A conversation with Mfundo Nkuhlu -Chief Operating Officer, Nedbank Group


LM: Thank you Njeya for this opportunity to have this conversation, I’m sure my readers will gain a lot of insights from your rich and wide experience.

MN:    Thanks Lawu for the conversation. Hopefully it provides some context and framework for discussion, rather than to settle the issues. In the very nature of conversation, there never quite is an end-state.

Sure, I have been most fortunate that big breaks have come through at crucial stages in my life. That allowed me to have enriching experiences in both the public and private sector and accelerated growth in my own development.


LM: We all grew up in Port Elizabeth in the 1980’s, tell us more about your family, your upbringing and the values you inherited from your departed parents.

MN:  Not to say we were born in the 1980’s, Lawu. Sure, those turbulent times were formative years in many ways. As you well know I grew up in an all-boys squad of seven brothers. So, everywhere I have turned there has always been a brother or two round the bend, some noisier than others. It was a lovely and loving upbringing, closely knit family. For all the worldly things we didn’t have, we always had one another. And still do.

Remarkably, in all their busy working lives, our parents, always had time for us. We were brought up to cherish education both for its inherent virtue in one’s development and as a ticket out of a life of poverty.  Looking back, I don’t know how they made ends meet, but they never seemed to complain much, other than the odd occasion when they let it slip how their own dreams were thwarted and frustrated by an oppressive political system designed to banish black people to subservience.

We were taught to be authentic, that the very best each could ever be would be oneself, not a clone of another and to always place substance over form.  We were also raised to be independent, each to stand on their own feet and make a contribution to society on own terms.  They sure also taught us to be resilient, to understand in the ebbs and flows of life that the family, which was never nuclear for us, remained the most basic form of social organisation. 

LM: Who were your idols, heroes and heroines when you were growing up?

MN:   I was fortunate that both my parents provided the inspiration to model my life around theirs. Not only was theirs a relationship of deep love and profound respect for each other, but they were congruent on key issues that mattered.  They were the driving force in my life, and those of my siblings.

Then there were my uncles.  Uncle Charles, from my maternal side, who was a medical doctor, who inspired me to want to be one.  It was not to be. By the time the letter of admission to medical school arrived, I had found sanctuary at UWC, the “intellectual home for the Left”, following disruptions at Fort Hare.

Uncle Wiseman, the renowned chartered accountant, provided an inspiration of a different kind.  He was the pioneer that helped to build the family name. I understood the magnitude of his accomplishments.  

LM: You were quite involved in student activism up to your university days, how did those experiences shape you?

MN:  There were many who made far more telling contributions. The awakening of political consciousness and the naked brutality of oppression drew an enquiring mind to question the order of things and to seek a contribution in changing the political landscape.

I recall vividly that we arrived at UWC as a group of battle hardened activists from Fort Hare, Turfloop and Bop. The Western Cape as a region had a very different feel to it, the demographic dynamic was different.  The political space was relatively more open, political literature more readily available than whence we came. The ideological pursuits among the forces for national liberation were varied and the intellectual contestation fierce.  We had to learn new forms of struggle, new methods of persuasion. And we had both the opportunity and challenge to put the principle of non-racialism into practice.

It was not plain sailing.  Today, I see some of the challenges of managing diversity, contestation of the national versus the regional demographic dynamic, and remember those early years. Then there was a shift particularly in the education sector, led by the NECC, to build policymaking capacity.  It was a new form of struggle and not the most popular. Often it was in tension with the mass democratic mobilisation.  But these skills and exposure would be sorely needed in the run-up to the 1994 political breakthrough, and the aftermath of setting up a new administration. So, I threw my lot into trade and economic policy, into some of the work streams of the RDP, and eventually that mapped the path into the DTI in 1994. The intensity of learning in action, the abiding sense of a mission to be accomplished and lofty goals to be achieved heralded those heady days.  Boundless energy and enthusiasm often made up for lack of polish and experience.  But we were in play.

LM:  South Africa was woken from its deep slumber by the “Fees Must Fall” protests. What lessons can today students learn from the student movements of the past? What can society also learn from these young people?

