As South Africans submerge themselves in the Heartlines national conversation on good values, adiposity Zweli Manyathi shares with Stuart Graham an amazing tale of perseverance.
Zweli Manyathi, medical First National Bank’s chief executive of branches, diagnosis had two options when he was growing up in Soweto. He could join many of his peers and get involved in crime or he could focus on improving life for his family.
“I was a naughty boy when I was growing up,” he says. “At one point my parents sent me to KwaZulu-Natal for two years so that I could pull myself together. The move did great things for me. I became a young adult while I was away.
“When I got back I had to choose between doing what my peers were doing, which was mugging people and committing other crime, or I could focus on the things that needed to be done to change the status of my family.”
Manyathi says his very special mother was responsible for teaching him discipline.
“She is a very strong force in my life. I would never have been where I am were it not for the discipline she taught me. Whilst in poverty there was this thing called hope. My mother believed that if you worked hard in whatever job you chose, you could create any environment for yourself.”
One of Manyathi’s most trying times came when his brother was murdered in 1975.
The incident shaped his views on forgiveness and second chances.
“My older brother was killed by a person who spent six months in jail for the crime.
“I was very bitter. When he came out, I was this big youngster full of himself. A thought of revenge came, but the counter balance was of what value would it be in my life?
“Why should I do something that would risk me going to jail? Nothing would bring back my brother. Time passed and I greeted that person. I talked to him. I was at peace with myself.”
He thinks people should always be given another chance. “Would I employ someone who has been in prison? It depends what they have been in prison for. Some women go to prison for killing husbands who have abused them. In this business, I would never employ someone who has been in jail for stealing money. In fact when a teller steals money from a customer, we sue him or her in their individual capacity. They broke trust, which is a critical value.”
Manyathi says one of the only times his mother lost a grip on him was during the political unrest of 1976, when he got involved in student politics.
It was during this time, however, that he developed his leadership abilities.
“There were close on 1000 children at my high school. The student leaders would have to decide what we were going to do about this and that. We had to learn to respect diverse views. We had to take all the information we had and synthesise it.”
A significant moment in Manyathi’s life came when his father, who used to work for a construction company, fell off a scaffolding and injured his leg.
“My mother was a domestic worker. My father’s leg took forever to heal. I was a youngster with two parents who were unemployed and a number of siblings to look after.”
He grew up overnight and became a breadwinner for his family.
“I sold perfumes and clothing. I went door to door. I was chased by dogs, people were unfriendly and sometimes did not even answer the door. I had to do these things to put food on table.”
When Manyathi finished matric in 1982 he decided to enrol for a teaching diploma.
“A senior education diploma gave you the opportunity to study with UNISA. When I enrolled, I selected accounting, economics and business economics, but a teacher there said he couldn’t allow me to do the course because I had not done maths in matric.
“Instead I would have to study subjects like Zulu and anthropology. I wanted to do economics, so I dropped out that day.”
A group of teachers at the college took pity on Manyathi and collected R135 so that he could pay his registration fee for his economics degree at UNISA. “It was a wonderful act of kindness, but I was broke. I wondered how I was going to pay the UNISA fees.”
A friend told Manyathi to go to Trust Bank, which was looking for people at the time.
“I went there and got a job as a messenger. But I was naughty again. I would make my own envelopes and pretend that I had to deliver them. Instead I would go to Library Gardens and study for my degree.”
Manyathi passed all his first year courses. Shortly afterwards a manager who knew about his qualifications asked him to babysit an account. Overnight Manyathi moved from being a messenger to a project accountant with a huge office.
Manyathi says apartheid could have turned him into a very bitter young man, but that was not challenging enough.
“When I was young I had this thing about proving to white people I could do a better job than they. I had an attitude of note. I was the first black corporate manager in FNB and because of my background, I took no prisoners. That attitude gave me pressure to be on the top of my game.”
A few years after his break into banking, Manyathi joined Barclays Bank’s international division. From there he was sent to New York on a compressed MBA programme where he worked for the financial firm Glodman Sachs. Some of his colleagues at the course included reserve bank governor Tito Mboweni and Transnet chief Maria Ramos.
“It was fascinating stuff. I was involved in commodity trading at Goldman Sachs.”
It was there that Manyathi got what he says was a bad work ethic. “Those Goldman guys don’t know when to stop.”
Balance has not happened automatically for Manyathi, who has six daughters.
“I have to plan it. Twice a year I go to the bush. I go to KwaZulu Natal. I have stunning children. My one child is at UCT studying medicine. I structure myself around her,” he says.
One of the messages Manyathi likes to deliver at his division’s orientation meetings each month is that success must first be defined in a person’s mind.
“My sense of the world is that most of what happens is determined by us and not by circumstance. I define it and I do it.
“Once defined, we are the only ones who can get to it. It is about what we chose to do. It is not about life dishing out unfair stuff. It is about how we respond to it,” he says. – Heartlines Features.