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Icon's daughter pushes for economic power

Sophie De Bruyn is the only surviving woman among those who led the historic march on August 9 1956 to the Union Buildings.

The march against the apartheid pass laws was attended by thousands of women from different racial backgrounds. Following the dawn of democracy, August 9 is celebrated as Women's Day.

Today her daughter Sonja De Bruyn-Sebotsa shows that political freedom and equality are not the end in themselves.

De Bruyn-Sebotsa's focus is on investing in established businesses as well as giving loans to entrepreneurs.

De Bruyn-Sebotsa, born in Lusaka, Zambia, where her parents were exiled, started thinking about how black people would participate meaningfully in the economy when she returned home before the 1994 elections.

"I thought, as a nation, we need to think about the future.

"What will the democracy mean for our people? What will voting mean to us as a nation? How will democracy change the lives of the people?

"My parents and others focused on the liberation struggle, they gave us political freedom. Now my generation's job is to ensure everyone attains economic freedom," she says.

She returned home armed with an LLB from London School of Economics and a master's degree in economics and business from McGill University in Canada.

The good education allowed her to put her thoughts together while working for big investment companies. These included Deutsche Bank, where she was responsible for black economic transactions, mergers and acquisitions, and Women's Development Bank, where she was involved with building investments to benefit a rural women's empowerment fund.

Apart from serving on several boards, she was part of one of former president Thabo Mbeki's business working groups.

These experiences helped her build a solid foundation for her and business partner Polo Leteka Radebe to start Identity Capital Partners in 2008.

The company has a business development fund, focusing mainly on women and youth.

Her posh open-plan office in Illovo, Johannesburg, tells a story of who she admires for their historical role in the country. The office boardrooms are named after influential African leaders such as King Moshoeshoe, Shaka Zulu, Julius Nyerere, Queen Modjadji and Queen Manthatisi.

The open-plan office also tells a story of her management style. She says, with the kind of deals they do, it is important as a leader to be close to the people she works with because if there is a crisis they just shout. There's no need to knock on her office door.

We settle in the Shaka Zulu boardroom where De Bruyn speaks proudly about how they built a women-led investment company that empowers others, including men. The minimum loan they have given out was R250000 and the maximum R1.7-million. So far, they have written off 20% of the loans, which she says is normal when businesses are not doing well.

She says their investment horizon is up to five years, after which they measure the performance of the recipients of the business loans.

"We have to date financed 70 businesses and 54 of them are women-owned. We finance people who are involved in the day-to-day running of their operations and expect them to pay back the loans within five years. We are not funding the BEE deals."

She admits that funding developing business has risks. Identity Capital Partners takes the risks that banks don't want. But they have a unit that monitors the bank accounts of their clients and those that need mentoring get help.

"It is important to provide them with support and we also do entrepreneurial assessment.

"Do they have that personality to run [a] business? Can they stand the challenges?"

The sectors that her company does not focus on because they will not have made money in five years include primary mining, property, primary agriculture, gambling and the liquor business.

She is happy that they have generated success stories which show that, with funding, aspirant entrepreneurs can live their dream. She believes, for anyone to be successful in business, they must plan ahead and save money.

She recalls that when she opened the company with her business partner Radebe, they did not draw salaries for some time and they were also given offices by a friend until they could get on their feet.

She and Radebe also built their company's investment portfolio and have interests in mining, transport, logistics and the food sector.

De Bruyn-Sebotsa says they have so far concluded 14 deals and have exited two, meaning they have sold their shares.

She is happy that the government has a target to create 100 black industrialists in three years, but "we need to ask ourselves how many are going to be women".

"It cannot end up being all men. We need black women industrialists but it must be those who understand what needs to be done."

She strongly believes that black people need economic influence not only political influence. And, that they cannot reach that level through favours and political connections. People must earn their stripes, she says.