In 1985, Khanyisile Kweyama left her entire life, family and all she knew behind and skipped the country at a time the heavy-handed apartheid government was clamping down on activists hellbent on bringing the oppressive system to its knees.
She smiles, looking surprised as she walks into the boardroom at the SABC towers, where we are waiting for her.
“I thought you were a lady,” she says, chuckling.
She had started her university education at Fort Hare University and joined the ANC in Swaziland in 1984. Ultimately, she found herself in Washington, DC, in the US, where she worked in the ANC office while studying towards a degree in business administration.
She also worked at the Lutheran lobbying office, which did a lot of anti-apartheid work.
Though Kweyama settled in and started a new life in the US, her heart was always in South Africa and she never stopped believing that there would be a time where she would need to come back home and re-establish herself.
She smiles when she speaks of her return in 1991 and the difficulties she and her family encountered.
“I was married with two children at the time. But when we were told it was time to go home, we packed our bags and went back,” Kweyama says.
She didn’t know what kind of country she was coming back to at the time.
“Transitioning wasn’t very easy. I remember coming back to South Africa in around August and there were no lights; it was permanently dark.
“When we went to white suburbs it was still untransformed in 1991, so we had neighbour issues; people still stared at you; the kids needed to study in Afrikaans, and they had never heard of it.”
She says they underestimated how returning people would feel. She got her first job at the University of the Witwatersrand and then found herself in the secretariat for Codesa during the transition negotiations.
Kweyama had the choice of taking up government jobs but opted for the corporate world because she found the bureaucratic network cumbersome and painful to navigate.
“I couldn’t deal with it,” she says.
Kweyama held top positions in some of the country’s best companies, among them Barloworld, Altech, BMW and Anglo American.
She was the first woman to be elected vice-president of the Chamber of Mines.
Despite all the success she was enjoying, it was lonely at the top, Kweyama recounts. Her family also suffered and her marriage fell apart.
The hardships, she says, were always going to be part of the package.
“I subsequently remarried. I’ve always had the ability to have a big heart and see things through. When you are Khanyisile, you are supposed to be a light that shines ahead,” she says.
Asked why she took up the SABC position as its interim chairperson, she pauses for a moment.
“The SABC is not a job, it’s like a calling. Through a combination of experience, good luck and God, I’ve always found myself in spaces where I can make a difference.
“You’ve got to be wanting to make a difference – it’s not about recognition, it’s about wanting to come up with a solution,” she says.
She adds: “When institutions such as the SABC … are under siege and you are asked to become part of the solution, it is very hard to say no, because that would mean you don’t put your money where your mouth is. I want to see some stability restored.” – firstname.lastname@example.org