ITHUBA Holdings CEO Charmaine Mabuza is a force to be reckoned with. Recently named Business Leader of the Year, Mabuza wants to see South Africa prosper–and we are not betting against this juggernaut of business and philanthropy achieving just that, writes Ralph Staniforth.

ITHUBA, the Third National Lottery Operator, has been giving South Africans a chance to make their dreams come true through winning the lottery and social empowerment. Under ITHUBA, not only are lottery players able to change their lives forever through their winnings, but the lack of trust felt towards previous operators has become a thing of the past. ITHUBA, a subsidiary of Zamani Holdings, has kept its promise to reinvigorate the National Lottery by offering record-breaking jackpots and creating more winners and multi-millionaires than any other South African Lottery operator.

ITHUBA CEO, Charmaine Mabuza, is the woman behind this positive change of fortune.

With a passion for creating a more equal society and as a champion of the rights of the economically marginalised, Mabuza is dedicated to transforming our society into something we can all be proud of. It is for her sterling work in this pursuit that Mabuza was honoured with the ‘Top Empowered Business Leader of the Year Award’ at the 20th Top Empowerment Awards ceremony in July this year. The award celebrates outstanding leadership demonstrated by South African business leaders who drive transformation and empowerment through their business operations. In 2020, Forbes Woman Africa honoured Mabuza with their ‘Social Impact Award’, in recognition of the philanthropic work she has been doing for the past two decades. A year before, Mabuza was awarded the ‘Vision 2030 Top Woman in Education Award’ for affording access to education to disadvantaged youth through the Eric and Charmaine Mabuza Scholarship.

Before Mabuza launched Zamani in 2008 with her husband, Advocate Eric Mabuza, she occupied several notable leadership positions including being a managing director of Empilweni Payout Services—a social grant distributor that facilitated payments. Her work in improving grant distribution was a fitting foundation on which to build her current wealth distribution projects for the betterment of South Africans. Mabuza has also served on numerous boards, including the South Africa Board for Sheriffs, and she is the Deputy Chair of the Mpumalanga Provincial Council.

Quite clearly, Mabuza is leaving her mark across the board, with the benefits going a lot further than ITHUBA. Behind her self-contained manner lies a juggernaut of determination to make South African businesses highly effective, and to nurture this county’s largely untapped entrepreneurial spirit. South Africans are already reaping the benefits of her work and the recognition she has received is bound to spur her on to greater heights. South Africans can take pride in having someone as committed and far-sighted as Mabuza, who is leading the way, especially for women in the gaming industry, not only nationally, but into Africa and beyond.

The ITHUBA difference

What lies behind Mabuza’s remarkable success even at this economically challenging moment? It boils down to one thing—innovation.” Innovation is our most notable and prized strength at ITHUBA. And along with that, we get things done!” Mabuza says.

Within just five months of being awarded the Third South African National Lottery Licence, ITHUBA had completed the roll-out and implementation requirements necessary to begin the National Lottery operations. This included the installation of 9 000 lottery terminals, plus the distribution of 135 000 handheld devices, making the National Lottery more accessible to South Africans across the country.

“Since then”, Mabuza says, “we have reinvigorated the National Lottery brand and restored player trust through the transparency and integrity of our systems and operations. We have optimised the player experience by offering record-breaking jackpots.”

ITHUBA have been innovative across the board with their approach to the National Lottery. ITHUBA is the first South African operator to fully embrace technology and digitalise the lottery offering to its players. “In 2018, we launched the first ever National Lottery Mobile App, bringing modern-day convenience to our players. We are the only lottery operator in the world with the capability to integrate a B2B partnership like we have with the four major banks in the country. ITHUBA is the only operator that sells the lottery products through banks, setting the benchmark for lotteries across the continent,” says Mabuza.

Furthermore, ITHUBA has created new and exciting instant-win digital games called EAZiWIN. The EAZiWIN portfolio currently has 20 games that perfectly suits the South African market and which can be played exclusively from the lottery website.

ITHUBA’s innovative strategy is credited to the forward-thinking and collaborative management style of the CEO herself. Mabuza seeks to constantly improve the lottery experience and keep abreast of trends in business and the gaming industry.” We are constantly looking at emerging trends in the industry, taking the best knowledge from World Lottery Leaders of which we are among the top in terms of growth and annual performance,” says Mabuza.

She is proud when her moments of success arrive—and she has had many of them as a business leader.

“We had great foresight in 2017 when we introduced the ground-breaking innovation that was a first on the African continent. This was the Random Number Generator (RNG)draw system, a new method of drawing lottery numbers. We moved away from the old technology and adopted the leading industry standards. The RNG is operated with integrity and high systems security, and as well as internal and independent audit systems that can verify the complete integrity of every draw. It has been the secret to our success in sustaining the lottery during the COVID-19 pandemic,” she says.