MN:  The momentum generated by the “Fees Must Fall” protests came as a surprise.  I had a daughter, nieces and nephews at university at this time. I often engaged with them and found an edgy kind of politics. The racial tension and cultural-ideological assertiveness in their politics surprised me as most had come through either Model C schools or private education. It reflected some form of alienation both institutionally and politically, as well as a determination to reclaim the space.

In the context of competing claims, I considered access to higher education imperative but queried whether it could be free. Just to make the point, there is nothing free. It just means someone else, the taxpayer in this case, is paying for it.  It all culminated in a proclamation that higher education would be free for the poorest category of students. New frontiers of struggle have since opened-up.

Each generation of students has its own challenges and mission to accomplish. The forms of struggle change over time, but there is a thread of continuity that must be sustained to make progress.  Student life is transient at best and student activists will do well to recognise that their struggles are a means to an end, and to link their efforts to the advancement of the society at large.

LM:  We share a unique experience of having played leadership roles in the public and private sectors – what unique perspectives does this give you and does it help you in your interaction with both sides?

MN:  That is a very good question. In my view, our history as a people has created a huge chasm between the public and private sectors, and in part contributes to the perceived trust deficit. It is essential and necessary for the country to overcome this if we are all to pull in the same direction as required.  Sometimes this shows up in a contestation about the role of the state versus the market. Does the state create an enabling environment for growth and development, or does it lead the growth and development process? Or is it a combination of both? Narrowing this gap will help unlock both policy uncertainty and execution capability to deliver faster and effectively than has been the case to date.

Mobility between the public and private spheres should be embraced as a positive thing.  In reality, it is often treated with a measure of scepticism that reinforces the distance. If you think of where the country draws its leadership pool, the public and private sectors seem to be very independent and unrelated domains. Perhaps over time this will narrow.  My sense is that in other societies the two spheres work much closer, and often feed directly into each other, and that enhances the development processes.

LM:  You are the Chief Operating Officer for Nedbank. What does this role entail, and what does a typical day look like in your life?

MN:  The COO position is one of the c-suite roles in our bank and carries responsibility to link the enablement of our Shared Services functions to the requirements of frontline businesses to deliver in a seamless coordinated way to clients. It is also an executive director role with responsibilities on the Board of Directors, beyond executive management. I also have responsibility for our Rest of Africa business, covering both our subsidiary operations in the SADC region and the investment in Ecobank, for West and Central Africa.

No two days are ever the same, so the idea of a typical day is a bit of a misnomer.  Naturally the hours are long, the work exciting and challenging.  It requires passion and energy, always applying problem-solving skills to a variety of activities in the Group.  At the apex it is to maintain high quality relationships and be accessible to our clients and staff alike. At the operational level, it is to ensure that our Shared Services functions provide the requisite enablement to the businesses to keep our clients happy with the delivery of service.

As banks we are having to deal with dramatic changes in innovation and regulation.  It is my responsibility, working with others, to anticipate and assess the impact on our people, the work environment, the business and operating model for our Group, the culture and diversity that differentiates us from peers and the competitiveness of our value propositions and solutions to the market.  Leading and managing change is a major element of my role, and it extends to coordination in industry bodies.

LM:  We also share a passion for working on the Continent. You have worked on the Continent during your time at the Department of Trade and Industry, later at the South African Revenue Service, and now at Nedbank. Do you see a huge African business opportunity, if so what Regions excite you and what industries stand out for you?

MN:  To be honest, I get impatient of talking about Africa’s potential. Every time the conversation is on potential, it reminds me how much still needs to be done to turn that into reality.  Yes, it is something I am passionate about and I have affiliation to.

Africa’s perennial challenge is susceptibility to volatility, underscoring structural shortcomings whether in governance, terms of trade, inadequate production structures, poor infrastructure and relative investment in people. In recent times we have seen a swing from an Africa Rising narrative to a downturn in the commodity cycle that induced a recession in key oil-producing countries.

