A conversation with Konehali Gugushe – Chief Financial Officer, Land Bank
LM: Tell us a bit about your upbringing and your early school years?
KG: I was born at Zanempilo Clinic, Zinyoka Village, just outside of King Williams Town, and grew up in Zwelitsha, Zone 10 (New Deal). My parents were very active in the struggle against apartheid, which led to my father being killed in 1976 when I was 7 months old. I grew up with my sister and many cousins that would come and live at our house at different times. Later, after my mother remarried and after many years of being “the last born” my brother joined us and dethroned me! 🙂
I did my primary schooling at Nozizwe Lower Primary School and Zwelitsha Higher Primary School, after which I moved on to Thubalethu High School in Fort Beaufort for std 6 – 8 and finished off at All Saints Senior College in Bisho for Std 9 and Matric.
I started school early, at the age of 4, and being born in December, I was mostly the youngest in many of my classes, although there may have been one or two other children like me. I also have a very close relationship with my sister, and we therefore keep the same friends. As a result, I was always punching above my weight in social circles and otherwise.
LM: who were your heroes and biggest influencers in your early years?
KG: My mother was a very key influence in my life, and really when I think of people I have looked up to and who have shaped my life, she always immediately comes first to my mind.
Secondly would be my late father, whom I grew up with out. One of the interesting things about this though is that even though he was not physically there, that is where the absence ended. We kept a very active memory of him, between family and the community and as a result he was always a key figure in my life, and certainly a source of inspiration, influence and a hero. The memory of my father remains a guiding compass on many matters for my family, and for me personally.
Beyond this would probably be the strong matriarchs in our family, both my grandmothers who although they were very different in their personalities, were very influential women both within their families and their communities. My maternal grandmother was a very modern, independent, and very strong woman, who not only loved fashion and travel, but was also a key example of women breaking stereo types and norms. My paternal grandmother was a very warm, strongly family oriented and community active person. Her home was a vibrant and bustling household with a lot of homemade delicacies, remedies, and family togetherness. Although she lived in a rural area (Jozana’s Hoek, Sterkspruit), the place had very fertile soil which made it rich in produce and livestock, although now it is a shadow of its former self owing to persistent drought over many years. She was a very industrious woman who often made more than enough food to feed the family and provide for people within the community.
LM: You have often spoken about the role your mother played in raising you and your siblings- what made her role eexceptional?
KG: My mother has been the single biggest influence and shaper of my life. I have marveled how she has navigated what was a very challenging and difficult life, creating a safe and loving environment for me and my family.
When my father died, my mother was 25 years old, with two young daughters to raise. She was often arrested, banned and could not practice her profession of teaching owing to political sanction. Our family was often harassed by the security police, and when that stopped, she had to navigate the life of raising us in a fulfilling way, despite the constraints that were put on her by the government of the day.
Some of the lessons I learnt very early on from her was not to wallow in self pity, and to always stand on your own two feet. On reflection I would say my mother is actually a very proud person, and she never wanted to see us suffer pity from anyone, or get by through favours. She would always say that the way she raises us ensures that we never owe anyone for our life or our successes. My mother had a way of finding solutions even in the most trying of circumstances. She highly values her independence, and never wants to be beholden to anyone.
I remember a simple incident that left a lasting impression on me. When I started Higher Primary School, the uniform I was going to wear included a tie. My mom did not know how to make a tie and so I had to go to the next door neighbor to get him to make my tie for the week. In the second week my mother told me that I would have to stop going there to get my tied made and I should ask the neighbor to teach me how to do it myself. She the further went on to buy me one of those ready made clip on ties to use an alternate and to free me from this dependency on the neighbor. I remember that all the time when I find myself developing a dependency of anything and anyone, and always have to find a way to emancipate myself. This has stood me well in my adult life and particularly in my career.
Having been banned from practicing as a teacher, my mother eventually found work in the NGO sector, helping communities with self advancement. She spent most of her career working for the TCOE (Trust For Community Outreach and Education), which was running various programmes for youth education, women training and development, community social cohesion, etc. I found a lot of inspiration in this selfless work. It really gave me a great appreciation of what can be achieved if the right resources are channeled to help people advance themselves and not depend on the state. With the apartheid government not providing any worthwhile services for black people, this was extremely important work.
LM: What memories did you have of your high school years, and your matric year?
KG: High school was a coming of age time for me, and where my personality probably developed a lot. I could separate the time into the two schools that I went to, between Thubalethu High School in 1987 – 1989, and All Saints Senior College in 1990 – 1991.