Through the RNG, ITHUBA managed to minimise revenue loss under the strict lockdown regulations and continued to maximise its significant contributions towards good causes. This strategic approach has elevated the South African National Lottery to world class standards. ITHUBA is not only recognised as Africa’s leading operator, but the World Lotteries Association recognises ITHUBA as one of the TOP 5 operators globally.

With its extensive game portfolio, ITHUBA has doubled the number of playing options available to its players, and the new DAILY LOTTO offering has increased the chances for players to win on a daily basis. DAILY LOTTO, which launched on 10 March 2019, is an exciting game that offers players a chance to win significant jackpots every day, from playing from as little as R3 per ticket. There is no jackpot rollover win in this game, every cent of the jackpot prize is won and when there is no jackpot winner, the jackpot amount will roll down into the next prize division and be shared among all players matching four numbers. Since its launch, DAILY LOTTO had paid out more than R853913833.13to more than 74522287 winners. Within just over two years of launch, DAILY LOTTO contributes 30% to the National Lottery’s annual revenue.

This is yet another indication of ITHUBA’s constant attention to emerging trends in the gaming industry. Taking their knowledge, expertise, and international best practice, this has placed South Africa on the world lottery map. The work of Mabuza in this regard must be praised highly.

ITHUBA has the largest footprint among retailers and business partners that help to deliver the lottery to every corner of every community in South Africa.

Giving back, making us stronger

To Mabuza, all people deserve a chance to succeed in life, no matter what their background may be. This is born out of ITHUBA’s motto, ‘Equality in Opportunity’. “What this means is that we give South Africans the chance to be equal through financial means once they have won the jackpot. This reflects our ethos as an organisation. ITHUBA’s mandate is to operate the National Lottery in a manner that raises funds that are used towards the betterment of the socio-economic status of all South Africans,” Mabuza says.

Mabuza looks to the long term, and believes business needs to play an active role in building the South African economy and supporting aspirant entrepreneurs. “As a result of the challenges faced by South Africans, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the recent unrest of business looting and violence in some parts of Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal, it is our social obligation and responsibility to rebuild our country and economy,” Mabuza says.

With the ever-growing unemployment numbers, Mabuza understands that the country needs help and she is always there to give it whenever possible. “One must remember, however, that help comes in different shapes and forms. While the National Lottery does deal in money, ultimately, the best help you can give someone is by bettering their lives, by upskilling them and helping them to achieve a proper education. Producing an educated society is vital in creating a stable economy and country. Our former president, Nelson Mandela, summed it up best when he said: ‘Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world’.”

Like the founding father of democratic South Africa, Mabuza’s passion lies in the empowerment of the underprivileged and supporting their businesses. While acknowledging that profit is important, she would like to see a business that values social empowerment as much as it does profit making.

“I am motivated by the notion that if you want to get anywhere in life, you never forget where you come from. I come from humble beginnings and I know what it’s like to not have the means to pursue your dreams. Through our CSI and scholarship programmes at ITHUBA, we strive to instill hope and the spirit of giving to those that are less fortunate. For me, it’s about doing something good for our communities that will provide a sustainable livelihood for generations to come,” says Mabuza.

ITHUBA Holdings’ CSI initiatives

The CSI initiatives of ITHUBA tackle society’s most critical pain points. These are education and entrepreneurship. “At ITHUBA, we are driven by social and economic empowerment, so this means we prioritise education, training and skills development, promotion of small business, mentoring women, and last but not least, job creation. We offer education, mentorship, and financial assistance through partial funding and/or the provision of the necessary tools and ongoing support to build a sustainable independent business in this challenging economy,” Mabuza explains. ITHUBA believes in transforming the communities where it operates, the lottery operator is contributing to the transformation of the whole nation. ITHUBA uses a number of programmes in its quest to transform South Africa, again highlighting the need for assistance when it comes to education and entrepreneurship. They are as follows:

The Eric and Charmaine Mabuza Scholarship Foundation in partnership with ITHUBA

The scholarship has been supporting young people from disadvantaged backgrounds since its inception in 1999. This was an initiative that Eric and Charmaine Mabuza initiated from their own personal accounts. It has benefitted over 300 beneficiaries — supporting them to qualify as doctors, lawyers, accountants, IT specialists, engineers, and much more. The foundation does not require its beneficiaries to pay the foundation back in any way, but it does ask them to afford at least one other person the same opportunity for education.

ITHUBA Graduate Programme: ITHUBA recruits young, gifted, and innovative thinkers to join the Graduate Programme. These graduates have studied in the fields of marketing, sales, information technology, finance, legal, and project management. They will spend 12 months in the fast-paced world of lottery gaming, mentored by leading industry professionals. The programme is aimed at assisting the graduates to understand the ethos of the workplace environment and involves on-the-job training as well as a formal programme of study. A number of students have completed both the graduate and learnership programme and some are currently employed at ITHUBA.

