Cheryl Carolus

Championing a better future


Her drive and success stems from what is still a strong belief of hers today that if you are unhappy about a situation you must take action and do something about it. 

And that’s still the philosophy she conforms to today whether it’s in her business, whether it’s in her home, she believes firmly in taking action when dissatisfied or unhappy with personal circumstances.

Through her work as SA High Commissioner (ambassador) to the UK, she reshaped how our diplomatic missions abroad are viewed and how they function. The energetic 57-year-old built a good model for collaboration with SA companies based in London and very strong networks with the major players in the British government, business and NGO world – networks she has applied in her work for SA tourism and she continues to maintain them to this day.

Her love of nature helped her ease into the CEO role of South African Tourism from 2001 to 2004 and chair of the South African National Parks board for six years. Gregory Simpson caught up with her recently for an exclusive interview.

How did your tough background shape you as a powerful woman today?

From a very young age I was aware about the injustices that young girls and women are subjected to purely because of the fact we were born women and nothing to do with our competence. So even in the years during the struggle my big area of activity was in fact in the women’s movement and it’s still something that I am passionate about today.

And as a young 13-year-old how did you get the courage to stand up against the system?

The injustices of apartheid today seem so illogical when one thinks about it and that’s exactly what it was, it was inexplicable and unjustifiable and so I was a very angry young person, and joining the struggle gave me a positive frame to in fact live my life, because I was not feeling disempowered anymore, because I actually felt I was taking action. It’s very important that in one’s life one must not allow oneself to become a victim, so I see myself as a survivor, and not a victim. It is a great source of pride to me that I can say in my own small way I really was an active participant in bringing about the country that has the most wonderful constitution in the world, and a country which was torn apart by hatred and conflict. Today I really believe that we have many, many challenges still facing us, but I take courage from the fact that we’ve overcome significant challenges already and that’s why we shouldn’t flinch from tackling the current problems that we have.    

And how would you rate South Africa in 2015 in terms of equality and socially? 

This country is tremendously a better place from what it was under apartheid which is one of the things that I am constantly aware of. South Africa today has one number one spot that we should hang our heads in shame about and that is we have the number one spot for being the most unequal society in the entire world, and that is shocking because it has special consequences for us in the country. It means that a small percentage of people own a vast proportion of our country, wealth and income and that places an exceptional burden on a small number of people but it also is just not right. The thing I feel very strongly about is also that those of us who are making good must develop a sense of what I call, “enoughness” and I try to incorporate that in my life; but those of us who have power, whether its economic power, political power, spending power, those of us with power of any kind we should really develop a sense of “enoughness” and learn to live our lives a little bit more thoughtfully or modestly. 
I must say I’m appalled, I just had a call from friends who are quite wealthy from overseas, they were visiting this past weekend, and they were shocked at what they called the trap of temptation, and just the cars in Johannesburg that people drive. What we know is that most people who drive a Maserati probably don’t have one car of that kind, and so I think we really need to – and in that same sphere I think we need to look at the levels of remuneration of the upper earners as well in our society. I think it’s a big thing, and I know it’s a tough thing and I know people get very defensive about it, but I really think we cannot go on and expect the country to not fall apart because of the inequality, I really think we have to relook at that.

And from a practical standpoint how would we be able to bridge that gap? 

Well I do think that is a question of how we live our lives. Remuneration is an issue that we should look at. When you look at countries where you have so much more stability like the Nordic countries, the gap between the top earners and lowest earners is much lower, it is more stable, there’s much; much less social upheaval in those countries and that is the case in all countries where there is more equity and equality. I do think it’s a value thing – we should ask ourselves how much is enough.

And the Nordic countries also have low levels of corruption?

Oh absolutely, and I do think it’s a serious thing. So many social issues are, I think, brought about by that driven greed because I cannot see how one person can, in their lifetime, spend hundreds of millions, I really can’t. And it’s the elephant in the room that people are scared to talk about and unless those of us who are part of that 1% of people who earn exceptional levels in our country, unless we start to bring it about ourselves it’s not going to change.

One of the things I remember that sticks out in my memory since my time in the UK at the South African High Commissioner is that they passed a piece of legislation that in fact started to tackle the question of corruption from the side of western countries. There was a lot of talk about how corrupt Africa was, and how corrupt emerging economies are, and they hit the nail right on the head, they in fact made it a penalty for the corruptor, for corporates in the UK. They made the penalty more severe than for the person who accepted the bribe, and it’s like traffic fines. We shouldn’t drink and drive, but we do as a nation, and then we pay the price and the same ones who complain about the corruption in government are people who drink and drive and then pay a bribe to a traffic cop – we have to have zero tolerance for that. Because once you start succumbing to paying bribes it becomes part of your corporate culture and you are on a slippery slope in many ways in your company. Unless all of us as businesses say we will not pay bribes it is not going to stop and unless we not only say we will not pay bribes but we actually inflict severe penalties on team members who are party to a process or an act of paying a bribe, we are not going to save our country from the rot.

