A personal tribute to Jabu Mabuza


Words cannot fully capture the pain of losing the legendary Jabu Mabuza, our beloved Net1 Chairman. As the Net1 family, we have not just lost a strong and inspirational leader, but a caring, compassionate and engaging father figure. In a very short space of time, Jabu strongly influenced the direction, strategy and culture of our organisation and led Net1 towards an exciting path of Change and Renewal. Many of us, who joined Net1, and those we recruited, were attracted by the possibility to learn from him, and to be part of his financial inclusion vision. 

1. Leading through sheer force of example 

Leadership is not a title held, it’s a profound influence felt, a principle upheld, a stance taken, and choices made. Jabu’s entire life is leadership lesson, and we grew up admiring this business icon as he displayed his amazing array of leadership skills in different environments. The most important leadership lessons he showed all of us, whether you were a young professional, seasoned executive or budding entrepreneur is that your background should never be an impediment to what you can achieve. His life story also demonstrated another powerful lesson that no matter where you come from, you have the ability to make an impact, inspire, and leave a mark on those you meet. Jabu lived life to its fullest and was fully present with his family, extended family, friends, colleagues, relatives and members of his community. In spite of his successes he remained grounded, accessible and never had airs or graces about him. Lastly, Jabu also showed us how to be truly authentic, he was one of the last true originals, he always brought his full self into any situation – no challenge was too daunting, problem too complex, nor opportunity too small for him. His entrepreneurial spirit shone through in both his personal businesses and in the corporates he ably led. He has left a huge mark. The South African business community is much poorer without him. I hope and trust that we will each take from his lessons and honor him by following his giant steps. 

2. The Chairman of all Chairmen

As we face a corporate governance crisis, Jabu stood as a beacon of hope for young executives and entrepreneurs. In a world characterized by constant board meddling, conflicts between boards and executives and the lack trust between boards and management, Jabu was exemplary in understanding the dynamic relationship between the Chair of the Board and the CEO.  In 2019, I interviewed my dear brother and comrade, Sipho Maseko for my series on leadership conversations (www.leadershipconversations.co.za):

Lincoln Mali: “I watch your relationship with your Chairman, Jabu Mabuza, how do you make this work, and what could other CEO’s and Board Chairs, particularly in SOE’s learn from this experience?”

Sipho Maseko: “We have a good working relationship with Jabu. We invest a lot of time in making sure that we are aligned. I seek guidance from him particularly on difficult and complex issues and he gives the management the space to drive the execution

Little did I know that, for a very short time, a couple of months to be exact, I would be a beneficiary of this unique empowering leadership style.  As the Chairperson of several Boards, Jabu selflessly gave his executives space to grow and innovate, a platform to thrive and the trust needed for them to lead their teams to success. All he demanded in return was professionalism, excellence, and a focus on staff and customers and for businesses to play a critical role in societal change. It is on his broad shoulders that his executives could carve their own paths, in the knowledge that he will back them if things went wrong, yet also hold them accountable for delivering the results required. 

3. A passion and commitment to Financial Inclusion 

Jabu had a lifelong commitment to Financial Inclusion, he used every opportunity to urge businesses to view the poor not as victims, or a burden on society, but as resilient, creative entrepreneurs and value conscious consumers. He sought innovate ways for business and the corporate sector to become part of societal solutions, profitably and responsibly. 

Over the last few months, doing my apprenticeship under his tutelage as CEO of Net1 Southern Africa, I have been in awe at his deep insights, wealth of experience, infectious passion and indefatigable spirit about banking the unbanked and under banked in South Africa. He challenged us to tackle this Herculean task with the most innovative solutions, creative approaches and a leadership culture based on empathy and compassion.

We both shared a strong conviction that the private sector has much to gain from taking a fresh look at the low-income sector, placing them at the centre of their business opportunity map, identifying the barriers that prevent them from accessing traditional markets and tap into innovative schemes that take into account the specifications of that segment. 

We had long discussions about how we could use our collective experiences of growing up in these communities, the extensive ties we still have with our communities combined with our deep corporate experience, access to technology, capital, international links and people with great intellect to make a big difference in changing the financial sector in South Africa.  He strongly believed that we could create a unique organization that would be in tune with the needs of our communities; yet also deliver superior returns to those willing to invest in it.

In our deep and reflective conversations, we recognized that we would need very different types of leaders to carry out this difficult task. In our view, such leaders had to have more creativity, imagination, and tolerance for ambiguity, stamina, passion, empathy, and courage in addition to the traditional commercial skills such as commercial acumen, analytic skills, intelligence, and knowledge. Guided by this thinking, he was instrumental in helping us build an executive leadership team capable of taking our business to the next level. What a pity he won’t be there to see the highly diverse, talented, multi skilled and experienced group of South Africans who responded to our call to come and make his vision a reality. When we announce the leadership team, it will have his imprint as these we highly qualified and skilled executives and senior managers, but they will also bring empathy and compassion to this critical mission.  

On the 10th May 2021, he gave his last speech to assembled leaders of Net1, from all the business units. This was simply a Master class in leadership, business management, strategy and renewal. He delivered this speech with no prepared speech, full of anecdotes about his life mixed with great humor that hid many gems of wisdom and advice. In his quintessential self-deprecating manner, he was sharing with us his life journey, yet inspiring us to embrace the larger purpose of financial inclusion. He left all of us with renewed hope, confidence and belief. From that day, we walked a bit taller because we could proudly proclaim, to anyone who would hear, that we were part of Jabu Mabuza’s team. This opened so many doors that were previously closed, created new opportunities and we started to find new partners for financial inclusion. We were ready to take on the world with him at the front, alas; it was not to be, as the great man was called home. 

