is understanding when managers have to leave early to pick up children or come in late because of a problem at home.
“I always say that for me to be respected or heard, I don’t have to raise my voice. I embrace my femininity in all things. I will wear my pink dress, my long nails and my red lipstick. It doesn’t make me less of a leader.
“If I want to wear a suit, it is not because I want to fit in with men.
If I want to wear a frilly dress, I will wear it with pride. It doesn’t take anything away from what’s in my mind,” she says.
Another strength that she believes women bring to a largely male-dominated commercial environment is building good relationships.
“Foremost, it’s about the customers and our employees. If we get that right, we will have a strong foundation. When I wake up in the morning, I remind myself that I am going to work to serve my team, my employees and our customers.
“If the service we offer is not up to scratch, we are going to lose business and it’s going to have an impact on those who are dependent on the companies that will also suffer as a result.
“It is about ensuring that there is a high level of respect – that we respect the businesses that are our customers and that they respect the mandate that we have to discharge our responsibilities,” she says.
Closely aligned with building sound relationships is another TNPA priority, transformation.
“There’s no two ways about it – we need to transform. In the port system, there are so many areas where transformation is needed and as an organisation we have started that journey.
“It is important that you take the people through the process and make them understand why. And when you have done that, you can really continue. It is not about being a bully,” she says.
Nkowane admits that she is taking the helm at an exciting time for the port of Durban.
TNPA chief executive Shulami Qalinge is spearheading the World Class Port Authority 2020 vision and Nkowane is excited to take the lead in ensuring that Durban is a world class port within the next two years.
She believes technology will play an important role.
“We need to embrace technology and the digital era in our operations. But when you push technology, there is always a concern about the impact that it will have on employment.”
For her, technology is not an obstacle, but an opportunity to improve people’s skills, empowering them with more relevant skills.
Technology is also key to improving Durban’s service offering and boosting operational efficiencies.
Another contributor will be Durban’s new cruise liner terminal, which she sees as a game changer not only for the port itself but also for the broader tourism industry. It will also address youth unemployment, which is very close to her heart.
“We need to make sure that, in terms of our infrastructure, we have the draft that is needed, that we have the length in terms of our quays and that our terminal operators have the right infrastructure and equipment.
“It also talks to our own skills to be able to manoeuvre these ships as they come in and we need to ensure that our road infrastructure beyond the port is capable of handling all this traffic, “she says.
Improving an old port like Durban will take innovation, she concedes.
“Improving efficiencies is one of the things I’ll be focusing on this year. We need to make sure our terminals are productive. Our currency in the port of Durban should be the efficiency of our terminals.”
Durban’s newly appointed acting port manager, Nokuzola Nkowane ‘harbours’ aspirations for a technologically advanced port service.