Nozizwe Ka Mulela: Eswatini queen who wears many hats

Were you a journalist, and you got the opportunity to interview a queen, what questions would first run through your mind? Probably whether you will be required to show respect when she walks through the door, whether there’s a certain distance you will need to keep, or even whether there are certain questions that would get you thrown out of the room if you dared ask them.

These, and many other questions ran through my mind when I learnt that I was going to interview Queen Nozizwe Ka Mulela, the second wife of King Misuzulu Sinqobile ka Zwelithini-Zulu. And yes, I was apprehensive.

But this apprehension flew out the window immediately she walked in. She was regal-looking alright, tall and trim with an air of assurance about her, but with a wide, easy smile on her face and an outstretched slim hand which clasped mine warmly and held on for a few seconds.

“Hello, I’m Queen Nozizwe, it’s a pleasure to meet you,” she said. Her fingers were bare, devoid of any rings, and she spotted a short, elegant French manicure.

She had no entourage with her, just three people, a man and two women, whom she joked and laughed with as if they were peers. Queen Nozizwe was in the country at the invitation of the Forum for African Women Educationalists (FAWE) who were holding a gala dinner that aimed to raise funds in support of over 16 million plus girls in Africa to access education.

She was the chief guest at this event, which took place on November 25. It was no coincidence that she had this honour, you see, Queen Nozizwe is the patron of Faweswa, (FAWE, Eswatini chapter) an organisation that her mother, Prof Lydia Makhubu, a professor of Chemistry, started with other women educationalists back in the late 1980s. This was, as Queen Nozizwe would later put it during the interview, not just an organisation, but a place she considered home, a cause she is very passionate about.


But this is not the only hat that she wears, she is also the managing director of Eswatini Bank, the first woman to occupy this position since its establishment in 1965. It is an earned position, having held a number of roles in the banking sector during which she earned her MBA. She is also a lawyer, and in fact holds a master’s degree in law, going on to practice before turning her focus on banking. She has also sat on a number of boards. To really appreciate her accomplishments, you’d have to start from the beginning.


Queen Nozizwe Ka Mulela

Queen Nozizwe Ka Mulela is the managing director of Eswatini Bank, the first woman to occupy this position since its establishment in 1965. PHOTO | FRANCIS NDERITU | NMG

Tell us a little bit about your childhood

I was born and raised in Swaziland, which is now Eswatini, born of a Swati mother and Zambian father. I was brought up by my mother, and grew up with the maternal side of my family. Life was normal. My grandmother worked hard, therefore life wasn’t hard. She also prioritised education, therefore my mother and her siblings were very much educated and were advocates for education, especially education for the girl-child.

Due to the guidance and mentorship I received from my mother, I took school seriously and developed a liking for it. Even now, at this stage in my life, I’m still thinking about what studying I need to do.

I’m an only child, so, as you can imagine, I got all my mum’s attention. My mum lived for me, if I may put it that way, and because of that, you may think that I would turn out to be a spoilt brat, but my mum was a very strict parent, and ensured that I was properly guided and that whatever I did, I did not take anything for granted. I was also encouraged to take control of my life.

I am a lawyer by profession, I studied law, and then joined the banking industry, where I developed an interest in core banking and stopped practicing law. But being a lawyer, whatever work that you do, you find that there are legal aspects that come in, so my skills were not in vain. I started my banking career as company secretary and legal advisor at Standard Bank, Eswatini, going on to become a managing director of Eswatini Bank. As my career progressed, I continued to study, therefore, besides a master’s degree in law from Stellenbosch Business school, I also have a master’s in business administration, MBA, from the same institution. Obviously, there’s a lot of studying and education that brought me where I am today.

Is what you’re doing now what you wanted to do when growing up?

In high school, I wanted to be a doctor, therefore, even the courses that I chose were sciences. In hindsight, it was because my mother was a scientist, a professor of chemistry — my dad was also in the sciences. I therefore thought that maybe this was in my DNA, that I should also pursue sciences. When I finished high school and joined university, I studied sciences, with medicine in mind, but I failed in my first year.

My mother sat me down and pointed out that perhaps that wasn’t my path. She had pointed out this before, but I’d disregarded the observation. Referring to that point in my life, I was fortunate to have a parent in the education space. We had a discussed which identified what I was good at and my mum pointed out that I was good at talking and reading, so why not give arts a shot? I remember thinking to myself that I could actually make a good lawyer, though my mum always thought I’d make a fine judge.

When you joined banking, you worked as a company secretary and legal advisor, but you felt underutilised in those roles, unseen even, prompting you to take a lower position where you felt you’d add more value. Why is it important for one’s presence to be felt in the workplace?

I knew that I had more potential, that I needed to go into an environment where I could add value and do more. It is important that wherever you are, you try and bring out your light and ensure that the people around you see it. In male dominated environments, women will probably pull back and be reserved, and probably let the men go. It shouldn’t be this way. If you know that you have skills that can add value to whatever you’re working on, or wherever you are, then bring it out. Sometimes you might get push back, but you have to keep going and pushing.

You have sat on a number of boards, three actually, why did you take up these roles?

My motivation was two-pronged. First, it was for my development, for my career growth. You learn how things are done and how companies run and what leadership is all about. The second part is about what I as a woman was bringing in there. We’ve got different characteristics as women, and so we bring a certain balance wherever we are. For instance, men are more inclined to take risks without placing much thought to it, but women tend to pull back a bit and seize the situation, and look at all the angles. That kind of balance is required in decision-making. Women have characteristics that add a lot of value in institutions, especially in leadership.

In what ways do you plan to use your role as Faweswa patron to support the 16 million-plus girls to access education?

