Building Africa with her voice: Lebogang Chaka
Lebogang Chaka is building Africa with her voice. Her story starts like that of many Africans with intent of leaving the continent and never returning. But like many in the diaspora we find that the pull of home is just too strong to resist and we ultimately kowtow to the urge to return to our roots. Thankfully, in the spirit of sankofa we find we can always come home again because what we are born to do and what we have to give to Africa is a gift too big to withhold. Lebogang spoke to me from Johannesburg via Skype.
EB: Tell us about yourself, from the beginning. What is Lebogang’s story?
LC: For me my story begins in the small town of Mafikeng – in North Western South Africa. I went from being a normal South African school to an international School of South Africa where 10% of the kids were South African and most were children from other African countries. It was my first exposure to the fact that there existed life beyond just South Africa. There were a couple of disparities in terms of me being in the school, in terms of where all these kids were from in comparison to myself, but my parents just wanted me to have a good education. On holidays these children would travel to Disneyland while the rest of us would travel to our villages to be with our grandparents. So I had it in my mind that I was going to live abroad as a way of acquiring what I thought was the best thing ever.
I then went to Australia to study with the intention of staying, but when I got there that’s when I actually fell in love with being an African. I missed simple things like we greet each other all the time – whether you know me or not. I missed home in that sense that there were things that were just purely African. For the first time I was part of the African diaspora as well so here I was in a different country and it didn’t matter which African country you came from, we were together. I enjoyed that because it stretched me; it stretched my narrow-mindedness. I remember there was a lecturer who asked us to write an assignment and he said you needed to define yourself – I defined myself as a black South African because coming from South Africa my only lens was black and white. My definition of ‘self’ has changed to a point right now that when I talk about identity and I always say I don’t even subscribe to myself being a South African. I now see myself as an African.
EB: What did you study in school?
LC: I studied African Studies through the Thabo Mbeki African Leadership Institute. It’s a six month course. I studied Africa and International Trade, African Thought Leadership and then I said to myself I have to understand the narrative of the African woman so I did a course in Critical Gendered Policy Planning and Process. I was looking at the voice of the woman in policy and how the women can be represented in policy in the continent and on the globe. I also studied a Masters of International Business and a Bachelor of Business and Commerce from Monash University, Australia. I am currently studying PhD in African migrant entrepreneurship within the informal sector with the Gordon Institute of Business Science. I believe that education is the bridge between our past and future and can take us further as a continent.
EB: How did that experience then lead you back home to Africa?
LC: There was a complete change. From being exposed to that and being a part of the African diaspora community I then came home because I then decided I wanted to serve. The irony was that my parents had said to me when I boarded the plane for Australia that I must go the West and get a certificate and come home and help my people. At that point in time I thought I wasn’t going to come back so I was not listening to them. It is only in hindsight now that I realized that I actually listened to them and came home and I am pursuing a life of service.
EB: What did it feel like to come home? Was it an easy transition because you had now discovered this new identity?
LC: Coming home was also quite a shock for me. As much as I had grown up in South Africa I had a grown up in a place that was called a homeland and had its own government, Bophuthatswana. It was pre 1994 (when Apartheid ended and Nelson Mandela was released) is when we were incorporated into the ‘new’ South Africa. In that homeland we used to have multiracial schools. As a result, to a great extent, we were hidden to the everyday realities of apartheid. Coming home and joining a traditional corporate opened my eyes to some of the realities and fault lines that still lie in our society as South Africans.
I decided to go back to school to study African Studies to find out who I am as an African and what my actual narrative is. Now that I’m home, what can I do to make it all better? This is what started my journey with African Studies and that’s what actually caused the most disruption in my life, because then I went into literature and found out the unjust history of our continent. This changed from my previous understanding of what it meant to be an African… and to know that the borders are not even an African construct that was a defining moment in my life. Understanding what we need to do as Africans to make sure that we can leave a sustainable impact for upcoming generation. So that’s when I started saying I need to speak, I can’t keep quiet. That’s when I started my career as a Pan African speaker.
EB: How did this new knowledge inform the way you speak? How did it help you find your voice and your message?
