Women's Day: Building institutions from the 90s to today | Fin24
 
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Women's Day: Building institutions from the 90s to today

Aug 09 2016 07:58
Lameez Omarjee

Johannesburg – Part of the team that helped establish pillars for South Africa’s new democracy and new Constitution in the early 1990s, Dr Yvonne Muthien has come a long way, using her academic expertise to build institutions in government and guide business decisions.

Intent on pursuing an academic career, Muthien said she was “conscripted” to work in government administration during multi-party negotiations. The team had the challenge of transitioning from an apartheid state while establishing a democracy, she told Fin24 in an interview. Muthien served as public service commissioner in the late president Nelson Mandela’s government.

“Nothing else I’ve done, even with multinational, global companies, compares to what we did in the early stages of democracy,” said Muthien. Since the dawn of democracy 22 years ago, South Africa now has Chapter Nine institutions in place, which still hold firm, she said. “Our democracy is still growing, we have come a long way.”

Muthien served as chairperson of the President’s Advisory Council on National Orders under presidents Mandela, Mbeki, Motlanthe and Zuma, between 1998 and 2014. Under her leadership three new orders were established: the Order of Mapungubwe, for singular and unique achievement; the Order of Baobab, for unique and dedicated service to the country; and the Order of the Companions of Oliver Tambo, for foreign dignitaries.

Her subsequent business career came about “by accident”. While working on academic research about the road to democracy, Muthien put together an analysis of eight volumes, stretching from 1960 to 1994. At the time she approached the private sector for fundraising purposes. This is how the sector became aware of her capabilities and she was recruited, she explained. “And I found business exciting and interesting,” she added.

Muthien currently serves as chairperson of the Rhodes Food Group, the Thebe Resource Incubator and the Sasol Inzalo Foundation. The foundation runs a transformation programme, which awards bursaries to disadvantaged students. The majority (60% to 70%) of bursaries are awarded to women to encourage study in the fields of maths, physics, chemistry and engineering up to masters and PhD levels, she explained.

She also holds a number of board positions, including those at Thebe Investment Corporation, and Bankserv. She previously served as the chief executive of Group Services at Sanlam. She is now on the Council of Sol Plaatje University in Kimberley.

Key achievements

Muthien regards the birth of her two children as her proudest achievement. Her daughter Megan is doing her masters degree in public health at Columbia University, and her son David recently completed his MBA at Wits Business School.


Yvonne Muthien (right), her daughter Megan (middle) and her son, David (left). (Photo: Supplied)

As an academic, Muthien acquired her PhD in sociology and politics at Oxford University in 1989. She now takes online courses on things that “interest” her, she said. “I like reading and learning. One of my students at the University of the Western Cape called me a nerd.” Being a lifelong learner helps Muthien stay “on top” of things. “My academic skills have been widely used in government and business.”

She values the time spent working in Mandela’s government, to put in place a set of symbols to celebrate excellence and achievement in the country. “In establishing a new South Africa, we got to do new things we had never done before.” Mandela gave the team tasks he believed they were capable of achieving, and no one wanted to let him down, she said. “You worked 18 hours a day to get the job done.”

“It is an achievement in terms of being a contribution to the country and democracy. It is not just an individual award,” she explained. “Leaving a legacy is different to achieving cum laude in an academic programme,” she said.

She was given the Presidential Award as Grand Counsellor of the Order of the Baobab, by former president Thabo Mbeki in December 2002. This was for her contribution to building national identity through the development of national symbols.

Despite the challenges of coming from an “impoverished, working class” background, Muthien said she learnt to go the extra mile. She relied on bursaries and scholarships to pursue her studies. “Once you realise you have talent, you need to stretch yourself to do something higher,” she said.

Muthien plans to stay on a few company boards, and partake in corporate social responsibilities directed at education. “Education is at the heart of a country’s development,” she said. Muthien has lectured a number of cabinet ministers and company CEOs. “Education is a key lever for a country’s development and for the individual’s empowerment and inspiration.”

Asked why she has not run for president yet, Muthien said: “I am not a politician, I am a technocrat.” She added that she was an “institution builder” and that politicians relied on her to do that. 

* August is Women's Month and Fin24, in collaboration with the Sanlam Enterprise Supplier Development Programme, invites you to help us celebrate and showcase SA's extraordinary women in business.

Read Fin24's top stories trending on Twitter:

womens month  |  nelson mandela  |  government  |  business  |  women
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