My mum founded Faweswa back in 1989. She and other women educationalists came together and founded this organisation, which has become home for me, and which I’m very passionate about. I need to ensure that it lives up to the values of FAWE, the mother organisation, in general. The challenge we’re faced with right now is resources, so resource mobilisation is key at this point. I aim to help the organisation to fundraise for its projects through my networks and position, to lure other women in positions similar to mine to join me, as well as the private sector, which I am in, to support my work.

The other is mentorship, I believe I am a role model, so mentoring girls is very close to my heart. The generation we have right now is faced with very many challenges. Our time was blissful, but our children today have many things going on, and need to be given guidance.

It’s been four months since I took on this role, and already, there are two organisations, both led by women, that have expressed interest in working with us and supporting us. These are women that have had the privilege of going to school, and now hold high positions of leadership. I therefore intend to use my position to get Faweswa up and running.

How do you plan to use your role as Zulu queen and Managing Director of Eswatini Bank and patron of Faweswa to promote representation of women in educational and scientific leadership roles?

The good thing about all these roles is that they give me a sense of responsibility, and I have no choice, I have to represent women. As queen, you will ask, what is she doing for women and for girls? You look at me as a managing director of a national bank, and you will say, there are few women in her position, what is she doing for other women, young women especially? You look at me as a patron of an organisation of this nature and you say to yourself, what value is she adding? So, whatever I do, I am called to support the rise and growth of women.

There are those that will ask, what about empowering the boy child?

When we talk about supporting the girl-child, we are not saying, let us overlook the boy-child. Elevating the girl-child came about because she was experiencing certain barriers, certain challenges. Some of these barriers are caused by, perhaps neglect of the boy-child, for instance leading to the escalating cases of gender-based violence.

If you look at such cases and start thinking hard, there are issues affecting the boy-child that have been overlooked, therefore it’s important that as we talk about the girl-child, we don’t forget the boy-child. We need to have programmes and initiatives that carry him along, bearing in mind that their challenges are different from those of girls.

Speaking of challenges that bedevil girls, say low levels of education, how would you compare the situation in your home country and Kenya?

The challenges that girls go through wherever they come from in Africa are similar, it is the level that varies. It is therefore important for us to share ideas as a continent on how best to tackle these challenges.

Take it upon yourself as a woman to be heard. Don’t shy away from requesting to be heard.

Are examples of women achievers enough to overcome the gender and cultural stereotypes that hold women back in Africa?

It is important to note that even though you’re an educated woman, it doesn’t mean doing away with your cultural values. When I visit my in-laws, for instance, I cover my hair with a headscarf, and see nothing wrong with this. I am respecting my in-laws by doing this. Culture demands that I do this, and it doesn’t take away my education, neither does it take away who I am as an educated woman.

I also go out to the maize fields and work just like other women. There’re certain cultural values that do not need to be done away or viewed as retrogressive simply because you’re educated.

You’ve been a career woman for years, has there been a situation where someone tried to stifle your voice, say during a board meeting? If so, how did you deal with it?

When it comes to how effectively you deal with such a situation, I think it depends on one’s character and the person that you are. I am vocal. I will tell the person trying to talk over me to allow me to speak. I don’t shy away from requesting to be heard. The reason why I maneuvered from being a company secretary to hold the position I hold today was because of this. I felt that the people in that room felt that all I was there to do was take notes. Take it upon yourself as a woman to be heard.

There’s the notion that to succeed in the corporate world as a woman, there are certain things that you have to sacrifice, and yet here you are, you have your career, a family, and no doubt a social life…

To be honest, it is true. There are sacrifices that one must make. For instance, I got married later in life, and this is largely because I was focused on my studies and getting my career in place. Some women can do both concurrently, though it will take longer, some will hold something in place and push another, some started with family, and are now focused on their careers. For many, social life also takes a back seat as they study or grow their careers. Something has got to give. Since I came from a family that was very clear about the importance of getting an education, I started with the career route, and when my career started taking shape.

Talking of getting married later in life, did you feel under pressure to settle down?

No way. I knew what I wanted, so there was no pressure. We’re different and want different things at different times, there’s no manual that says things have to be done in a certain way. I believe in going with the flow. As long as you’re happy with your life and how it’s moving, then that is all that matters.

You’re a queen, you could have chosen to put your career on hold and solely concentrate on this role, maybe take certain projects within your country and run with them, but you didn’t. Why?

Due to my background and upbringing, I’ve worked hard to be where I am, so I strongly believe that I cannot just up and leave everything. Instead, I should take all I have and use it to add value to other positions I hold. For instance, I’m now working with a bigger group of women than I did when I was just a managing director. Then I would just look after my staff and the organisation. As queen, now there’s a nation full of women and children to serve, so I’ve had to refocus and see what other ways I can add value in that space.

It doesn’t mean that now because I have the title I can afford to sit back, no, there’s work to be done.

The person reading this will want to know what a queen’s typical day entails…

Key for me, even as queen, is remaining true to myself, to not change who I am. I am also careful not to complicate my life. Once you start changing who you are, then you’ll never achieve what you set to achieve.

A normal working day for me starts at 4am. I start by working out, and especially enjoy road running, though nowadays I’m not doing it as much as I used to. I also do some meditation, and pray – I pray a lot. After that I get ready to go to work. I normally shut down after 8pm because I need time to myself after a hard day’s work.

My leisure is spent reading or listening to music, mostly worship or mentorship or motivation videos. On weekends, I’ll go road running, longer than during the week because there’s plenty of time. I will also throw in some sleep, and on Sundays, will go to church.

Away from work, first and foremost I’m a wife and a mother, so it’s about looking after my family, giving my support when and where it is needed. Listening where I’m expected to listen, and offering financial support where I can. In a nutshell, doing what a normal person with a family does.

Source:  The East African

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