Winning Women – Peggy-Sue Khumalo: Walking with courage

It’s a long way from her humble beginnings in rural KwaZulu-Natal to managing public sector business development at a top SA financial firm, yet Peggy-Sue Khumalo has made the journey with characteristic determination, writes Sue Grant-Marshall

Peggy-Sue Khumalo looks every bit the corporate and institutional banker she is as she strides elegantly and purposefully through the central well of Investec’s chic glass, chrome and wood-panelled headquarters in Sandton.

She is head of public sector business development at the bank.

“I have to ensure that our clients know what our spectrum of products is so that we can help formulate partnerships in their quest for funding solutions.

“I have oodles of tenacity and I will chase a deal until I land it,” she says.

One such deal involved acquiring financing for Transnet so that it could buy locomotives.

“Engines help roll out infrastructure and the latter is what we really need to move South Africa forward now,” she says passionately.

As she expounds on her topic, she uses expressions such as “derivatives” and “trading instruments”that the average South African seldom uses, let alone understands.

It’s a measure of how far the former Miss SA – who grew up in rural KwaZulu-Natal doing domestic work with her mother – has come.

Her pleasure about the fact that women are making it in male-dominated environments is palpable.

“Initially, I was often the only woman sitting in meetings across the table from male CEOs and chief financial officers. Today, increasingly, I am meeting women at that level.”

She believes this is a good thing for obvious reasons, but adds: “I have heard that one of the factors that may have brought the world to its financial knees in the economic meltdown [in 2008], was the lack of women in the boardroom back then.”

It is clear now that there were too many products that encouraged people to buy homes they couldn’t afford.

There wasn’t enough investigation into what was going on, and more women in that world back then might have made a difference.

Khumalo’s passion in life is education, and not just in the school sense – although that’s where most of it is directed – but also in teaching the average South African about how to manage money, invest, save and grow wealth.

“The generation gap is huge in this regard, and I think it’s going to take another generation to change it.”

She chuckles as she mentions debates she often has with Investec CEO Stephen Koseff about why it takes black professionals who had the same private education as their white counterparts longer to succeed in the trading room.

“He describes families who have conversations about stock markets and the economy around their dinner tables. By the time their children go to university, the practical knowledge of money and markets has been imbibed with their food. Background is important.”

PSK, as she is affectionately called at Investec, has certainly bucked that trend in her own extraordinary life.

She was born to a domestic-worker mother in rural Newcastle. Her mother “struggled, as so many of them do, with the various levels of abuse that go with the job”.

Khumalo wanted to study law when she left school because she wanted to fight for the rights of underprivileged people. But a lack of funds made her goal impossible and she also did domestic work.

“But I have a fighting spirit; I’m a go-getter. When I saw Basetsana Kumalo and Jacqui Mofokeng win the Miss SA competition, I saw beauty competitions as a way out for my mother and I.”

After she was crowned in 1996, then president Nelson Mandela invited her to tea. He had watched the beauty contest on TV and wanted to know if there was anything he could do to help her.

When the serious-minded young woman said “education”, Mandela arranged for Investec to sponsor her degree at the UK’s Manchester University.

“He had great faith in investing in young South Africans who would contribute to our country’s future.”

It was an intimidating experience for Khumalo to go to a top university “with only my matric certificate. And I obviously had to study economics and finance.”

Desperate not to fail – she wanted others to follow in her footsteps – she put tremendous pressure on herself.

When she returned home with her BA honours (economics and politics) degree, a proud Mandela urged her to do her master’s.

She graduated in 2004 with an MSc degree in economics, “and then he wanted me to do a PhD”.

Her eyes dance with merriment. “But I was a breadwinner and needed to start working.”

She did so in London, doing top-down economic analysis for emerging markets coverage, focusing on countries such as Hungary, Poland and South Africa.

“But I came home in 2007 so that I could give back to my country. We must all give back to South Africa,” she says firmly.

She’s more than doing her bit – Khumalo is committed to her mentorship of girls from rural communities and is part of the Cell C Institute of Mentorship, with a Grade 11 Soweto schoolgirl under her wing.

She also works with various charities, including The Teddy Bear Clinic for abused children, Seeds of Africa, which focuses on entrepreneurship development, and Little Eden, which cares for children and adults with intellectual disabilities.

In spite of the many demands made on her, Khumalo is determined to have balance in her work and home life.

“I’m learning to play golf with my daughter, Nobuhle (5). I go to ballet with her and we spend a lot of time with each other. It’s such a blessing to be her mum.”

She is undoubtedly passing on some of the characteristics that propelled her to the top – sheer guts and focused determination – to her daughter.

Little Black Book

Business tip Believe in yourself, be bold and assertive and you will pull through, even in the most male-dominated spheres.

Mentors Daniel Mminele, a deputy governor of the SA Reserve Bank and Nolitha Fakude, executive director of Sasol. I can ring her anytime. My mother, MaMntungwa, who is my pillar and role model.

Best book 29 Leadership Secrets from Jack Welch, who was chairperson of General Electric. His father was a train driver and he says the biggest gift you can have is self-confidence.

Inspiration Tata Madiba. Apart from everything he gave me, he also taught me that, in every interaction with people, everyone is equal.

Wow moment Meeting the actors Will Smith and Denzel Washington in London. They’re such successful black people and I felt that, if they could do it, then I could too.

Life lesson As I journey through life, I realise that it is queer and twisted, but we should never give up.