Woman On Top – Trudy Makhanya
As the President’s economic advisor, TRUDI MAKHAYA is entrusted with raising billions in investments over the next five years. We learnt she isn’t just a number cruncher but is a creative at heart
Trudi Makhaya dominated headlines in April this year with her appointment as President Cyril Ramaphosa’s economic advisor. Naturally, many took to Google to find out more about the woman spearheading the country’s economic changes. Makhaya’s role comes with the colossal responsibility of generating $100 billion (over R1,4 trillion) in new investments, a task that does not seem to faze the Hammanskraal-born economist.
On how it felt to receive a call from the President presenting her with possibly one of the biggest (and most stressful) roles in his office, an unconcerned Makhaya says she still has no clue what criteria was used in identifying her as the best person for the job. Prior to this appointment, Makhaya had never worked in politics before, making her appointment a refreshing one. “When I got the phone call, I was excited and ready to take on the job. But during my first week in the job, I realised the mere thought of my responsibilities was actually overwhelming. I had to think long and hard about how I was going to tackle this role,” she explains.
Makhaya admits the past few months haven’t been as daunting as she had anticipated, thanks to a few women who have previously held similar roles. She says her first instinct was to reach out to these women but some took initiative and made contact with her — something that was a pleasant surprise. “Their counsel is coming in quite handy especially because they taught me how to think strategically in this role. The support
has been amazing, to say the least,” she says.
US television series like West Wing and Scandal often present working in the Presidency as a thrilling experience riddled with twists, turns and the most sleep-discouraging pressure. But this depiction couldn’t be further from the truth, according to Makhaya’s anecdotes. “We sit in a lot of engagement meetings especially for our new investment drive. I’ve been in this position for five months and I’ve already had over 50 engagements with both local and international investors,” she says.
Makhaya attributes her passion and views on wealth and the economy on her modest upbringing in Leboneng, Hammanskraal, an experience she describes as “growing up in the bubble of a close knit community”. During the ‘80s, her hometown was a homeland under Bophuthatswana. “There was an industrial area nearby where most members of the community worked. People were creating wealth and were good role models. The community was building its own schools and clinics. It was here where I saw the importance of creating a sustainable hub in a community,” Makhaya says.
An only child, Makhaya was raised by her grandmother and mother. Her mother was a respected teacher in their community, who often spread the education gospel. “My mother went back to varsity when I was in primary school, an experience and lesson that’s stood me in good stead throughout my career. She paused her education at the University of Zululand in the ‘80s due to violent protests but she persevered and graduated nonetheless,” Makhaya recalls.
As an ardent debater in school, she assumed she’d end up in law, yet studied a BCom in Law and Economics instead. Her then newly discovered passion for economics led her to study towards a Masters degree at the University of the Witwatersrand. She then received a Rhodes Scholarship and completed an MBA and MSc in Development Economics from Oxford University. “Oxford was an eye-opener and somewhat of a challenge for me. It was an enriching experience, one that changed my sense of being in the world. It also helped me see South Africa in a different light,” she says.
BUILDING A NAME
When it comes to her career history, Makhaya says her mother’s own choices influenced her to never be afraid of putting her life on hold while pursuing her dreams. She admits to being fairly experimental when it comes to her past job choices and taking a different path as and when the need arises. For instance, would you ever have thought she is a fiction author with work published in New Contrast and the Sol Plaatje European Union Poetry Anthology Vol IV?
Upon her return from Oxford University, Makhaya kickstarted her career at AngloGold Ashanti. “Because I needed to gain experience before my MBA, I worked in a project management role in the mining and mineral resources sector. It was a very difficult and hostile environment to exist in, especially as a junior. But despite all that, I still went in and used every opportunity effectively,” she recalls.
She then went on to work as an economics consultant at Genesis Analytics, followed by a tenure as a management consultant at Deloitte. Thereafter, Makhaya joined the Competition Commission as a key figure from 2010 to 2014, an experience she describes as refreshing. “It was a new government institutional structure run by young people — and that was invigorating. There were no legacy, nor racial issues. It was a fun place to work in and we were fairly successful compared to other competition agencies around the world,” she says.
But, entrepreneurship beckoned in 2015, leading Makhaya to leave the Competition Commission to set up her own startup, Makhaya Advisory. For now, she’s given herself a sabbatical from the business to give her Presidential advisory role the attention it deserves. “I’d always dreamt of having a strong service offering rooted in economics to help organisations and businesses align with economic policy. Fortunately, I had partners in the business and hadn’t hired any employees which made it easier to mothball my business and hand over,” she explains. Among some of the other many responsibilities she had to relinquish were her Business Day column as well as her non-executive directorship at MTN South Africa. She still sits on the board of Vumelana Advisory, a company that works in land reform. “They help communities get their land back, pair them with operational partners and find sustainable ways of using the land wisely. We won’t be another Zimbabwe because this model’s about finding the perfect partnerships,” she explains, sounding like she has found another passion project in land reform. She continues, “I think we have what it takes to make land reform a success. We just need good governance and good support structures. We also need to get it into people’s heads that black people can farm, and they can run successful farms,” she concludes.