4. Leading our Change and Renewal efforts 

Jabu Mabuza took on the role of Chairman of Net1 at a very difficult time. A time where Net1 needed to repair its image having been associated with, the “ constitutionally invalid” social grants distribution contract; a number of court cases brought by civil society organizations; allegations of improper business practices from prominent NGO’s; and a loss of 2 700 jobs at the end of the Sassa contract. Yet Jabu saw an opportunity for Change and Renewal at Net1, he strongly believed that Net1 could be a play its part in a generation of SA Fintech Company focused on Financial Inclusion. 

In his first statement, after taking over the chair, he addressed the issue head on, “Net1 can be reformed, its challenges overcome and the company can play a positive role in financial inclusion”. Within the company, he led a very frank and dispassionate conversation about the company’s past, its current state and its future prospects. He made new and old members of Net1 understand what was at stake, he strongly argued that, “What you have at Net1 is something that can be a force for good. It is able to, in a low cost way, offer financial inclusion. What we want to do is to make it better at that, and to widen the reach of what it does.”  

Through his guidance and leadership Net1 pursued a new focused strategy to provide financial inclusion services to the unbanked and under banked consumers and small businesses in South Africa. 

In his last letter to our Shareholders, Jabu Mabuza outlines the key priorities for 2021:
“ Our renewal has drastically simplified the Net1 story and enabled our shareholders to monitor our progress with greater conviction. Looking ahead to 2021, imbibing the principles highlighted above, our focus in South Africa will be on:

• Accelerate rollout of services to underserved consumers: we aim to provide financial inclusion to underserved individuals in South Africa through the provision of low-cost transactional bank accounts and expand the array and penetration of various financial and value-added services;

• Consolidate and scale transaction and financial service offerings for underserved merchants: We intend to leverage our existing solutions and capabilities into an off-the-shelf merchant offering. We will look to build out our distribution channels to reach and service small merchants.” 

Jabu leaves us at the most critical time, as we diligently execute this strategy, and reposition the company for success. We have state of the art technology to serve this market cost effectively; a wealth of experience of serving this market; an extensive distribution network that reaches where most institutions cannot; and passionate people who are committed to serve the underserved. Jabu’s memory will inspire us to become a uniquely positioned financial services platform and a formidable competitor that will provide the best service to the unbanked and under banked at the most affordable cost. 

5.  Rebuilding relationships with stakeholders 
The bold ambitions fueled by Jabu are captured in the words of one of our Board Members, Antony Ball, “ Net1 can become a national Fintech champion and a company South Africa could be proud of. That’s our goal. It’s all doable –but it’s ambitious.”
Jabu strongly believed that this company deserved a second chance and led the way in rebuilding broken relationships and win back allies and supporters we lost over the last few years. As someone who was passionate about ethics and integrity, he took on this challenge to work towards this reconciliation and would personally reach out to different stakeholders that needed to be re-engaged. This process has not been easy, because of much hurt and pain caused in the past, yet through his humility and brutal honesty we started the difficult journey of engaging different stakeholders. Some doors remained closed, but we quickly learnt from Jabu about the value and importance of persistence and we continue to knock on every door that matters. He will no longer be with us, but he had showed us the way, with humility tinged with a steely determination, we will continue to engage all of our stakeholders, exchange views and ideas with them, be transparent about all aspects of our business and rebuild broken relationships. Jabu has shown us the way, in order for us to have true change and renew our organisation, we must listen to voices that we ignored in the past, engage in conversations that we found to be uncomfortable before and reset relationships that may have been acrimonious before. 

6. On a personal note 

At a personal level, I am highly indebted to Bra Jabu for the opportunity he afforded me to lead an amazing organisation with such enormous potential. His wise counsel, sage advice, encouraging words and deep conversations have made my transition much easier than it could have been. Behind the scenes, far from the limelight, I always felt that his words of encouragement, deep insights, words of caution, or guidance, were a mere call or text away. He had a huge presence in my life at Net1 and shaped many of the steps I’ve taken and decisions I’ve made. I learnt more in the 6 months of working with him than any other time in my career. I wish I had more time to learn at the feet of this giant, but it was not to be, I now need to work with my colleagues to honor his memory. 

7. Rest in Peace Mshengu

A great tree has fallen, a courageous fighter for justice and equality has left us, a brave soul who could speak truth to power is no more and an inspirational leader has left the stage of life. As we think about his life and achievements, I am reminded of the seminal words of Theodore Roosevelt, 

“ It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.” 

Jabu Mabuza was a man of action, he dies with many achievements in the battles he fought, and his place “shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.” He had many defeats in his life, but they pale into insignificance when you compare with the titanic battles he won, the causes he championed and the famous victories he won for justice. 

Our heartfelt condolences go out to his family, friends, colleagues and the community at large. His beloved wife, Sphiwe, his children – Lwazi, Sakhiwo and Mbali, and his dear father Lazarus will feel this terrible loss more deeply. May God grant them strength during the difficult and painful times ahead.

Rest in Peace Mkhuluwa, I shall miss your hearty laughter, stylish dress sense, fashionable hats, booming voice, incisive mind, big heart and your quick wit and razor-sharp commercial acumen. I will not let you down. 

Lala ngoxolo Mshengu

A personal tribute to Jabu Mabuza – Lincoln Mali, Net1 CEO, Southern Africa