During an enlightening interview with Thabo Owen Mokwena, Founder and Chairman of the Leago Group, Emma Dawson discovered a man driven by his social conscience to make South Africa a better place for all its people.
Pursuing a career in business seemed inevitable when you hear about Thabo Owen Mokwena’s upbringing. ‘The person I am today stems from my early years, growing up in a catholic family-centric household in the townships of Pretoria,’ Mokwena explains. Besides the strong influence of his church, Mokwena’s parents were actively involved in his childhood, providing a strong foundation and durable family values. ‘My parents were also emphatic about my education. My father – at the time working with researchers at the CSIR – was determined I study science. Through his work, he met many visiting international professors who constantly inspired him. In fact, I’m named after Owen, one of the researchers my father worked with.’ He adds: ‘My mother, on the other hand, had a brief stint in teaching and dedicated her time to empowering her kids with education’.
Another important aspect in the making of the man you meet today were the then political conditions in South Africa. ‘Growing up in the 80s, I was keenly aware of the country’s tense political environment and our socioeconomic conditions, which were important factors that shaped the direction I would follow. I became an activist.
However, I was caught up in the “dilemma of the struggle first, education after”. I quickly realised that without education our struggle was meaningless – unlike some who saw these as mutually exclusive. I fortunately found a balance between education and pursuing the course of making South Africa a better place for everyone.’
After finishing school, Mokwena enrolled at the University of Cape Town (UCT) to study Social Science with a focus on economics and public administration – possibly not the degree his father had yearned for him to study but definitely the start to an enthralling career. ‘My father was uncompromising when it came to education. On reflection, I think he went a little overboard but I now value his insistence. As a result, I’ve always had a passion for knowledge and wisdom and, as I did as a child, still spend many hours reading,’ Mokwena maintains.
‘UCT was a culture shock initially and I found myself interacting with people from vastly different backgrounds. This was an eye opener and important experience. During my time at UCT I served on the Student Representative Council and was active in the University’s community. This extended beyond campus to engaging with neighbouring communities where I got involved in political and civic work, interacting with community structures, and working with community leaders.’ At this time, Mr Mandela was recently released from prison and politics were rapidly changing in South Africa.
‘I was part of the discussions about the future of our country and I had the pleasure of working with some of the leading progressive Marxist scholars based in the Western Cape. They encouraged rigorous debate about considerations on how South Africa must change to move forward,’ Mokwena adds. After he graduated, and with a new-found love for Cape Town, Mokwena remained in the Mother City where he worked for Wesgro and later the Foundation for Contemporary Research (FCR). Through the FCR he conducted research pertaining to new structures and systems for local government transformation, which led to his appointment at the South African Local Government Association (SALGA). ‘I was still young, in my mid-20s, and was thrown into the deep end dealing with policies and local government legislation, as well as being solely responsible for representing all municipalities at Parliament.’ While Mokwena recalls how challenging his job was, he remembers the sheer excitement of this ‘baptism of fire’, as he calls it. He also recounts how everyone – united in the common goal of transformation – was prepared to listen, despite his age.
Proving he could get the job done, Mokwena was then uprooted to Pretoria to head SALGA, as the CEO. Still in his 20s, he was responsible for 824 municipalities and spent his time crossing the country to understand the issues the municipalities were facing. ‘I was under enormous pressure to appreciate each region’s complexities and to help implement change, but this was definitely a highlight of my career. I used to say, “no-one knows this country better than I do”,’ he quips. In 2005 Mokwena entered the private sector and established the Leago Group. ‘Our initial focus was on the mining sector and we applied for mining licences and opportunities. However, we soon realised it would require heavy investment and we quickly exited this space – we realised we didn’t have the appetite for the huge debt and borrowing required.’ It was at this point that the company’s focus shifted to BEE investment opportunities, advisory services and engineering – still the pillars of the Leago Group’s activities today.