Thubalethu was the first boarding school I went to in Std 6 when I was 11 years old. Here I learnt my own version of independence, the ability to develop and hold my own in friendships and battles, to resist peer pressure and be aware of what I allow in my own life. Here I learnt how to set boundaries, how to make decisions, and how to find my space within a community.
By the time I got to All Saints I was quite a feisty, free spirited, and possibly very loud young lady. I had an appetite for fun, had lots of opinions, and was going through a bit of a rebellious stage (much to my mother’s dismay). One of the differentiators about All Saints from other schools was the level of self determination that was given to us. We had no uniform and went to class in civvies, which in the nineties made for very interesting fashion for those of us who fancied ourselves as Rap / Hip Hop fans.
My maternal grandmother was the Matron at the girls residence there, and so I had to walk this tight balance of “being cool” with my peers and being an exemplary granddaughter worthy of my grandmother’s pride. I spent many a night at her house explaining my behavior in one form or another, although some of these times would be to get much needed food in the middle of the night when teenage hunger pangs would not relent.
All Saints was an environment that encouraged young people to voice their opinions, preferences and feel like they are part of important decision making. It was also a much more diverse community than I was used to and so one had to again find a way of establishing their place within this. This was very important to me because it reinforced the knowledge that I am important and my opinions matter. Infact one of the key things I gained at this institution is a sense of self – importance that is deeply rooted and driven from inside. All Saints gave me a lot of time and opportunity to reflect on who I wanted to be.
LM: What studies did you pursue at university, what attracted you to that field of study?
KG: I studied a B.Com and Post Graduate Diploma in Accounting (PGDA) and ultimately trained and qualified as a Chartered Accountant.
I actually accidentally came into accounting because when I was in high school I had always thought I was destined for a career in the sciences as this was the dominant view at home. When I got to matric, between a combination of rebellious teenage spirit, and a strict science teacher, I decided that science was not for me and therefore I decided that I should pursue a career in commerce. This turned to be a very wise decision because I enjoyed what I was doing and was inspired enough to pursue and attain the CA (SA) qualification.
LM: You qualified as a Chartered Accountant and then worked for a variety of companies, what were the most difficult moments as a young black woman accountant?
KG: After I qualified as a Chartered Accountant, there were a lot of people who wanted to push me to different career streams, but I guess the most revered one at the time was going into Corporate Finance Advisory, or Structured Finance. However, from what I had heard about the career stream it really did not seem like the kind of work I wanted to pursue. And so I decided not to. I had to do a lot of self reflection to determine what I thought was right for myself, and pursue that despite nay sayers and those who thought I was wasting good opportunities and a good qualification. I have had to deal with this with my every career move, as my moves have not been mostly conventional. So a lot of it has been to deal with self doubt when I had made certain decisions and having to come with my own solution and space of contentment.
LM: You’ve had to be assertive from a very young age, how has this helped you in the corporate environment?
KG: When I started my career as a Credit Manager at SCMB (now Standard Bank CIB), I had a portfolio of top JSE listed and Multinational Companies. Part of my duties was to assess these companies for their financial needs and the viability of some of the project that they needed financing for. Often times this included going to interview top ranking CEOs and CFOs, which at times I found very intimidating. At times the attitudes of these people would be dismissive of this young black girl who was interrogating them about their businesses, which they were all to happy to discuss with the seasoned banker rather than me. And so I had to assert my right to be there, to do what I was doing, and to be taken seriously by them. I had to dig deep into my times as the youngest member of my class (or any other social circles), the training that I had while doing articles to train as a CA(SA), and I found that actually I was mostly able to hold my own and get exactly what I wanted from a discussion. I was also not shy to escalate matters that I deemed unacceptable to ensure that I ultimately got to secure the necessary information that I required to be able to make the appropriate decision.
I have had to be consciously courageous despite the feelings of fear or intimidation.
LM: We met professionally at Standardbank, what attracted you to be on the credit risk side of a bank?
KG: In my assessment credit risk is the heart of the bank, and I was attracted by the fact that it makes one very central to anything that is happening in the bank. No transaction goes ahead without going through credit in one form or another, and so it was a great way to get exposure to various industries, products and activities of the bank.
I thoroughly enjoyed my time there and it set the foundation for a lot of the work I do till today.
LM: You surprised many observers by taking up a position as Divisional Executive: Corporate Social Responsibility at Nedbank with responsibility for managing the Nedbank Foundation, which is the primary corporate social investment arm of the Nedbank Group. Why this change from hard core business to be in corporate social responsibility?
