Who is this young lady who was named number one in a selection of top 35 young accountants by the South African Institute of Chartered Accountants (SAICA), and chooses to serve in South Africa’s public sector? SUSAN BENTLEY met MPHO MOOKAPELE
Award-winning accountant and CEO Mpho Mookapele, who chooses to work in the public sector to be part of a solution to South Africa’s challenges. ‘To me, success is living your purpose daily,’ she says | Photo: Ross Bentley
‘MY MOTHER TAUGHT ME TO BE TRUE TO WHO I AM, REGARDLESS OF WHO IS WATCHING OR NOT WATCHING’: SAVOUR WHERE MPHO COMES FROM AND WHERE SHE’S GOING
Mpho (36) is the CEO of South Africa’s Energy and Water Sector Education Training Authority (EWSETA). She grew up with five siblings in the village of Dinokana in South Africa’s North West Province, close to the Botswana border. Her father was an informal employee and her mother ran a crèche. Mpho attended Keobusitse Primary School in Zeerust and Athlone Girls’ High School in Johannesburg before achieving a B Comm Accounting at the University of Johannesburg and qualifying as a chartered accountant. She lives in Johannesburg
GROWING UP IN A VILLAGE where we collected drinking water from afar and without the material privileges most kids have, I consider myself to have had the most exciting and privileged childhood, rich in experience and love. I had the freedom to be a child, as well as time to study.
My first inspiration in life was my mom’s big heart. She was a pre-school teacher who started her own crèche, giving the gift of discipline to her children and most of the children in Dinokana village. She started teaching a few kids under the trees. Over a period of 15 years, the class grew to 300 children and eventually a building was erected.
When I was nine, she had to leave home to join my father in Johannesburg to find better-paid work, leaving my 15 year-old sister in charge of my brother and me while my aunt looked after my youngest sister, Lesego. Even in Mom’s absence, as young as we were, we continued to work hard and produced good results in school, which stood me in good stead. Growing up, I was actually very naughty at home and at school but my good academic record stopped me getting into trouble!
Mpho: ‘I was actually very naughty but my good academic record stopped me from getting into trouble!’ | Photo: Ross Bentley
‘My first inspiration in life was my mom’s big heart’, says Mpho. ‘When I was nine she had to leave home to find work in Johannesburg, leaving my sister in charge of my brother and me’
My mom had grown up without any parents, and I think she really worked hard to provide the stable home for us that she hadn’t experienced herself. When we were older, our older siblings were able to have us to live with them in Johannesburg, where I attended Athlone Girls’ High School. After school, I felt I needed to go to university even though I knew there was only a slim chance of my parents affording the tuition. Only a small percentage of girls from my home village go to university and I wanted to be part of that group. I knew that I could never fund my own tertiary education. At the time, my dad was working informally for someone. I made an appointment to see his employer, and asked him if he would be prepared to fund my first year in university.
I was very nervous going there and didn’t even feel that I had the right English words with which to present my proposal. I think my dad was even more nervous, probably thinking I might mess up his job. I was taking my chances and had no guarantees, but thought my story and request was worth listening to and considering. My matric results were not too bad so that also gave me confidence. I presented my request, we had a short conversation and he offered me funding. I felt so excited, that I was winning a battle I needed to fight myself. He funded my first year and then I was able to apply for bank funding for the rest of my studies, which I’ve now paid off myself. I’m scared to think where I might be now if I hadn’t been given the chance to go to university after school.
Initially, at university I felt out of place. I didn’t wear the ‘right’ clothes or easily fit into any of the different groups of people. I did, however, find myself in an interesting learning space with people who freely voiced their opinions about everything, something I couldn’t do at first. It helped to cling to the fact that God thinks highly of me, just as He does of us all. Ultimately I made solid friendships, became comfortable with who I was and learnt to express myself better.
Failing was a shock
My greatest discouragement came when I failed my honours year. I’d been so happy to be sponsored by Ernst & Young for this year, which had allowed me to finally live in a student residence. I’d been doing well academically throughout the year and then, boom, I failed my final exam! It was a real shock. My faith in God was truly tested at this time. I struggled to understand how God had allowed this. But after grappling with the fact that I needed to trust Him rather than my own analytical mind, I went on to achieve my honours and to write and pass my board exams!
Above and below: Failing a university year was a shock but the girl from Dinokana village bounced forward to hit Paris and Rome!
