Read in magazine

Dr. Bongani Mabaso steps into the biggest IT company in South Africa, on the verge of artificial intelligence (AI) and automation, two of the biggest technology trends that will continue to transform industries beyond 2023.

Looking ahead is always a tricky business. Leaders need to strike a fine balance between the new and the old; SITA will not be spared.

With the history of leadership change, there is a sigh of relief when from the pool of talent that exists within the country, another well-qualified, capable, and beyond-reproach leader raises his hand to step to the SITA plate; and who believes that he will withstand the side nuances that comes with this top SITA job.

SITA is a state-owned entity that has been self-sufficient and stable, throughout its almost 25-year existence. However, it has been bogged with a reputational deficit as relates to its procurement history and the impact of service delivery.

Currently, SITA is operating in an economic environment, with a significant downturn nationally. This means that Mabaso’s job and impact in the sector, will need to be much more meaningful and significant, to realise sustainable growth and development.

The issues that need to be tackled within the above framework, will include leadership vision, acumen, maturity and strength to ensure continued upward momentum in SITA’s financial health, audit and governance reports, procurement and service delivery challenges. All stakeholders, including SITA staff, are looking to the much-touted leadership change of Mabaso to realise tangible results–especially in light of the austerity measures sanctioned by the government recently.

Doing more with less may be some of the considerations as Mabaso navigates with caution at Erasmuskloof Head Quarters.

Betting on talent and ramping up the software and other critical engineering skills and technologies to create new opportunities, are some of the cards that he will play in this high-stake game plan to ensure ICT growth for national development.

Another item on the table is that he will have to be agile and willing to learn, as SITA is a complex organisation. This matrix of matters will be crucial to his and SITA’s success in the future.

As they say, you need to know what you do and what you don’t know. The road to victory includes accepting what is, for now. Mabaso is not walking blindfolded into the den. He is intentional about his future plans, like a parable builder; in the context of SITA, the key among the strategies is the people and culture; otherwise, you build in vain.

“I think I must give credit where credit is due. The people that thought about SITA and the role it would play was brilliant if we separate the idea of SITA from its performance because I think there is some deviation now,” Mabaso says.

“In the first three months when I started, I met with the industry as our stakeholder relations are important. It was disconcerting when some CEOs from the industry said they had disconnected with SITA, for various reasons.”

“The challenges just hit you in the face immediately. There’s a lot of things that need to get fixed, and one cannot ignore that,” he says.

With a new CEO entering SITA, old patterns and sometimes unhelpful patterns of behaviour, also kick in. These include testing the CEO’s veracity and response to issues that stakeholders would want to raise.

But when a CEO is met with about 30 escalations upon arrival, it is a bucket of cold water in one’s face, and the realisation that the SITA eco-system must be managed and led with dexterity and skill, to know what it before you.

Without a doubt, this is clearly not an organisational paradise.

It was clear that, whether it is a culture issue within the SITA eco-system, the internal dynamic of the organization, the right skills, or unattended client needs, something good and different needs to happen – and soon.

Priorities priorities priorities

Asked what the top three priorities would be.

“Number one would be people. I would love for SITA to be an employer of choice by the time I leave. Most importantly, attract young people, with a skill set that can drive innovation and change, and who believe in the vision of the organization.”

“Secondly, changing the minds and hearts of clients based on the perceptions they hold of SITA, and create an improved service delivery culture, that sees the South African government modernised and citizens serviced conveniently and efficiently.”

“The third point is that once we start to deliver new, relevant and improved services; and demonstrate that we mean business when we deliver, I think the clients will start to come back to SITA. One of the things that I’ve learned as I was going around the provinces to meet clients, and as I’ve engaged them, every single one of them said they do want to work with SITA. They just hate the fact that SITA does not deliver timeously or efficiently, especially within the procurement space, which is why they are then forced to find other mechanisms to circumvent the processes in the system,” Mabaso says.

As the top provider of ICT services for the state, Mabaso always emphasises the need to demonstrate the true potential and character of SITA by going back to the basics.

He is of the view that investing more in changing the culture at SITA can catapult the organisation into being more agile and adaptable to change.

Change in the Information and Communication Technology (ICT) sector is constant. Havard Business Review published some of the trends to look out for this year. They further advised executives in 2023 that the challenge will not just be betting on individual trends or ramping up software engineering talent, but thinking about how all these technologies can create new opportunities when they are fully utilised, what they call combinatorial.

In many domains, from consumer to enterprise, across all sectors, combinatorial trends are creating exciting new possibilities. Because of the vast array of possible combinations, creativity in “mixing the ingredients” becomes a key to success.

True to this spirit, Mabaso and his team have resorted to clinically approaching these trends.

As part of the strategy, SITA will partner with various stakeholders in both the public and private sectors to strengthen and enhance SITA relationships with them to increase not only service delivery but also introduce new methods and processes that will make SITA more agile and responsive to the client’s needs. The CEO needs to find value where innovations overlap and strategically invest in technologies that are hitting a tipping point.