KG: I had always thought that when I was older and I had made my money I would start a foundation that would help South Africa’s less fortunate. However, when I started having children, faced with a South Africa that has such a growing level of poverty and inequality, I could no longer suppress this need to help create a better future for all South Africans. Going back to my upbringing, having had my father die in the quest of shaping a better South Africa, and watching my mother actively help many people and communities advance themselves, I had been having these conversations with myself, challenging myself that there should be something active that I can do, during my most productive years, to shape a different and better future for the country that I was raising my children in. I was asking myself what was I going to say to my children I did to shape a better future, and for me the most pressing needs remain to be the Alleviation of Poverty and Reduction of Inequality in our society.
At Nedbank I was fortunate to find a place that allowed me to fulfil this purpose and do it in a meaningful way.
This was again another time where I had to deal with a lot of naysayers about the career choice, but it remains the most fulfilling choice I have ever made.
I remain extremely passionate about community development and the desire to shape a better future for our country.
LM: How did you ensure that the bank contributes significantly to community development programmes that are both empowering and sustainable?
KG: The key step was to make sure that we select the focus areas of our projects carefully to cover the spectrum of both need and strategic importance. And so the bank was focused on four main core focus areas, namely; education, community development (incl. health), economic development, staff and client volunteerism, an important value-add to CSI projects targeted by the foundation.
Our main aim was to be a catalyst for upliftment in our communities with a major emphasis being placed on sustainability. And so we had to carefully assess all potential projects to ensure that they have a meaningful and long-lasting impact, before committing to them.
We also spent quite a bit of time and money on impact assessments for our projects, conducted community engagement sessions and dialogues, etc, to ensure that we were responding to the right challenges, were engaged with the right partners and were achieving the right results.
Another important strategy was to make the work of the Nedbank Foundation an integral part of business, embedding it within the hearts of banking teams and operations to ensure that there is collective ownership and benefit for the bank and the communities.
LM: What awards have you received in your career, what did they mean to you?
KG: Recognition for good performance at work is always great, and so I have welcomed some of the Top Achiever awards that I have received, particularly at Nedbank, which is one of the companies that has a great recognition system for its people.
I was particularly humbled to receive the CEO Award at Nedbank in 2014 in recognition of the work I did at the Nedbank Foundation. What was particularly meaningful for me about this award was that it was given for work that was done in an area that was not part of the core business of the bank, but (I think partly because of my efforts) was considered to be strategically important enough for the bank. It was affirmation for me not only about my career choice, but also about the amount of hard work I had put into making sure that the Nedbank Foundation was recognized both internally and externally.
During my time at the Nedbank Foundation we received a number of external awards for our CSI programmes, including the Africa’s Socially Responsible Bank of the Year Award from African Banker in both 2013 and 2014. In the Trialogue NPO Survey of corporates who have the most developmental impact, Nedbank was ranked joint 1st with Anglo American in 2012 and 2nd in 2013. These were proud moments for me because it was recognition for my leadership and the work that me and my team were doing and really solidified the identity of Nedbank as a caring bank.
In 2014 I was also awarded the Emerging Old Rhodian Award, which is an award that is given to people who “through their individual actions and achievements have enhanced the reputation of the University. The Award is specifically intended to acknowledge alumni as role models”. This was a very special recognition for me because Rhodes as my Alma Mater holds such a special place in my heart.
LM: You have been closely involved with the African Women Chartered Accountants Forum, tell us more about it, it’s role and why are you so passionate about it?
KG: AWCA is an organization whose vision is to “Accelerate the development of Black Female Chartered Accountants”. The organization has a 3 tier strategy of Identify, Nurture and Lead.
Identify and develop young girls who aspire to be CA(SA)s for entry into universities to pursue a degree that will allow for them to enter into the profession
Nurture and train black women who are completing their articles as well as newly qualified black women CA(SA)s
Leadership development for black women CA(SA)s to groom them to hold key decision making positions in Corporate SA and the Public Sector.
When I qualified as a CA(SA) in 2001 there were less than 100 black (African) female CAs in the country. AWCA has been instrumental in promoting the transformation that has taken place in this sector, through active programmes and supporting structures. Today there are more than 3000 black African female CA, and more than 6000 ACI (approx. 14% of total CAs). Our programmes work with both aspiring, training and qualified CAs, creating much needed awareness, support and development.
I am very passionate about the work that AWCA does because it shows what we can achieve when we are deliberate about the interventions we do, and ofcourse helps women take their rightful place in leading this country forward.
LM: What attracted you to join the Land Bank?
KG: When I joined the Landbank in 2015, I was looking for an opportunity to combine my core banking skills and community development passion. As a development finance institution, the Landbank is aimed at providing support and advancement in the agricultural sector. The agricultural sector in South Africa is one that is strategically important in the country, but also inextricably linked to our painful past, particularly the pattern of agricultural land ownership. Joining the Landbank was an opportunity for me to contribute towards reshaping this sector to be more accessible and reflective of our real South Africa.
