Strategy to transform the economy must not exclude start-ups, which represent the demographics of the country, and big business must support their efforts
He may not be much publicised, but businessman and author Simphiwe Mdlalose has been around for more than a minute and holds strong views about what can boost transformation to acceptable levels in South Africa.
In a conversation with City Press at one of the businesses he co-owns in the east of Johannesburg, the Soweto-born entrepreneur, articulates issues as passionately as a clergyman.
Mdlalose says the country needs to put ownership back in the centre of its economic transformation agenda in order to reach the “promised land”.
“A few black faces in the business does not make that business transformed. In the early days of BEE, there was a huge emphasis on ownership and it was a driver. But now it’s no longer a key business imperative and I think we need to go back there where ownership of business, especially established business, must begin to reflect the demographics of the country.
“If we can’t do that then we are not transforming the landscape,” he says, adding that the strategy to transform the economy must not exclude start-ups which represent the demographics of the country.
“We need to do both, for the sake of scale, because the established businesses took many years to be that big and we must also start our own,” he says.
Mdlalose, who graduated from the University of the North (now part of the University of Limpopo) with a Bachelor of Commerce degree, started his career as a station manager at a campus radio station before becoming a founding member of the National Community Radio Forum as a national training manager in 1996.
He helped set up community radio stations across the country and neighbouring countries.
“In 2000, a brother of mine, Given Mkhari [with whom I had a pact to start a business], and I connected and we decided it was the right time to start it and that was the birth of The Communications Firm (TCF),” he says.
After co-founding TCF, the two went on to start MSG and its first acquisition was an interest in Quarto Press, one of the businesses he now runs.
“MSG was born out of TCF and this business [Quarto Press] was one of the first businesses we bought into and when I left MSG, I left with it as part of our agreement,” he says.
The holding company went on to buy several businesses and acquired a number of radio station licences. The first licence was for Limpopo-based commercial station, Capricorn FM. “I told my partners that if we win the licence I would relocate to Limpopo and that’s exactly what happened. I relocated in 2007.”
After being CEO of Capricorn FM for six years, he was roped in to oversee another start-up station – Power FM – which he only did for a few months before exiting the group.
“I took a sabbatical when I left MSG. I knew at the time that I needed to respond to a call even though a lot of people questioned why I would leave at what was supposed to be the top of our game,” he explains his decision to quit three months after the Gauteng-based Power FM was launched.
Mdlalose, a deeply religious lay pastor, says the best decision at that point was to exit the investment group entirely rather than hold on to it while his focus was elsewhere.
“If I wanted to do it well [motivational speaking] I needed to treat it as a business. Public speaking is a multimillion-rand business and I needed to dedicate myself if I wanted it to be my business,” he says.
After going solo, Mdlalose started a media agency with former comedian Shonisani “Ashifashabba” Muleya, that targeted community media.
It was then that the mayor of Polokwane, Freddy Greaver, suggested that he should help with the setting up of a community radio station for the city.
Enter Energy FM, whose board of directors he now chairs. It is one fastest growing community radio stations in Limpopo and Mdlalose considers its manager, Bothwell Matewe, a great mentee of his. After Energy FM, Mdlalose also helped establish Choice FM, a community station in Thohoyandou in 2016.
“The two radio stations [Capricorn FM and Choice FM] are really projects I am giving back through,” he says.
After leaving MSG Mdlalose says he grappled with cash flow.
“Cash flow was a major problem. It’s so important that if you don’t have it [cash] then you don’t have a business. The second major problem was packaging and defining products for the market because even if people want to support you, you have to have something worthy for their money to buy,” Mdlalose says.
He is quick to add that the experience was actually enjoyable because it took him back to the basics of business.
Through Mdlalose Holdings he has managed to establish several ventures, including an exhibition specialist business and a communications company.
He conducts his public motivational talks, publishes his motivational books as well as offers leadership training and coaching through this company.
“Bonnke and I were doing a show called the Sheltered Zone on Capricorn FM and from that content we co-wrote our first book,” Mdlalose says of the first book co-authored with the current TCF chief executive Bonnke Shipalana.
Mdlalose recently launched his seventh book but has already started writing his ninth book.
“I am already two years ahead. I do not have a problem of developing content because it is my calling.
“My motivation comes from a personal relationship with God because I’ve learnt that unless your relationship with whoever you believe in is personal then that relationship will be defined by other people than yourself,” Mdlalose says.
He adds that his next mission is to train and develop Christian authors.
He holds Fani Titi and Nkunku Sowazi in high regard and considers both as role models for the roles they each played in his formative years in business.
An avid golfer when not spending time with his family or running his businesses, Mdlalose believes in unlocking the potential of young businesspeople through motivation.