“One of our biggest challenges is the tension between running current government systems and infrastructure and building new and innovative ones, whilst keeping a beady and steady eye on our capex expenditure and budget. We, therefore, need to balance our work programmes between keeping our existing services stable and reliable and creating new services that are innovative and relevant,” Mabaso says.

SITA is now focusing on infrastructure programmes such as finalising the last of the Software Defined Network (SDN), expanding investment in private Cloud Foundation Infrastructure (CFI), and growing its usage by migrating more critical workloads into this environment. The IT company will also be increasing partnerships with established cloud service providers (CSPs) to give the government greater access and diversity of ready-made solutions that can accelerate the digital transformation of the state.

With the recent hacking of the South African Reserve Bank, Mabaso is leaving nothing to chance. Modernisation and investment into our network and data and switching centres “We are also going to be more focused on cyber‐security and service management in the new financial year. We have already launched our upgraded Secure Operation Centre (SOC), and our outlook for the next reporting period is to roll it out across various departments so that all of the government can benefit from cyber resilience. We will also be launching our upgraded Integrated Operations Centre (IOC), which will provide universal command centre capability for the monitoring of the digital operations of government.”

“We will also begin the process of transforming our e‐gov portal and unifying others that exist into a fully-fledged and multi‐side marketplace that can support the vast needs of citizens, government departments, state entities, private businesses, and other stakeholders within the ICT ecosystem in South Africa. This will be done as we begin to unpack the platform business model and its specific instance within the SITA operating model,” he says.

State of the Enterprise (SOE’s)

Having spent 12 years at the troubled Transnet, where he considers himself fortunate at the time to have received the best training and mentorship, Mabaso does, however, have an appreciation of the dire state of state-owned enterprises in general, especially given the last review done by government on SOE’s.

“You can’t help but understand the sense of potential in the place. It’s almost like we are sitting on top of gold and we are unable to get to hit the ground hard and to be able to find that gold that we can use for the benefit of the country.”

“The second thing that I realized, as I started engaging clients, employees, the industry, and some of our political principals, was how big a role this organization can play in the economy in South Africa, not only from a job creation perspective and economic growth but also in creating local industries and helping to usher in a new era where we produce technology locally because we have the market, which is all the government departments.”

The ripple effects of the growth of the SMEs should SITA unleash its potential, cannot be underestimated.

But the big question is, can Mabaso do what he envisions, within his tenure and term of his contract?

“I think again like all other SOE’s, issues of governance have to be resolved properly and that there’s the right amount of empowerment for management to be able to execute its duties to ensure that disturbance is minimized as much as possible. We need to try and take politics outside of the SOE’s so that we bring the best people who have the best interests of the organization, and the country at heart and allow them to execute their tasks professionally.

“I think it can be done. Will it be difficult? Absolutely. This organization and its surrounding ecosystem are notorious for reaching out to reset to default. There are people in the organization and around it, who have been there for a long time and have set ways of doing things. There are also certain processes that are established that make it very difficult to change, so change management and changing capacity are not going to be easy things.

“If I look back at where we have started, looking at all the data strategies of a few of the CEO’s that have come before me, and they have all pretty much said similar things. It’s not like there’s anything that requires rocket science or someone to go to resolve magically, but the challenge has always been in the execution and the change management that the organisation requires to thrive. So that’s the heavy task that we have in front of us. But we are going to make it work despite the many CEOs that have come before me. We need to move forward.”

Perfect storm

In 1999, the State Information Technology Agency (SITA) was created by combining the Information Technology (IT) units of the National Treasury, the South African Police Service (SAPS), and the Department of Defence (DOD). This was the foundation of SITA; later on, the IT units of all the departments were incorporated into SITA. The SITA Act was amended in 2002.

The mandate of SITA changed in 2002, making SITA’s first objective the improvement of service delivery to the public using Information and Technology (ICT). This allowed SITA to be aligned with the accounting officers for the departments, moving from IT metrics of success to service delivery metrics of success.

Despite this change in mandate, the rate of lasting change and transformation has been slower than envisioned. The calibre of transformational leadership and ICT skills needed to take on this new amalgamated giant to meet this new mandate has not always been aligned. Unlike in many private sector companies, radical change was not always imminent, for a multiplicity of reasons linked to international trends and national developments.

Now, Mabaso has an opportunity to fix, upgrade and change, as he rolls with the punches. The latest being that he is at the helm of SITA, as the organisation records its first full blown strike and industrial action, since the inception of the organisation.

At the heart of the success of his strategy internally is – people, a good fit for the job, and the new culture of the organisation. Mabaso is fully aware that traditional change management is no longer effective, nor does he have the luxury of time.