LC: My approach to speaking then became intentional. I took the stance that, if I’m preparing myself to lead at a continental level and at a global level, I need to understand both African and international issues. I believe strongly that I can’t say I’m crafting myself to be a continental leader but only specialize in leadership and climate change and I don’t understand trade issues. So my speaking and my thinking had a clear evolution; I rose to the continental level, I rose to the global level. If I am making a point for the continent, then I need to understand that and I need to speak about that. I intentionally talk about a broad range of issues that affect the continent and the diaspora. My speaking career caused another disruption to my corporate career where I had to leave my corporate job and go off my own and start a practice where I feel that I’m doing more meaningful work towards the continent. It was important to me that I’m also speaking freely and not worrying about what corporation I represent. That has been my journey.
EB: As a child what was in your mind when you thought about your life ahead of you?
LC: In primary school I wanted to be the Minister of Health. In high school I wanted to study Drama to become an actress, but my parents would not pay for a drama degree. There is irony in how I have graduated to being a speaker, which is very similar to being in drama. All the careers that I wanted to be as a kid are sort of converging now. Now I’m interested in policy work, I’m interested in protecting our continent which is very ministerial. When you speak, you are a performer, you are on stage. I think my journey has taught me that parents need to guide their children but one thing that I know is that you will become what you’re meant to become.
EB: That’s powerful! So you named your company Afro-Visionary. What’s the vision for you from your perspective?
LC: The vision from my perspective is that I’m going to have this company that whatever it touches will be towards the renewal of the continent. For me, it’s a company that is concerned about African matters – whether it be in business, public, social, civil society. I’m interested in making an impact that will see the less vulnerable in our continent become better. My vision is to go for impact. Some of the work that I’m doing – like the leadership development programme I’m doing with entrepreneurs- I’m influencing what they think about twenty years from now and they’re talking about being pro impact. I want to be able to contribute to ten years, twenty years even and I always want to be long-term-focused as opposed to short term. It doesn’t matter what it takes. The vision is really to be purposed in what I do. As Africans, we should contribute towards our continent, including those who are doing the day to day work. We want to be the company that safeguards Africa.
EB: Why is that important to you? When you look across the continent and you travel to most of it, why is that safeguard important for that future?
It is very important because on our continent a lot of our people have been deprived of opportunity – deprived of the opportunity to exposure – exposure just getting an education or simple travel. If you are one of the people who has had opportunity, we have to safeguard our continent and work towards its renewal. It is our duty to protect those who don’t even know. Once you have so much given to you it is your duty to stand for those that that do not have much. I think it also comes from being a management consultant. We get to advise on very sensitive issues within organizations and government and drive change, yet nobody will know that consultants were involved in driving the organizational change. The reason why the company is not closing down is because you and your team did not sleep at night and the reason why there is turnover is because you made the sacrifice as a management consultant. So for me, it is best way to be a guardian for the continent, to work in the shadows. I don’t even want a Thank You, just to safeguard my people.
EB: There is a lot of conviction in your work and clearly it’s coming from a place of passion and purpose. What do you hope your legacy will be?
I hope my legacy is when people say I’m now going to challenge Gender-based violence because I heard Lebo say that I can do it and Lebo is not like some extra ordinary person who had a big name or from a big family or whatever. She’s from a normal family, she had her struggle but she still took the risks and made sure that other people get to where they need to get to. I want people to look up to me and say that if this little girl can do it I can do it to. I know that I cannot physically be everywhere, that’s why being a speaker is so crucial to me because I’m able to sit in one spot and influence people to move towards action in their various domains. My legacy needs to be that whatever it is that you are called to do you move towards that action. My greatest legacy is for Africans to really see beyond the borders and to see each other as one and whatever it is that you’re doing you do it well in your space and when you look up you translate it to the rhythm of the continent. We really ought to lift each other up. So those are my two things; that we are one and if I could say it self-reliance that is I want you realizing that you’re enough and whatever it is that you want you go for it.
EB: What advice would you give to your younger self or to young people today, drawing from your journey as an entrepreneur?
LC: I think it is important to understand that which you are called for. People are attracted to passion and excellence. As an entrepreneur you’re going to walk on your own before people will buy into your concept. As an entrepreneur you’re going to come to your stronghold on your own before people buy into your concept. It is important to build a valuable network. So to my younger self if I had known that it would be so long before someone sees and buys into what I do, I would have been more patient and more gentle with myself and the journey.