As we know, Africa is also not a monolith and the various regions differ markedly from one another.  The least affected and strongest growing has been East Africa, reflecting its lower dependence on commodities and greater trading activities.

West Africa’s largest economy, Nigeria, is recovering from the adverse effects of a dramatic fall in the oil price a couple of years ago.  Even though it is projected to grow positively, it remains fragile and vulnerable to dollar liquidity pressures in a risk-off environment on emerging markets.

Southern Africa is weighed down by the slower growth in South Africa, which has a drag effect on the regional neighbourhood, and the fragility of the transition in Zimbabwe.  Mozambique has exciting prospects ahead, with investment opportunities in gas and related infrastructure. But it needs to overcome its debt and foreign currency liquidity constraints in the short run.

Sure, Africa is never a dull place.  Volatility and uneven development are ever-present.  But opportunities also abound, requiring one to stay close to the theatre of action to keep local networks intact. 

Opportunities in infrastructure investment and traditional sectors are still available.  But it is the likely impact of the digital economy, and its ability to change the economic structure in Africa that is most exciting.  Access to broadband and lower costs of data, as well as regulatory changes, are likely to have a far-reaching transformation in financial and other service sectors.  In addition, the digital economy is going to require higher investment levels in human capital for Africans not be mere consumers of digital products.

LM:  How do we promote intra-African trade? Are we moving with the necessary speed towards this objective?

MN:    To start with, progress has been very slow in advancing intra-African trade. In part, this reflects the similarity in production structures across many African countries. We tend to produce similar products, and consequently have low demand for one another’s products. Then there are the prohibitions to the flow of trade caused by infrastructure bottlenecks, arbitrary regulation and bureaucracy, as well as tariff barriers.  Often there is a high revenue dependence on limited imported goods which adds another layer of restrictions.  All these are challenges to overcome as the growth of intra-African trade and mutual dependence go together.

LM:  The current trade wars have the potential to adversely impact the world economy. How do you think South Africa and other emerging markets will be affected?

MN:  The trade war between the major economies will adversely affect global growth. As trade barriers increase, this will affect the cost of goods traded. In addition, there will be increased competition in third markets, potentially pushing out third party suppliers or squeezing their margins.

In a risk-off environment, emerging markets may suffer liquidity pressure as hard currencies flow to safe havens in the developed world. If this is combined with a rising interest rate cycle in the US, dollar outflows will cause added economic stress. Already in South Africa, we feel the relative weakness and vulnerability of the Rand to the exchange rate of the US dollar.

LM:  In South Africa, incumbent banks face huge platforms, new banks, telcos and fintechs in a new battle for clients. Do you think incumbents should partner or compete with these players?

MN:   Incumbent banks are likely to do both, partner and compete with new players at the same time.  The real contest is about the ownership of the relationship with the client. In this regard, data and access to clients are two principal sources of building scale. This is leading to agile methods of innovation and ways of working characterized by faster deployment of solutions and scaling up quickly. Incumbents have a head start in respect of data and access to clients but have legacy technology and business models to overcome. Fintechs have introduced faster innovation cycles but face challenges of scale. 

LM:  There is a battle to attract and retain talent out there. How do you see your role as a Senior Executive to talent management?

MN:  The battle is very fierce and increasing in intensity as we also compete for the new roles and skills set that are in short supply. Talent management is a key responsibility both in a formal sense and more informal ways. There are the formal processes from performance management, rewards and recognition, to succession planning and bench strength.

Then there is the role of providing inspirational leadership, aligning the purpose of the enterprise and the ambitions and motivational drivers for the staff.  This requires accessibility to staff, empathy, willingness to listen, active engagement, coaching and guidance. Importantly in a changing society, it also requires being available to demystify the corporate culture and the alienation that sometimes goes with it.

It is my role to make our people understand why we do what we do, why the client is the centre of our universe, and why we benchmark ourselves to the market. And then to give them the freedom to go out there and do it. People need role models, and that requires exemplary leadership. Often they possess the technical skills but are looking for the inspiration to give meaning to the work they do and the impact they can have.

