Vodacom’s Chief Human Resources Officer Matimba shares his coming home story
Matimba: My name is Matimba Mbungela, born and bred in Bushbuckridge in Mpumalanga and I currently live in Johannesburg.
Interviewer: I believe you spent time abroad.
Matimba: Yes, I did. I spent about 3 years in England with my family. We had a wonderful time because it was quite exciting being there.
Interviewer: Why did you go to England?
Matimba: I always had an inkling of wanting to work overseas actually and I suppose I have been kind of fortunate having worked for multinationals… Having been part of the Vodafone family, an opportunity came early in 2010 and based on the collaboration and the relationship that I had with people from the group, I was approached for a role in London. So, we picked up and went to live in a beautiful home near Windsor.
Interviewer: How did your wife and children transition when they were there?
Matimba: I think it was tough, really difficult. I suppose one of the things is the timing. We went in winter. So, basically that year it was one of the coldest winters, I think, in about 50 years or something. So, that was hard.
Interviewer: What did you miss most about South Africa?
Matimba: Blue skies. I really missed family as well. Plus support from the household chores perspective. We often don’t realize how spoiled we are at home when you have got a helper in the house,
Interviewer: Did you know that it was a 3-year horizon?
Matimba: Actually, initially it was 2 years and then we extended by a year.
Interviewer: Right. So, you knew it was coming to an end.
Interviewer: Was there sadness at leaving UK?
Matimba: I consider it my second home and the kids do as well, so lots of sadness. I mean, the old saying that an expat, you will see tears when we arrive and also tears when we leave. It literally came alive with us. To be honest with you, it wasn’t easy leaving because it was a great adventure…
Interviewer: Wow. I have never heard that “tears when you leave and tears when you arrive” because it’s true that always there is a mixed feeling. People will never know for sure.
Matimba: Definitely. But from a career perspective it was very clear that I was going to come back home hopefully to something “big” but unfortunately there was no promise and I had to take the risks.
Interviewer: Did you find it easy to settle back in?
Matimba: Well my wife had enrolled for MBA in the UK which was a brilliant thing, yet hard at the same time because now she had big responsibilities. She had to stay on for 3 and a half months. I came back earlier with the kids and she stayed back.
Interviewer: Oh, that’s hard.
Matimba: And the synchronization of the kids’ school calendars was a bit of a challenge too. And I suppose it’s also that people see you differently.
Interviewer: Are they threatened or are they weary?
Matimba: I wouldn’t say threatened. They are just not sure whether it’s the same person. It’s important to have humility. I always say I am still the same village boy who used to herd goats in Bushbuckridge.
Interviewer: Yes. At Homecoming Revolution we stress the importance of having a sense of humility.
Matimba: And I suppose I have got more of a purpose now coming back home.
Interviewer: So, tell me how you are still making a difference.
Matimba: The key is getting more into career coaching for people. There is one NGO that approached me through work and I have created a platform for them to come and do that here, to get that opportunity here to work. It’s quite interesting how the kids also have been driven to make a difference.
Interviewer: Matimba, what do you miss about the UK?
Matimba: Things are easier there. In the UK they obviously have so much infrastructure investment. Plus that you can walk everywhere and its safe.
Interviewer: So what would you say to somebody considering coming back?
Matimba: Essentially my view is coming back home was worth it. It’s worth it by far. I have been in different parts of the world – New Zealand, Turkey, New York, Mumbai, Egypt, Ghana, Qatar, Tokyo etc. But I think that there is something unique about the vibe of South Africa. Let’s admit it, there is no country that’s perfect. South Africa has got its own challenges but I think this is the best country to live in by far.
Interviewer: And your career? Can you have as much of an innovative career here as you could abroad?
Matimba: I suppose if I look to Europe, would I have got the same opportunity that I have? I don’t know. This is one of the Top HR jobs in the country. So, certainly it’s a massive opportunity for me to make a difference in the business and also in the country. The other thing is that having had an international career, you come back, you are a gem, right? People value your contribution and I suppose there is a level of confidence that comes with that, people respect your input. So, here in SA there are massive opportunities and from that perspective we are an emerging economy, an economy that needs those skills …
Interviewer: What skills are Vodacom needing?
Matimba: Okay, you know our business. Our industry and telecoms has changed a lot. The whole issue of differentiation becomes quite critical. So having a mixture of skills is critical for differentiation. I find that we can be very insular as a country because we are a successful country on the continent. We must be careful not to be too complacent sometimes, when you think that the African continent is booming.
Interviewer: … that they are not hungry enough…
Matimba: Yeah, we need to be much more edgy and go for it, look for the opportunities. I hear people complain about the government. My experience is that there are governments that are worse than ours even in the developed markets which honestly is not spoken about but I look at what happens, I look at actually the infrastructure investment that is happening on a day-to-day basis literally. There are much more opportunities than difficulties.
Interviewer: At Homecoming Revolution we are attracting South Africans, Nigerians and Kenyans back home to their respective countries. And we are finding that many South African business are expanding into Africa and it’s a huge opportunity.
Matimba: Yeah, it’s really big and South Africa is better positioned to be really a gateway to Africa – infrastructure, language and essentially the size of our economy as well. Yeah, Nigeria is now the leading economy in the continent but if you look at the diversity of our economy, we are much well positioned. If you look at big retailers in our country, if you look at infrastructure like mining and telecoms, we are really a leading economy. But there is still lots to be done.
Interviewer: Lots of work to be done.
Matimba: Yeah, lots of work to be done but we need people to come back.
Interviewer: What do you see as the hardest things for attracting Africans abroad and convincing them to come?
Matimba: My personal view is that family circumstances will drive the decision. I have got colleagues who actually are dying to come back home for family reasons. It’s also about the opportunities. A sense of hope is not big enough, we need to make sure people understand that there really are big opportunities back home.
Interviewer: Matimba, I would love you to comment on what our expat white men call ‘the pale male problem’. Have you seen that with the international expertise?
Matimba: In Europe the whole subject of diversity has gone beyond color because even if you are black, the fact that you are a male in Europe means that actually a female counterpart will get ahead of you. That’s where the world is going. Does that mean that as a man you just sit back and say, “Opportunities are going to go past me”? No. You have to work harder and create opportunities for yourself. I’m not necessarily saying that if you are a white man, you won’t feel threatened back in the country because diversity has become a key driver. All I am saying is that diversity is a bigger issue throughout the world. The way to progress is about how well positioned you are, how strong your capabilities are. In South Africa there is no reason why a person who has got the right capabilities cannot come in and have a bigger role. To our white male colleagues, I will say, “Come back home.” There is an opportunity for you. Plus you can really help by coaching other young people and nurturing their career.
Interviewer: At Homecoming Revolution we find there are so many scarce skill opportunities whether you are pink, brown, green or blue.
Matimba: What you are doing is really important. I think we need to elevate Homecoming Revolution more and encourage skills to come back and highlight the opportunities. This will make people feel certain that they want to come back home.
Interviewer: Thank you so much. Is there any last word you want to say?
Matimba: Thank you. Thanks for this opportunity to share my story.