What was / is it all about?
An Address to the fifth Donald Bongani Mkhwanazi

Address by Dr Reuel J. Khoza I  30 July 2020

The theme of my address on the fifth Donald Bongani Mkhwanazi Memorial lecture is: What was / is it all about? The theme is inspired by the profound question raised by Professor Eskia Mphahalele as he lay on his deathbed. When one of his proteges, Professor Muxe Nkondo visited him during the last days of his life, following an exchange of greetings, Eskia paused for a pregnant moment and posed this profound question: What was it all about? The question is at the core of a purpose driven life.

It is a question that those of us who have been around for decades and are now contemplating transition to eternity should ask ourselves: What was it all about? It may just spur us to muster enough energy to deliver some good before our final departure. For you, the current generation of BMF members and other serious minded youths and young adults of the day, the question MUST be put in the present tense: What IS it all about? What is the cardinal purpose of your life? What is likely to be your legacy? What impact are you having on your family, your community, your corporation, your nation? What positive difference are you or will you be making?

If Don Mkhwanazi were alive I know that he and I would engage in some robust discourse around this question. The well known humanitarian and nobel peace prize winner, Albert Schweizer admonishes sagaciously: “I don’t know what your destiny will be but one thing I do know: the only ones amongst you who will be really happy are those who have sought and found how to serve.” I guess Eskia Mphalele’s life as we know it answered the profound question he posed in that he indeed was Eskia the teacher, Eskia the poet, Eskia the writer, Eskia the thinker, Eskia the African Humanist, Eskia the Cultural Activist, Eskia the quintessential educator, Eskia the perennial fountain of inspiration. That is surely worthy of a salute by posterity.

Before I turn to briefly sharing the life and times of Don Mkhwanazi may I put it to you that I consider you to be leaders. Granting that my assumption is right I exhort you to be At your service leaders, what some in mouthing platitudes call servant leaders. I implore you to espouse and practice responsive, responsible, accountable and caring leadership. To be as passionate about your personal goals as you are compassionate in your service of humanity. I challenge you to evidence leadership that is anchored on a sound, wholesome value system; leadership that is attuned to your times through its sense of historical mission, resonating with the needs and aspirations of its fellowship and responsive to its beckoning sense of destiny.

This lecture, in honour of my late friend and brother by choice, Donald Bongani Mkhwanazi takes place at a time when the world is in turmoil, struggling to navigate through untold turbulence. This turbulence predates COVID-19 and is compounded by this unprecedented pandemic. The prevailing turbulence is pervasive: National, continental and international.

In our beloved country, South Africa, the turbulence is characterised by, inter alia:

  • A succession of plans that suffocate in government shelves with no pragmatic timelines, deadlines and durable commitment to implementation.
  • National visions that blur to oblivion before they become rallying forces capable of uniting and aligning the nation.
  • A yawning and menacing debt to GDP ratio that threatens to engulf our political economy, and call to question our sovereignty through indebtedness to the IMF.
  • Galloping unemployment statistics, particularly among the youth, sure to fuel uncontainable instability.
  • Monstrous corruption that defies even valiant efforts at dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic. There is nothing more depraved and inhuman than stealing money meant for the destitute. All South Africans of goodwill must do something about this brazen, crass, obdurate culture of corruption.

As for our beloved continent, Africa, the somewhat low intensity but just as debilitating and potentially devastating signs include:

  • The waning of the once powerful, unifying and compelling vision of the African Renaissance and the emergence in its place of limp wristed AU leadership that seems to take the continent nowhere.
  • A continent that continues to be in fragments, apparently oblivious of the 21st Century Version of the Scramble for Africa.
  • Rampant hunger, malnutrition and starvation on a continent with countries that should be food baskets for the world, not basket cases.
  • Atrophy of wholesome practices like the African Peer Review Mechanism.
  • Large scale genocide inspired by ideology or religious fanaticism such as that by Boko Haram and more.

Internationally the turbulence is inter alia manifest in:

  • Ascendency to the presidency of the putative leading world power by an unorthodox, often insensitive, at times not so subtlety racist, and persistently alien to facts and disorientated to reality.
  • Emergence of an isolationist, jingoistic leader to the British Empire, who brought upon the British nation, the irrational Brexit delusion.

The so called leaders of the free world are oblivious to the reality that the world is a neighbourhood, and that what this world sorely needs now is global fraternity. With the imminence of nuclear war about which the USA and North Korea feud with gay abundance, the stark choice facing humanity is between global interdependence or global mutual annihilation. In Eastern Europe this is characterised by the vice-like grip on Russian citizenry marked by total intolerance of opposition, etc.

Amidst this turbulence what do you individually and collectively plan to do with your lives to answer the quintessential question: What is it all about?

May I return to briefly reflecting on the life and times of Don Mkhwanazi. Don was no saint, I have yet to meet one, but Don did strive to live an impactful, significant life in a variety of ways.

I first met Don at Unilever in Durban during the first half of 1976 as a fellow Marketing Management Trainee. He and l just clicked and resonated instantly. Within months, Unilever witnessed the increase in the number of Black Management trainees, (including Hixonia Nyasulu, Denis Zimu, Philip Mangaliso). Unilever decided to invite us to change canteens to join the then white management establishment. Our principled stance and response was: If indeed you are the pioneering, enlightened organization you purport to be, opposed to apartheid as you claim, just demolish the wall separating the races. We refused to be the exempted few. The message reached home and before long the canteens were desegregated.

