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Crusader for advancing females

SONJA Sebotsa, principal partner at the black women-owned company Identity Partners, passed over an opportunity to be a lawyer for financial services because she wanted to make a difference in the post-apartheid project.

Her take on empowerment is practical and refreshing in contrasts to the common enrichment schemes that masquerade as BEE.

Sebotsa, 38, set up Identity Partners with Polo Radebe, former chief director of BEE in the Department of Trade and Industry, and Raisibe Morathi of Motheo Trust, chief financial officer at Nedbank.

Formed in 2008 the company aims to bring women into the mainstream economy. Since launching and taking a stake in Inala Technologies in its first year, the company has bought into Etana Insurance and Netstar among other entities.

Through its SME fund the group has also funded smaller players such as Tautona Tours and Safaris in Rustenburg in North West and Gaming Zone in Johannesburg.

"We want to take empowerment to the next level," Sebotsa says. "We want black people to run and own businesses, so we support new businesses.

"We want to help create jobs, which we hope will be our legacy. But we also carry out new deals since it would be silly to ignore those opportunities,"

She is unhappy about the dearth of women in business and about so few women having benefitted from BEE.

"It's not a problem in itself that men are the biggest BEE recipients, but there has to be more women entrepreneurs in the BEE space," says the crusader for women advancement.

Sebotsa is something of a world citizen. Her DNA is made up of social and economic activism. A laatlammetjie in a family of three, she was born in Lusaka to political activist parents, educated in London and Montreal and did voluntary work for the UN.

Her parents, Bennie de Bruyn and Sophie Williams (one of the leaders of the 1956 women's march to the Union Building), fled the country during the repressive 1960s.

"The liberation struggle authored my birth and it influenced my growing up," Sebotsa says.

Childhood in Zambia featured Saturday classes or "The Club", which attuned young South Africans to the developments back home. This included cultural and history lessons.

"I never doubted my wish to live in a free and democratic South Africa. Thankfully, we were all able to come home," Sebotsa says.

Returning to her ancestral land for the first time as a teenager triggered mixed emotions.

In 1990 the liberation movements were unbanned. Madiba and his comrades were released. The euphoria was palpable.

Sebotsa's return in 1992, armed with an LLB (Hons) from the London School of Economics, was short-lived because of her "blind spot".

She notes the importance of the constitutional-negotiations era.

"I realised that a lot of ground had to be covered in our development as a society," she says. "I realised my own ignorance on the economic front.

"I wondered how free citizens would exercise their economic rights. Notwithstanding the political freedom, our progressive Bill of Rights and the fact that we were going to be able to vote, those things wouldn't matter in changing our lives unless we were able to exercise those rights. We needed to do more economically," she says.

"While our parents had won us political freedom, our generation would have the burden of converting that freedom into improved lives through economic emancipation. That's when I discovered my blind spot."

Having decided on a change of career she won a scholarship to do an MA in economic policy management at Canada's McGill University.

On her return in 1997, she joined Deutsche Bank as an analyst and worked her way up to vice-president . She left the bank in 2002 to work for WDB Investment Holdings as an executive director.

She relished her five years at WDB, a group dedicated to the upliftment of rural women, because it enabled her to use her "tool kit" of investment banking to empower women. And there are similarities between WDB and Identity Partners Partners.

This company is not the only transformative vehicle Sebotsa is involved with . She is also part of New Faces New Voices, an NGO Graça Machel is a patron of.

It aims to "reshape the global financial systems" by, for instance, encouraging the sector to transform and offer more products suited to women, even those outside the mainstream.

She says financial services is key to unlocking the economy for women and the struggle continues.

"Women should raise their voices and men should support them because when women are better off, society is better off," Sebotsa says.


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