In the energy sector, the company predominantly supplies engineering services to Eskom’s new-built projects and to Independent Power Producers (IPPs) ‘It’s one of our core business areas,’ Mokwena points out. Leago Engineering provides a focus on infrastructure development in the form of roads, water projects, and consulting engineers (development of plans and policy). ‘This became our flagship programme. We are renowned in this arena and work mostly with municipalities on their infrastructure programmes.’ Leago Group’s advisory services business provides strategic consulting and advisory services to big state owned entities (SOEs) and blue chip companies. ‘We work closely with CEOs, helping them to restructure and turnaround their businesses, and to realise their strategies. And, finally, under our Investment company we do acquisitions through BBBEE programmes with a vision of growing our portfolio of investments,’ Mokwena explains.
‘Municipalities offer big opportunities and it’s a large market. However, you need to understand how they operate and what they need. With my experience at SALGA, it made sense to go into this sector and reap the benefits of the institutional knowledge I had gained. Municipalities are struggling and, while we do derive financial value, our conscience is clear because, ultimately, we’re doing something good for their communities.’
He adds: ‘We know that where there’s infrastructure, investment follows. There aren’t many companies prepared to work in undeveloped areas but we’re happy to be at the coalface of infrastructure development.
Investment in infrastructure projects will definitely boost our economic development. The projects we’re involved with benefit poor communities and provide value creation and rewards for companies like ours – this is doing business with a social conscience.’ Another issue close to Mr Mokwena’s heart is education, something reflected in the Leago Group’s CSI projects. ‘This is where I want to put my money,’ Mokwena insists. ‘I believe one of our biggest challenges is education. If we improve education we could sort out the economy, politics and the issues of unemployment. I also believe it’s never too late. ‘Our youth is preoccupied with how to become wealthy. They’re not orientated towards using their brains and acquiring knowledge. While I believe there’s nothing wrong with that, the youth needs to consider how they’ll get there. I think it’s so unfortunate that the country’s role models, whether politicians, business leaders or celebrities, don’t enforce the message of the importance of education. I also believe the authorities are not doing enough to radically turn around our education system – each new minister institutes a new policy but what we really need is a solid education system that will stand the test of time. The fallacy of presentism, suffered by each new incumbent, inhibits our ability to leave a lasting legacy for the following generations.’ He adds that education doesn’t necessarily amount to a career. ‘Education is a basic foundation in life. It opens your eyes, it teaches you to be a human, it enlightens and empowers you, and provides a basis from which individuals can make choices as to the direction they wish to follow. I got empowered to engage with life, I know how to apply my mind, and how to consider risks and opportunities. Education helps you to navigate the intricacies of life,’ he states.
‘I believe that the most important thing for the South African economy – and for us to integrate into the world economy – is to have an educated society and workforce. We need to restructure our economy from being mineral-based to knowledge-based. Africa has massive infrastructure requirements and we should be focusing on building and maintaining the skills to develop Africa together as a unified continent.’ When asked what he believes is most important for South Africa’s future, Mokwena puts on his hat as the Director of the Centre of Public Entities (CPE): ‘My primary goal is to influence SOEs to start doing what they’re supposed to be doing. If we get them to do their jobs properly this country would be a much better, far different place. If we can achieve this, we can tackle our challenges head on and leave a lasting legacy,’ he insists. He continues: ‘All too often I see public servants who have lost sight of their core responsibilities and serving the public. Instead, they are preoccupied with self enrichment programmes. I urge those I work with to think about my grandmother in the village, think about a child about to be born in a hospital. The things we do have an impact on the lives of all these people. Often, our public servants, public entities, and public representatives haven’t internalised what they work for, nor do they have a deeper sense of how their actions impact on the people of South Africa. I want them to look at the practicalities of what it means to be a public servant.’
For me, a statement that sums up Thabo Owen Mokwena came at the end of our interview: ‘It’s not about how much money we have, it’s about the quality of life. If we have a quality of life where our kids are educated, people have job opportunities, and the services are flowing and infrastructure is growing, South Africa will be a far better place. And I believe we’re not far from that.’ He concludes by saying: ‘It’s our responsibility to get it right and leave a lasting legacy for generations to come.’
Written by Emma Dawson • Online since 31.08.2016 • Filed under Industry news • From Issue 4 – September 2016 – February 2017 page(s) 8-10