Profile: Dr Vuyo Mahlati

Vuyo at the African Financial Group, of which she is deputy chairperson.

In the smart boardroom of Dr Vuyo Mahlati’s Rosebank office in Johannesburg, we’re talking about goats. Specifically, the imbuzi goats that are indigenous to the Eastern Cape and other parts of the country, and that have historically been kept for ritual purposes and for their meat. Now, they’ve become a source of income for rural people, thanks to Vuyo’s company, Ivili Loboya, which has produced South Africa’s first cashmere by processing the soft, fine inner hair of the coats of these goats.

Ivili Loboya recently launched its Dedani collection, a line of clothes made of cashmere harvested from these goats, and spun, woven and processed in rural Eastern Cape using natural dyes.

These natural dyes were sourced from leaves, fruits, bark and flowers to create the collection’s palette of earthy tones, such as ochre, bone, nut, marula and wild peach. The fabrics are visual evocations of nature, as well as spiritual and ancestral imagery.

This venture is the culmination of some of Vuyo’s many interests, her history and influences: growing up in the Eastern Cape, her mother who was a shepherdess and cultivated Vuyo’s interest in farming, her passion for employment creation and empowerment, her creativity and her studies in the field of development economics. Fundamentally, all her choices have been governed by one thing: to drive social change.

In fact, Vuyo’s CV and life experience would be enough for a couple of women, or a couple of lifetimes. She’s on the International Women’s Forum board of directors, is president of the African Farmers’ Association of South Africa, and she’s serving a second term as a national planning commissioner in the Presidency. She’s served on several boards, committees and strategic think tanks, from the 25-year Gauteng Transport Strategy to the SA Post Office, and has been involved in media, finance, business and social entrepreneurship. Oh, and did we mention the awards? There are lots.

A youthful-looking and glamorous 50, Vuyo has such a full plate and wide range of interests that you wonder how she manages them all. She sees her life as divided into three parts. ‘There’s me as the mother, wife and daughter, and that’s my centre. Around that, there are a lot of innovations, but they’re basically in two areas: the policy activism work and the entrepreneurial side.

‘It’s all part of the same thing; there’s a thread. My husband says social change is at the heart of it – I’m obsessed with social change. My brain seeks solutions; it doesn’t see just one thing, but draws from all aspects of life.’ And this isn’t an indication of a person who is all over the place, she points out. ‘There are certain inner “yous” that present themselves at different times. It’s a matter of being attuned to that; you’ve got to know yourself. People often say you should focus on one thing. I tried that once. I decided to do just one thing: business. I stopped my research and resigned from the boards. But I got so depressed! Then I realised: my brain can handle the diversity of life, so why am I making myself miserable?’ Like many successful women, this mom of two cites her mother as a profound influence. ‘She was a strong woman who was involved in women’s issues. She still is, at 85 – she’s fighting for pension money for women. In those days, a black married woman couldn’t get a permanent teaching post, so she worked in farm schools, teaching the kids of farm labourers.’ Her mother was also interested in farming, in traditional and commercial methods, and urged Vuyo to educate herself to help the local people with farming.

Her late mother-in-law was also a big influence, says Vuyo. ‘She was a princess of the Bhaca tribe and is a graduate of the University of Fort Hare. She was a very unusual woman, extremely traditional yet very openminded. I feel blessed to have had these people in my life who are intellectual but at the same time emotional.’

Back at the family home, Vuyo, who grew up with three brothers, recalls the house always being full of people.

‘My daughter asked me once why I always cut fish into smaller pieces instead of cooking full pieces. I realised that’s what my mom used to do. I asked her about it and she said she’d cut the fish like that because she was feeding 12 people and cooking on a primus stove! I use that analogy when I talk about change – it’s important to understand the context of why things are done the way they are.’

This businesswoman says she’s been an activist for as long as she can remember. ‘Everyone was conscientised – our neighbourhoods were neighbourhoods of struggle; our schools were schools of struggle. In 1976 I was in primary school, but I was very aware and concerned about what was going on around me.’

She attended farm schools before going to a mission school. Vuyo’s first degree was in the health sciences. She started working with people with disabilities, was drawn into issues around the rights of the disabled, and eventually became involved in the process of drawing up the Constitution.

She was, she says, very affected by people’s struggles and suffering, and this is what drew her to the ‘caring’ side in her career and profession. But she recognised that the problems people in South Africa faced required a different approach. ‘When I was doing my honours project on issues around urbanisation, Crossroads, a township in Cape Town, was burning. People would bring blankets and clothes, but that wasn’t the solution. Welfare wasn’t dealing with the structural and fundamental issues. We needed to do more.’

This realisation drew her into the field of development economics, which has become her lifelong passion and interest. ‘The question that interested me was: how do we develop the economy in a way that it helps people? I decided to delve deeper, to invest in myself and my studies, so I enrolled for a master’s programme at the London School of Economics.’

She went on to obtain a PhD from the University of Stellenbosch. Her thesis was on rural commercialisation and sustainable development. Which brings us back to goats! Ivili Loboya means ‘wheel of wool’. The enterprise is conscious of operating within the socioeconomic value chain, and of the impact it has on the community. Twentyfour permanent jobs have been created, as well as seasonal jobs and seven weaving co-operatives, each employing several people. More than 300 small farmers, many of them women, now have an income stream from the goat fibre. The company has even developed an app to connect the farmers, weavers and others involved in the process.

Vuyo whips out her phone to show us the app, then casually flips through to a sketch she’s made to pass on to the designers as an idea for an addition to the Dedani line – an elegant crossover top with echoes of the ribbons that run along the bottom of a traditional Xhosa skirt. And while her phone is out, she plays a couple of songs she’s written. There are poems, too – she’s written one for each design in the collection. One can’t help but wonder if there’s anything this woman can’t do. ‘Exercise!’ she says with a laugh. ‘I’m terrible with exercise and that stresses me.’ To cope with her busy days and active mind, she sleeps at least eight hours a day, 10 if she can manage it.

‘I’m capable of switching off,’ she says. ‘I have a village home in Mount Frere, in the Eastern Cape, where my husband’s family is from. Being there and also doing the hard work of cleaning and so on really relaxes me. I’m nurtured by being in nature – I love forest walks and game drives – and by being with the people I love.’

Despite her impressive history and achievements, she says she doesn’t think of herself as particularly special. ‘I’m a legacy-oriented person. As a child, I’d grow little avocado trees from the pips, knowing those trees would be something in the future. I’ve always thought of what I can do beyond the present.’

‘I’m nurtured by being in nature – I love forest walks and game drives – and by being with the people I love.’

Source: Fairlady magazine, June 2017