In 1978, Don and l were part of a successful group of Shell scholarship candidates sent to Britain. In addition to successfully completing our studies, Don made sure that by the time some of us returned home, we had been duly introduced to the ANC in exile, including the inevitable visit to the Tambo House.

Upon returning home at the end of 1979, Shell duly employed us in managerial positions in Johannesburg, but could secure us no abode, no accommodation because we did not have Section 10.1a. The stage was set for a bruising confrontation with Apartheid with Don at the forefront. Twenty months later we had houses in part of what was then called Selection Park in Pimville.

In 1979, Don, Sam Minyuku and I, together with a few of those so-called Shell Scholars were part of the BMF hard launch. By the way the BMF had a soft launch in 1977 with Eric Mafuna as founding president.

In 1986, Don assumed the presidency of the BMF, which till then was essentially a forum for Blacks grappling with the challenge of upward mobility in corporate South Africa. Don brought into sharper focus our appreciation of the reality that the BMF was a player in a political economy not just in business corporations. Among his major contributions was thrusting to the fore the issue of black economic empowerment. During his tenure, the BMF began in earnest to reach out to other key players beyond the business arena, including the then banned ANC and PAC as well as the trade union movement. Don Mkhwanazi did much to raise the political profile of the BMF.

In 1987 Ndonga led us in a nine-person BMF delegation excursion to Lusaka where we met with and engaged such ANC stalwarts as Thabo Mbeki, Pallo Jordan, Jacob Zuma, Johnny Makhathini, Joel Netshitenzhe and Oliver Tambo. To test our mettle, Pallo accused the BMF of attempting the impossible: trying to ride two horses simultaneously; corporate business and the struggle for liberation: To which we retorted that you can in fact ride more than one horse at once, if you are ingenious and creative: what you do is you span, harness and make them draw your cart with you firmly in control.

This led to a more serious discourse in which we argued that in as much as Apartheid was politics of oppression and a psychology of dehumanization and subjugation; it was more vicious as economics of exclusion, exploitation and institutionalised Black impoverishment. We argued that to slay the Apartheid monster, like Saint George slew the dragon, we needed to understand it from a variety of vantage points and attack it as such. It was at this engagement that l heard Don argue the need for corporate guerrillas. At the end of our discussion, the late O.R. Tambo sprung from his seat as if propelled by a spring to embrace us with enthusiasm.

Don Mkhwanazi, Lot Ndlovu and I, shared our admiration of Frederick Douglass, Afro-American former slave and deep thinker who advised as followers on self-determination: “Our destiny is largely in our hands. If we find, we shall have to seek. If we succeed in the race of life it must be by our own energies and our own exertions. Others may clear the road, but we must go forward, or be left behind in the race of life.
If we remain poor and dependent, the riches of other men will not avail us. If we are ignorant, the intelligence of other men will do but little for us. If we are foolish, the wisdom of other men will not guide us; if we are wasteful of time and money, the economy of other men will only make our destitution the more disgraceful and hurtful.”

These wise words gave both Don and Lot impetus to champion the cause of Black Economic Empowerment. If Lot Ndlovu was the St Paul of the BMF cause and Black Economic Empowerment, Don Mkhwanazi was the St Peter: bold, daring, dedicated and unwavering, an unapologetic Drum Major for transformation.

Of Don, Phillip James Bailey would say: “We live in deeds, not years; in thoughts not figures on a dial. We should count time by heart throbs. He most lives who thinks most, feels the noblest and acts the best.” We concur.

Back to the quintessential question What is it all about? Allow me to enunciate a few core values and what I suggest we exhort you to commit to:

  • Pledging to transform the current breakdowns in our society into breakthroughs.
  • Replacing defeatist notions with victorious thoughts.
  • Supplanting can’t do attitudes with a sense of efficacy, consciousness of oppression with consciousness of victory.
  • Replacing harassment of our women and children with a super abundance of affection and care.
  • Doing away with self-effacement and to replace it with self-effectiveness.
  • Dispelling pervasive incompetence and to champion African accomplishment at par with the best there is.
  • Replacing immoral behaviour with ethical conduct.

From this day on let us strive to dispel failure and shame from our lives and commit ourselves to success and even greater success in all walks of life as South Africans and contemporary leaders.

I have personally developed a mantra that I chant to myself. It is a mantra of an ideal African:

An African who is master of their destiny
An African who has a clear and compelling vision
An African who is known for what he stands for
An African who is a profoundly moral being
An African who is imbued with integrity, able and competent
An African who leads a renaissance
An African who takes responsibility for his actions
An African who builds a future
An African who when she looks in the mirror sees the hand of God

Lot Ndlovu conspicuously championed the cause for transformation and comprehensive black economic empowerment. Donald Bongani Mkhwanazi unmistakably repositioned the Black Management Forum as a player in South Africa’s political economy. As BMF President and Business Leadership South Africa and Chief Executive Officer Bonang Mohale boldly even stridently lead the charge against corruption from a corporate vantage point. What will your lingering legacy be as an individual and as a collective. Regularly ask yourself the quintessential question What is it all about? What am I about? What are we about? This generation of BMF leaders as well as your African peers in other walks of leadership life are charged with the urgent responsibility to redefine South Africa in all its dimensions in your own image.