Attracting and retaining talent is about congruency of meaning between what the people do and what the enterprise stands for.  It is also about investing in the development of staff and giving them the opportunities to take on bigger and more fulfilling challenges. It is about being consistent and staying the course, creating a series of magic moments, some consciously and others unconsciously.

LM:  The recent Employment Equity results reveal that corporate South Africa needs to do so much more to drive Diversity and Inclusion in the workplace. How do you see your role in driving accelerated growth for black staff and women while treating whites and males with respect and dignity?

MN:  Transformation is a business and moral imperative in our society.  It is something we have to do because it is the right thing to do. In that sense, and in my view, it transcends the formulaic approaches often adopted in its pursuit. Sure, targets matter and keep us honest and on course to attaining the overarching goals of diversity and inclusion in the workplace.

But it goes well beyond the social engineering of managing numbers. At its heart is the need to create a cultural environment that is inclusive and fully embracing of diversity. It is about creating a sense of belonging and sharing the goals of the team and enterprise as a whole. In reality, it is not a straight line progress but is subject to uneven speed and setbacks.

If the ground rules and commitments are set out clearly and transparently upfront, this allows the enterprise to course correct when setbacks are inevitably encountered. Transformation is also role modelling the required attributes, including leaders demonstrating the performance and professionalism they require of those they lead.

LM:  Do you think male leaders are equipped to support and empower women in the workplace?

MN:  The commitment to gender equality is a struggle of both men and women. There is no reason for men as humans that they cannot champion the cause. In fact, precisely because they are, they carry a responsibility to lead from the front.

Yet, women are leaders in their own right. Therefore they deserve to occupy the leadership ranks and to bring unique attributes that often are lacking in men.  Leadership is also about the force of example, the power of role modelling, the recognition of talent and embracing diversity.  It is not good enough for women to merely fit into a male-dominated corporate leadership culture. They must seek to change it so it can work for them too. In that respect, the responsibility is shared jointly with men to create a leadership culture conducive to all.

LM:  South Africa is one of the most unequal countries in the world.  What should corporates such as Nedbank do to contribute towards a much more equitable society.

MN:    The purpose of the Group is to use our financial expertise to do good for individuals, families, businesses and society. This is a platform for us to contribute to nation building, including the creation of a more equal society.  This also finds expression in our financial inclusion initiatives to bring the majority into the mainstream of the economy.  On the core business, this also includes provision of entry level banking services, support to SMMEs and an appropriate distribution coverage between urban cities and the rural countryside.

In addition to supporting educational and enterprise development initiatives through the Foundation, we are also involved in the youth employment scheme, among other things.

We consider contribution to nation building and growth and development as germane to the work that we do, and recognise that our nation has some way to go to build the country of our dreams.

LM:     We have seen the public sector entities being hollowed out in the name of Radical Economic Transformation.  You were part of the pioneering team that built the modern SARS into a world class contribution.  What lessons can we learn from the troubles of SAA, SABC, Denel, Prasa, SARS, ESKOM?  Why is it important for us to get these institutions on a firmer footing.

MN:    State-owned companies are key institutions for the delivery of public goods and commercial services.  It is concerning that they have suffered considerable deterioration of their balance sheets and significant weakening of their financial performance.  This has undermined their sustainability, requiring government support in the form of guarantees in their capital raising efforts.

The big lessons are that the quality and strength of leadership at both the Board and Executive Management levels matters profoundly.  The leadership is responsible for setting a clear tone on the ethical foundations of the enterprise and creating a values-based culture.

In addition, a clear corporate governance framework is pivotal for the sound functioning of these businesses, as any other.

Often the delineation of roles and responsibilities between the shareholder, the Board and Executive Management is unclear and the accountability and reporting lines confused.

This area requires urgent attention to set these companies on a more sustainable path.  An obvious area of need to optimise the capital structure and ensure sustainable funding models commensurate with the delivery expectations of these entities. 

LM:     There is currently a call for the expropriation of land without compensation.  How do you personally and as part of Nedbank leadership see the call.