Through my exam failure, I learnt that I don’t know it all. Failing indicates needed growth in a particular area. Failure also taught me not to solely rely and lean on my own understanding, but to realise there’s an all-knowing God I can lean on. The experience prepared me to minister to those who have failed, with a bit more understanding around the fact that we aren’t perfect.
To me, success is living your purpose daily. It is like the sun coming up every day and serving its purpose regardless of the weather. Whether clear skies or partly cloudy, the sun comes out daily and fully serves its purpose. It’s the same for us. Success is knowing your purpose and then doing it, no matter the circumstances.
Since qualifying, I have felt called to serve in the public sector. I’ve been told that I don’t dream big enough when compared to my fellow CAs because there’s not much recognition or material returns. But I believe you should do what you feel called to do. I believe leadership is more important than money, and in my current space that means influencing people to want to serve their country, and encouraging them to influence others to serve in turn.
I’ve come to realise it is important to do what I believe is right and moral, even when no one is watching. It enables me to call out corruption with confidence, with no fear. This gives me a tremendous sense of freedom.
Mpho on official duty by day, and by night with the 2020 and 2018 winners of the South African Institute of Chartered Accountants top award
Many South African professionals are comfortable sitting out and critiquing from afar without getting involved and being part of the solution. We’re comfortable to benefit from government bursaries and scholarships, but we never want to serve that same government.
The most significant career highlight for me has been walking into an organisation and being able to influence policies and change peoples’ lives in a real way. I’d never dreamt of being a CEO, yet here I am in a position to contribute to skills development and influence government policy to ensure that we’re good stewards of our critical energy and water resources.
I was nominated for the ‘Top 35 Under 35’ award from the South African Institute of Chartered Accountants (SAICA) without my knowledge. Winning the award brought pride into my family and to the village of Dinokana. Especially so when I heard it has motivated a number of young women from similar backgrounds across our country in their dreams to succeed.
It’s important to me as a young woman, once a young girl who lacked confidence, to contribute to other young girls who might be struggling to find their place in society. So I sponsor the Miss Dinokana Beauty Pageant annually. It’s a chance for young women to grow in self-awareness, appreciate who they are, and be confident in their own skin. It gives me joy when a young girl confidently, and with a smile, walks across the stage regardless of her circumstances and her worries for tomorrow. If a young lady can find the courage to do that, what else is possible? The courage and confidence to walk on such small stages will lead you to walk into a boardroom and sit at the table with confidence, and that courage will also get you on higher platforms, believing and trusting that you can, regardless of where you come from.
The winner is selected not only on external beauty but also on her character and potential as a role model to the other girls in the village. My desire is to give opportunities to these girls. I appreciate any support in building the young women who will contribute meaningfully to society. Many of the girls in my village don’t study beyond school and I would one day like to offer bursaries for them to develop their potential further.
Miss Dinokana Beauty Pageant 2020 participants in action. Mpho sponsors the Miss Dinokana Beauty Pageant annually. ‘It’s a chance for young women to be confident in their own skin,’ she says. ‘When a young girl, confidently, and with a smile, walks across the stage regardless of her circumstances and her worries for tomorrow, what else is possible?’
Mpho with Miss Dinokana organiser Masego Dipale. ‘One day I would love to offer bursaries for these girls to study further,’ says Mpho
WATCH MPHO: MY DEFINITION OF SUCCESS? A POSITIVE RIPPLE EFFECT
My mom relied totally on God and taught me that we serve Him by serving people. When people tell me that it’s old-fashioned to believe in God, my response is, how about registering in the school of relevance?! To me, life with God is a life of relevance, a life of purpose and meaning and I believe that people who rely on themselves are missing out on experiencing the abundance of life that comes with knowing God. Life isn’t an easy road and I believe we’re here to live out our diverse purposes, trusting God and seeing him work in the day-to-day events of our lives.
As a thank you to my parents, who never really had much, I designed and built a house for them to ensure they can live comfortably in their old age. Finally, they have access to flowing hot water without having to boil it in a pot! When Mom turned 70 in 2018, I thanked her for her love with a trip to Israel, her first trip overseas, which she still talks about today. ‘It shows how good God is,’ she says.
Above and below: Mpho’s parents, who she thanked for their lifelong support by building them a house. She also took her mother on a trip to Israel that she still talks about
Relaxed times: above, Mpho (right) in Cape Town with her sister Lesego on her 30th birthday, and below she finds joy in nature
If you’d like to support young women from Dinokana village in any way via Mpho, send her an email