LM: What is the role and scope of operations of the Land Bank, What is its primary mandate?
KG: The mandate of the Landbank is to serve South African commercial and emerging agriculture by bringing specially designed financial services within the reach of farmers across the nation. These services enable farmers to finance land, equipment, improve assets and obtain production credit.
LM: You assumed the role of a Chief Risk Officer, for the Landbank, What does this role entail?
KG: The Chief Risk Officer is one of the most important roles for any financial services institution. In a nutshell the CRO leads and proactively drives the risk management function of a banking institution, including identifying, mitigating and managing all risks for the Bank. The types of risks the Landbank is exposed to is wide, however, as a lending institution, its biggest risk is credit risk, which happens to be an area where I have a lot of expertise in. At the Landbank, as the CRO I was responsible for the enterprise wide risk management (ERM) which includes credit risk, liquidity risk, operational risk, and other strategic risks. The function also looks after the bank’s compliance, governance and ethics.
LM: Congratulations on your recent promotion to the role of Acting Chief Financial Officer, What does this signify I’m your career?
KG: This is what I like to call a reassignment of duties. It is important for me because it demonstrates the confidence that the board of the Landbank has in me and my capabilities and leadership. One of the key features of my career is that I have been exposed to different functions, and environments, which has given me a very strong business acumen and understanding of both financial and developmental drivers. So being requested to become Acting CFO for the Landbank was an affirmation and recognition of the value that I add to the bank.
LM: How is the Land Bank able to run well while so many public sector type organizations are facing financial difficulties?
KG: At the Landbank we approach our business with utmost level of professionalism, diligence and due care. Given some of the controversial history of the Lanbank, as the current management team we recognize that we trade with trust, and therefore it is important to us that we foster a certain level of transparency and communication with our key stakeholders for us to maintain this trust. Over the years the bank has invested a lot of time and effort into making sure that we have sound governance practices, policies and internal controls. Financial sustainability is of utmost importance as it preserves the integrity of the business and enables us to deliver on our mandate, particularly the development of emerging farmers and promoting inclusivity in the agricultural sector.
LM: Should companies like Landbank be measured on Social impact or financial profitability or both ?
KG: I think they should be measured on both, but rather than financial profitability, the emphasis should be financial sustainability. What I mean by that is that the emphasis should not be on maximizing profits, as this may result in social impact being compromised. Financial sustainability preserves the integrity of the business and allows it to pursue the achievement of its mandate.
On social impact, it is important that for development finance institutions, the desire social impact should be defined, and measured. It must also be recognized that social impact usually requires enablement, and therefore it is important that develop finance institutions get the right enablement to allow them to achieve their mandates.
LM: There have been some major scandals involving companies such as VBS, Steinhoff and Eskom where there are “ accounting irregularities “. What is the role of a CFO in creating a trusted and ethical source of information for investors, shareholders and stakeholders?
KG: Going back to a point I made earlier, as businesses we need to recognize that we trade on trust. And therefore is it of utmost importance that the work we do, the way we conduct our businesses and the way we engage with stakeholders reinforces this trust. As a CFO you are the custodian of the financial information produced by the company, and this information is used by various stakeholders to make decisions relating to your company. The integrity of that information is therefore of greatest importance, to ensure that stakeholders are truthfully and completely informed, and to enable appropriate decision making. It therefore goes without saying that the CFO has to be a person of integrity, capability and competence.
LM: How can our corporate governance and the role of auditors in restoring our trust in the results of companies ?
KG: The auditing profession has suffered a big credibility crisis of its own, and so I think there is a need to reflect and restore the profession itself. This will require that we go back to the basics and make sure that the principles Integrity, Independence, Due Care, etc are made to come alive again. SAICA has to be central to this effort as a professional body, and we really need to see people being held accountable for their actions. Unfortunately this is not a local issue only, it is a global issue, and so the world over we need to reconsider what practices have been normalized that actually should not be, and what we need to do to go back to a more ethical way of conduct.
LM: How important is the land question for economic growth and social stability in South Africa?
KG: Land on its own does not become that important, but rather what is done with the land is what will affect the economic growth and social stability of this country. Because of our history of dispossession and discrimination (the original sin), which created economic advantage for the minority in this country, the pattern of land ownership has been tied to economic accomplishment. And so land ownership becomes inextricably tied to the country’s ability to maintain social cohesion. The productive use of land contributes to economic growth, results in job growth and enables self sufficiency for the country. As we debate and come up with ways of responding to the land question, it will be important that this be kept in mind. We have seen how in the past the redistribution of land has not always resulted in continued productivity of the land, and this has resulted in no real benefit for the country.