MN:    Land reform is not only imperative but necessary to redress ownership patterns and correct a historical injustice.  We are of a firm view that land reform, including expropriation without compensation where justifiable, can be implemented without amending the Constitution.

Further, we will need greater clarity on a carefully crafted programme to address land use, safeguard food security and avoid unintended consequences.

LM:  There have been a series of corporate scandals that have damaged the image of the private sector.  How can we change our corporate culture, incentives and management techniques to build a more ethical leadership group among our leaders in the private sector.

MN:    These have been serious setbacks that have adversely affected the country’s credentials and credibility in corporate governance and accounting standards.  They point to an inappropriate culture and poor ethics at the top.  Often times habits sets in on the back of a track record of success, and we have seen charismatic chief executives take companies down the proverbial garden path.

LM:  What concrete steps can the government take to kick-start economic growth?

MN:    As things stand our economy is in a technical recession, with full year GDP growth projected at 0,5%.

Government has announced a stimulus package to kick-start economic growth.  A stimulus package is usually a response to cyclical stagnation.

We would need much more to unlock the structural constraints in the economy.  The fiscal position is constrained as the debt-to-GDP ratio has escalated to over 53% in the recent past.  SOE balance sheets have weakened, increasing their reliance on government support. 

The individual consumer is highly leveraged, even if not over-indebted.  That limits the possibility of a consumer driven growth path.  That leaves investment as the principal lever available to drive economic growth.

Investors need policy certainty and continuity to make long range investment decisions.  Ideally, foreign investors take the lead from domestic investors.  Some of the structural constraints that will have to overcome relate to the following:

Mining    –    agreement on the Charter provides an opportunity to

unlock investments in mining.

Digital    –    access to the spectrum for broadband and lower

            costs of data.

Land reform and agricultural productions

  • certainty on the land reform will unlock investment in agriculture and will likely influence property


Energy   –   resolving the energy mix into the long term future and

                      clarifying the role of Eskom in the production,

                      transmission and distribution value chains, given the

                      changed circumstances.

On the social sectors, universal access to health care and education are structural challenges and opportunities. Similarly, labour market reforms to create new employment is a significant structural dilemma.

LM:     What are the leadership behaviours we should display in order to inspire and motivate our teams as leaders.

MN:    In my book it must be authentic leadership, founded on sound ethics and a values-based culture.  It must be enterprising, willing to take well-considered and measured risks to accomplish new things.  Most of all leadership must be exercised in the service of others, whether in the public or private sectors.

LM:     You had quite involved and engaged parents. How do you manage to find quality time for your lovely wife, Meisie, and your beautiful children?

MN:    It is quite a challenge.  I guess the focus is on quality time.  It involves a considerable amount of pre-planning especially now that the children are much older.  Coordinating holiday plans takes some doing but Meisie provides the fulcrum around which we pivot.  Love and understanding takes care of the rest.

LM:     You are quite passionate about ploughing back to the community.  Tell us a bit about the work your family has been doing in this regard.

MN:  Through our family trust we adopted the Ebhongweni Primary School we attended and mobilised resources for a computer lab for them.  We identified school management as an area that needed support, but were careful not to interfere with the school governance system. 

We also support a youth football team.  In addition, the church is an important pillar of social cohesion and we continue to support its activities.  There is so much need out there, and when you think about it, more needs to be done.  This is an unfinished business.

LM:     As a person who grew up in Port Elizabeth townships, what message would you have for young people growing up in townships, farms and villages?

MN:    The place of your birth should never define the boundaries of your dreams.  One of the ways of measuring progress in one’s life is the ability to move from your place of origin to experience life in other lands.  It gives a different perspective.

I must admit though that I was shocked to learn in the recent National Crime Report that my neighbourhood of Kwazakhele featured amount the most violent crime spots in the whole country.  It was staggering to comprehend. 

All said, our fate is in our own hands.  We are a resilient people and I have faith that with perseverance and diligence our youth will overcome their drawbacks.  They only have to reach for their dreams and to seek support and role models.