Youth Enterprise Development Programme

This programme supports aspiring entrepreneurs between the ages of 18 and 35 with practical tools and resources to help advance their business concepts into sustainable profit-making enterprises. The programme provides the entrepreneurs with business learning and training, mentorship in different spheres of business, as well as office infrastructure, with no cost to the entrepreneurs.

Female Retailer Programme

ITHUBA launched the Female Retailer Programme to advance the economic development of women in entrepreneurship. The programme identified 100 women to formally develop, train and upskill in order to improve their business acumen and skills. In collaboration with reputable institutions, such as Regenesys and the University of Johannesburg Business Schools, these women have received formal qualifications in business. These are black women who sell National Lottery products from their small spaza shops and supermarkets —who have displayed an eagerness to advance in the largely male dominated gaming industry.

This is a funding programme that supports small black-owned businesses with funding. In 2021, the funding programme was inspired by the impact of COVID-19 on the SME sector. ITHUBA funded 82 businesses with grants to the total value of R15 million. These grants will be instrumental in both the recovery and growth phases of the businesses ITHUBA has contributed to. The various Supplier and Enterprise Development Programmes that ITHUBA Holdings has launched reflect a passion to support and help develop black-owned businesses through skills, infrastructure, business opportunities, and funding. ITHUBA sees entrepreneurship as critical in driving innovation, training, and economic growth.

Gender equity in South Africa

With August being Women’s Month in South Africa, it is encouraging to see women doing good things for other women. Mabuza, who grew up in Empangeni in KwaZulu-Natal, was fortunate to be born into a family that valued women and independence of mind.

“My mother inspired me. Even at a young age, I believed in the power of women, that is why I am so passionate about gender parity. Over the years, I have strived to pull women off the sidelines and ensure that they are fully integrated into decision-making positions. This is important to me as a black woman leader who is not immune to either racial or gender discrimination. I have ensured that our CSI projects are aimed at giving women and girls long-term sustainability,” Mabuza says.

Mabuza is driven to action by the challenges of our society and uses her expertise and business acumen to meet those challenges.

“In my work, I relate to a very broad range of South African society, and I have a particular interest in working with and nurturing the entrepreneurial spirit of young women,” says Mabuza. She has transformed ITHUBA’s executive to over 60 percent women, which is remarkable, given that globally women account for only 20 percent of gaming industry executives.

Discipline and vision in the face of adversity

While any position of leadership brings with it a fair share of curveballs, Mabuza believes it is a positive mindset that keeps her at the top of the game. She is highly disciplined on a personal level and practices hands-on management.

“Every day is different, but I’m a big believer that how your day starts is really important. Waking up early is key; it gives me time to prepare for the day ahead. As the CEO of ITHUBA, I oversee the operations of the entire company, from sales to finance. I’m very hands-on, so much of my time is spent in meetings with various department heads, and also in dialogue with strategic partners and stakeholders. In between my busy schedule, I still need to prepare for my classes and study, which sometimes runs into the late hours of the night,” says Mabuza, who is currently studying at Harvard Business School.

Asked to imagine how she thinks her employees would describe her management approach, Mabuza responds: “I hope that they would describe me first as a person with vision and as a source of hope and encouragement to others. Leadership is not limited to one aspect or one style. Often leadership places you in the front and at the rear under different circumstances and situations. A true leader knows how to get the best out of their team members and to this end I take the time to know and understand my subject-matter experts and encourage them to debate and find solutions that are a win-win for all.”

While Mabuza is collaborative in her management style, she is also quite clearly a bold and decisive leader, willing to take the toughest and loneliest decisions. “It takes courage and tenacity to lead and sometimes humility, because I can’t know everything, so that’s why I have selected some of the best in the industry to support and drive my vision,” she says.

The future of ITHUBA Holdings

With the pandemic continuing to wreak havoc on our economy and the recent unrest in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng compounding the country’s woes, it is a difficult time for those in leadership positions to remain positive. For Mabuza, this is all the more reason to keep her eye on the long term, keep innovating, and keep building this country’s and Africa’s economy. Already, Mabuza has plans for expanding ITHUBA’s reach into the African continent.

“We want to become a truly pan-African group. Zamani Holdings is looking to use its knowledge and expertise to expand north of South Africa’s borders into Africa. In the relatively short time of our tenure as the lottery operator, we have done many things better than our predecessors and have raised the bar for success, so it is only fitting to see the next step as taking the expertise across Africa and leading by example. We have designed our own lottery system based on all our learnings and experience and are poised to expand into southern Africa to demonstrate and continue our expertise,” says Mabuza.