And on a more positive note, how is the ‘Girl Child’ programme progressing and the need for mentorship within mining for women?

I feel very strongly about the right of women and girls to be able to benefit as equals in everything that any society has to offer and I must say that I feel very proud of our country because we are a society that is still developing. We have the benefit where we are not so set in our ways so there’s still a huge amount of possibilities for pushing back and thinking differently about what in other countries doesn’t happen. Women constitute more than half – about 52 or 53% of the population – now how do you not use your full skills potential in a country, how can you just write off half your potential!

You’re the chair at Gold Fields, which has been rewarded with very good sustainability figures, what do you put that success down to?

We take it very seriously at Gold Fields but I would say that other institutions like Investec also take it very seriously, they take great pride and Investec won the award in London for how we run our office, the energy we use and so on. I am also a very proud member of WWF South Africa and the international board so sustainability is very close to my heart. We need to be thoughtful about what impact we make when we live our lives on the planet as well. We’ve only got one earth and we can be trying to just mess it up substantially or we can actually touch the earth more gently. It’s good that in our country, listed companies on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange have to report on their sustainability and we see what a good legislative framework can do. I am a shareholder in Lafarge South Africa and we’re just looking at a new mine, a new operation we are going to start and we’re seriously looking at sustainability but in fact looking at mining methodologies that will really minimise the costs at the end of the life of mine. It’s a total benefit from new modern innovative ways of mining, the environmental impact and other impacts on the communities adjacent to your mine. That’s why at Gold Fields we take how we report very seriously.

And how close are we to more mechanisation and the inherit benefits to the environment? 

I am really pleased that the National Development Plan that we’ve adopted as a country which is very much a plan, it’s up to us to give it legs and to in fact guide government on how legislation can incentivise and minimise and not create obstacles for people. In the National Development Plan we’re saying we want to move away from a cheap skilled labour economy, that is mining in South Africa – it was built on the blood of people in many ways. The migrant labour system and all the social ills we have, including things like the spread of the HIV pandemic, the fact that we force families to live apart, all of those things were premised on cheap labour, unskilled labour and keeping people undereducated to do that. We look at the cost of lives and the gold mining industry in South Africa is very old so we have geologists underground in a lot of cases and we have to get people away from the rock face, it’s dangerous, the area where we mine is often highly seismic so naturally it’s inclined to tremors and so on.

We have to take all of that into account and that means we, as corporate South Africa, and the mining industry in particular understand that we have to invest more and more in improving education.So it’s not only your own staff but in fact your pipeline, we need to build our own pipeline. More and more we find that through our social and labour plan we are beginning to look at making the schools adjacent to our mines much better schools so that there’s better learning and better teaching can happen so that we have an automatic pipeline of young people who pass the right subjects who can become the next professionals and the workforce in our mines. It’s definitely the way to go, globally everybody understands that that’s where it’s going to go and we must build the right skill sets for people who can do it. There’s a pipeline that we need to take care of, like being part of actively supporting schools in our neighbourhood so that we draw our labour and our workforce not from far flung rural areas but from communities adjacent to our mines.

Yes we must make mining an attractive option for the top school leavers. 

It has to become that and we see in countries where it’s done. It will always be a tough job and that’s why we need to accept that the more we can make it attractive the better it is.

And with your many directorships, how do you keep all those balls in the air and who have been some of your mentors?

I don’t consider myself busy, I consider myself as living my fullest life potential, I enjoy being challenged, I enjoy being busy, I enjoy being exposed to a wide range of sectors because I really enjoy growing a lot. My full time job is still at Peotona Group Holdings of which I am the executive chair. We are four highly competent women. I have three other women who are a lot smarter than I am who are my fellow shareholders. Thandi Orleyn who is also chair of BP Southern Africa and the chair of the University Council. And then there’s Wendy Luca-Bull who is the chairperson of Barclays Absa Africa and also on the global board of Barclays, she is Maria Ramos’ boss. And then Dolly Mokgatle who is also the chair of the National Energy Regulator of South Africa and the chair of the State Diamond Trader.

You’ve got some heavy weight partners there.

That’s why I am saying they are a lot smarter than I am so that’s my motto – always remember to surround yourself with people who are smarter than you are. When we founded Peotona we decided that we are going to build this into a proper business so we are going to forego all our cushy positions that we held and we’re going to make this a full time thing, we’re going to be entrepreneurs. This is our day job and so most of our directorships are in fact what we do during our day job, we sit on boards of various things that we elected to invest in.

Gregory Simpson



Cullinan Mine South Africa Earth mover buldozer silhouette again sunest light An excavator in old mine.
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This edition

Issue 42