more power to the women

HIGH FLIER: Thandi Orleyn. Pic. Unknown.
HIGH FLIER: Thandi Orleyn. Pic. Unknown.

It is a corner office but, perhaps in keeping with her modest nature, Thandi Orleyn's is not the biggest in the building.

There are actually two desks in here; she shares her space with another person.

Her desk tells the story better. It has more loose photographs than most albums. There's one of her with Sizwe Nxasana resplendent in academic regalia inside the home of the mayor of London. There are others of her with eminent African women, Gertrude Mongella among them. There are group pictures in places as far- flung as Washington DC and Cape Town. She's a face in the crowd.

But, once she starts talking, one realises she's privy to the big decisions taken by those who call the shots.

She sits on the board of the South African Reserve Bank. Has done for six years. So when the story is about how its governor, Tito Mboweni, behaves towards shareholders, Orleyn would know.

But perhaps the biggest story around this New Brighton-born human rights activist is that she's one of the 10 "most influential black directors on the JSE".

In a Business Times survey, Orleyn comes in at Number 9 in a BEE trailblazers' list that has MTN head Phuthuma Nhleko ranked above Number 1, Anglo American's Fred Phaswana whose market influence stands at a heady R982,5billion to Orleyn's R300,1billion.

Two indicators were used to rank the black JSE directors - the first measure was power or control and the second was influence over the market capitalisation of the companies they either managed or on whose boards they sat.

Peotona, a Setswana word coined to mean "seeds of greatness" by the four women who started it in 2005 - Orleyn, Dolly Mokgatlhe, Wendy Lucas-Bull and Cheryl Carolus - has two arms, an investment company and a Section 21 side.

"It was just fortuitous that we got together," says Orleyn. Big names in their own right, they had just left their high-profile work when they brainstormed the idea of Peotona, where they now work full-time. It was a risk from a business perspective that required them to take out second bonds on their homes, she says.

We have debt, she'd say later in the interview. But it helped that they were all, to use everyday business parlance, connected.

"We spoke to people we knew," she says, "like the Cyrils of this world." Cyril is Ramaphosa, a friend from the struggle days when Orleyn was in the United Democratic Front and he in the trade unions.

Incidentally, at a market influence of R694,8billion, Ramaphosa is ranked second in the survey.

"We were approached to invest in De Beers in 2005," says Orleyn, "that's how the public got to know us."

They have since moved - swiftly - to lap up shares in such companies as Lafarge, the cement people, and Reunert, a listed company whose stable includes the Nashua brand, to name but two. The development arm is strengthened by trusts in education and health, again to cite but two areas.

The expertise "we bring in on an issue-by-issue basis so we can keep mean and lean". She says each deal is "funded on its own so that it doesn't impact on others".

Black economic empowerment is a success that needs time, she says. She has a lot of respect for those like Patrice Motsepe and Herman Mashaba who, having started long before the legislation, "were poised to take advantage" when it became law.

While some people are natural-born entrepreneurs who feel they are suffocating inside their workplaces, others use employment to accumulate experience, "the network route" she calls it.

Young people should bide their time as "you may not know people, people may not know you. You may not have the clout to approach the bank".

"You need support from other people; even with our experience we still needed people to guide us through the labyrinth of starting out."

She sits on boards of companies such as Implats, Arcelor Mittal, Freeworld Coatings, Toyota SA and Ceramic Industries.

She makes the point of how only people with management experience can give strategic direction.

Tokenism has no place here as sitting on boards means one has to listen to other people and give one's own views.

Kicked out of Fort Hare for her involvement in student politics, she did two post-graduate degrees at Unisa before going to the same law firm as homeboy Barney Pityana, who is now vice chancellor and principal at her alma mater.

The daughter of Nomqhayiselo and Tommy Orleyn, she cut her teeth in civic politics with her peers Thozamile Botha, Sipho Pityana and Vusi Pikoli.

She moved to Johannesburg to marry Dr David Sekiti, with whom she has three children. In Katlehong, where she set up home, she came into contact with struggle veteran Bertha Gxowa: "My political life was guided by her."

She spent a decade with the Legal Resources Centre before a stint at the CCMA and more years in commercial private practice at law firm Routledge Modise. It is thanks to this background that she's now adjunct professor in labour law at UCT. Here she's expected to write, fund-raise and teach - at least twice a year.

A book she co-wrote with two other academics was launched three years ago, she says.

She thinks highly of Dr Mamphela Ramphele "who can't be pigeon-holed". Ramphele is ranked third after Ramaphosa.

Graca Machel is another of Orleyn's favourite people.

She also thinks highly of self-made men like Bill Lynch, who founded Imperial "from nothing" and Donald Gordon, who started Liberty Life from scratch in the 1960s. The likes of Bill Venter took advantage of opportunities created exclusively for whites by apartheid policies "so there's nothing wrong with BEE".

She's just finished reading In a Different Time by Peter Harris and has started paging through Mac Maharaj's Shades of Difference.

"When I get home, unless there's a deal or something urgent to be done, I eat dinner and read."

Cricket, which she serves by being on the audit committee of the ICC, the International Cricket Council, is another welcome distraction.

She plays golf - no handicap mentioned. She never misses the 702 Walk the Talk and she loves travelling.

She's away in Dubai as you read this, likely to bring back another photograph for her desk - and an enhanced wealth of experience.