LM: How big is the Land Bank’s exposure to commercial farming in South Africa?
KG: The total agricultural debt in the country was estimated at around R165 billion in 2018, and if we use this as a proxy it would put the Land Bank at about a 30% market share of this sector, which includes both commercial and development agricultural operations.
LM: Is the Land Bank at the heart of the policy discussions on land taking place at the moment?
KG: Yes as the Land Bank we have made submissions to the Constitutional Review Committee on Land Expropriation on the current policy discussions, and we continue to engage actively with various stakeholders discussing this matter.
LM: If you were to advise the President, what would be the key priorities you would recommend for dealing with poverty, unemployment and under development?
KG: High on my list would be the improvement of the quality of education in the country. We continue to suffer poor education outcomes at all levels with the ultimate indictment being handed by the high level of unemployed youth and unemployed graduates. It seems our education system is not preparing the majority of our people appropriately to attain economic emancipation once they exit the system.
Secondly would be to continue with the efforts of cleaning up corruption, because corruption robs the country of the development outcomes envisaged when certain allocations of money are made. If we could come to a culture of prioritizing service delivery, we would see the desired effects of the money that is currently being spent. When I talk about cleaning up corruption I am referring to both the public and private sector.
Lastly would be to improve the inter departmental planning within government, so that you do not have one department coming up with policies or practices that undermine the achievement of the objectives of another. This would go for things like trade deals, policies, budget priorities, etc.
LM: Tell us a bit about Nkosi and your family?
KG: My husband Nkosi and our children are the absolute centre of my life. I met Nkosi at a tender age of 17, and we have now been married for 16 years (still so absolutely inlove with him!), and have three children. They bring untold joy and meaning to my life and I am grateful for God’s grace over our lives.
LM: What values do you instill in your children?
KG: I teach my children to CHILL, which means to have Courage, to find Happiness in everything they do, to live with Integrity, to Love, and to always seek the Lord
LM: How do you manage to keep the balance in your marriage, family, work and your community work?
KG: Many years ago Gloria Tomato Serobe said something that has stayed with me and has guided me. She said “there is no work life balance, there is a juggle”. And so you have to take all of these balls and juggle them and ensure that you do not drop any. As in any juggle, while you may have one or two balls in your hand at the same time, you will also have a few balls in the air. The important this is that you do not take your eyes off the balls in the air, while you are paying attention to the balls in your hands. As with the nature of juggling, you don’t keep the balls in the air there for too long, you need to keep switching your attention and focus and make sure that you touch each ball at the appropriate interval. And that is exactly what I do. There may be times where I need to pay closer attention to my marriage and family, but while doing that I must make sure that I don’t lose sight of what is happening at the work front and must be able to respond timeously to a need to change focus.
This has helped bring perspective in my life and as a result I am able to actively bring myself to any environment whether it is at home, at work, or in my many community involvements. Even though I am a busy executive, I am actively involved in my children’s lives and activities (be it concerts, sports courtside, hospital chair, bedside etc); I am actively involved at their school (I am a member of the board at the school and am the Chairperson of the Social Cohesion Committee); I am actively involved at church (I serve as a Sunday School Teacher); I serve in various community structures; and of course actively involved with Mr Gugushe (if you know what I mean).
And in all of this I still find time to look in the mirror and tell the woman that I see there that I absolutely adore her and am so glad to be doing life with her.
LM: What do you do for relaxation?
KG: I keep quite an active connection with my friends as I feel these personal connections help to keep one sane and grounded. So I spend a fair amount of time with friends just catching up on latest developments in each of our lives.
I also quite enjoy solitary activities like doing jigsaw puzzles / playing online games. I have a number of puzzles hanging at my home which I have made over the years, with the largest one being a 2500 piece which took me 4 months to make. Even though I no longer have that amount of time to dedicate to these activities, I am enjoying doing this with my children every now and then.
Finally I find contentment in spending a bit of time as a couch potato, immersing myself onto my favorite TV series and escaping into a fictional world where no decision is mine of has any consequence!
LM: What advice can you give a young person joining the accounting profession?
KG: Nothing replaces the value of hard work, so as a young professional you must strive to conduct yourself with integrity, diligence and dedication. Choose what you love, because self motivation only comes when there is an internal fire to drive you.
LM: Thank you so much sharing such an inspirational story, I am sure that our young leaders, across the African continent will benefit from your experiences.
KG: Thank you for the honour, I am humbled.