Asked if he is going to get rid of old hats and warm bodies, if any, “I don’t think it’s necessary to get rid of anyone. It’s okay to have people who have been at SITA for a long period, as they also bring a significant amount of experience. You still need that old experience. The workforce is also somewhat older. As our Minister always says, the digital economy is an economy of young people, so we need to make sure that SITA is flooded with young individuals in their 20s and 30s with digital skills that are driving a change in the organization. That is something that is missing. A lot of people are retiring with knowledge that has not been transferred into the minds of younger people.”

The other issue you are dealing with is the perception of SITA and the public sector in general. Young people who are skilled in software engineering and data analytics, etcetera, are not necessarily looking at government as their first choice of employment. They are looking at the big banks and telecommunications companies, multinationals, big businesses, and consulting houses.

“Young people’s skills are very upwardly mobile and very credible in the markets. They probably earn far better than working for SITA. We need to find a way to make it more attractive to them so they can come and flood the organization,” Mabaso says.

One of his biggest drives is to position SITA as an employer of choice. The vacancy rate is very high at SITA, with the top 100 vacancies, being advertised and filled as we speak. The business case to drive recruitment is given, which is opportune given the high unemployment rate of graduates.

Partnerships

The consistent word from Mabaso from the onset has always been partnerships.

Partnerships, in general, will be the hallmark of how SITA plans to deliver and bring new innovation in the new financial year.

“We will be seeking to forge new partnerships with the industry at large, with a special focus on SMMEs, both to enhance the capabilities of SITA and to provide services to our clients. We will also be engaging various public sector CEOs to forge partnerships that are mutually beneficial for our organisation and the country at large.”

“We also aim to partner with universities, research institutions, and industry to leverage the potential of Data and Artificial Intelligence (AI) for the support of service delivery and citizen convenience. AI has the potential to accelerate digital transformation in several areas of government, including but not limited to machine translation, data analytics, decision support, and automation.”

“We believe that by following a partner‐led, service assurance‐based, and citizen‐first mindset, we can decrease the cost-of-service delivery to the government and increase speed and impact. It is only then that we will fulfill our mandate to provide reliable ICT service to the government and increase citizen convenience.”

“We will also be strengthening our advisory and consulting function to ensure that we play a key role as a strategic partner to our clients,” Mabaso says.

Leadership

“My parents have been very important role models in my life, making sure that I am shaped into the person that I am today. So I think credit must go to both my parents.”

His parents’ influence had formal and informal dimensions, influenced his leadership style and professional development, and shaped his character.

“I like to empower people to do what they need to do and then keep people accountable. That’s my leadership style. I don’t like micromanaging; in fact, when it comes to micromanaging, there’s already something that’s gone very wrong, so I’m not a micromanager. I’d like to see the big picture and empower people,’ he says.

By his own admission, he prefers not to be an operational leader either. He paints a picture for others to follow and provides the necessary support to achieve the desired results. “Empower people, allow them to do their work, and then keep them accountable for what they promised to deliver.”

Partnerships will be the hallmark of SITA going forward, which will accelerate delivery and bring new innovations as it transforms itself and its business. SITA has a stable base to work on, and therefore, failure will be by choice. Given Mabaso’s background, he is a value-driven man who subscribes to the highest levels of professionalism as codified in the Constitution.

To some, if not many, these are easier said than done. SITA is also subject to these constitutional values, and this will go a long way in achieving Mabaso’s first priority, which is people and culture. He will have to work extra hard to ensure, not just compliance but through change management, that the people leave by this ethos. When you have closed on that calibre of cadre fit and proper for the public service, then the rest will fall into place. True values and principles governing public service will come into play, such as a high standard of professional ethics and efficient, economic, and effective use of resources.

For Mabaso to prioritise people and culture on his agenda, it seems like people and culture at SITA are “a going concern”. There is certainly a formula behind the method. If you cannot get that one right, you may labour in vain. How you empower your people, a word that often comes from Mabaso, will separate liabilities from great assets. Your people are your greatest assets.

Growing up in Orlando, Soweto, did not spare him from being a Pirates fan.

He is from the bloodline of John Mabaso, the man credited with turning the Orlando Pirates into a great football club, and is now commercially viable. He was very passionate about football and demanded the best for Pirates. Leadership seems to run in the Mabaso family.

Having both parents as teachers, sealed his fate. Being a teacher in the olden days was more than a job. The status of being a teacher was very prestigious, and the children of teachers often could not escape the pressure of doing well but, more so, upholding the values of their parents.

“My focus became education. I adopted the attitude that says, it doesn’t matter what my peers can do; I can do it too, perhaps even better. I allowed myself to learn and be uncomfortable at times, which was really good for me because it allowed me to learn a lot more,” he says.

He also seems very competitive by nature.

“I remember in 2009 I had my first international trip to Japan, and that was the first time I was exposed to engineers from other countries. It drove me to want to be a better engineer. I can be one of the best engineers in the country, I told myself. That whole journey really built me a passion for problem-solving and applying my mind beyond its limits. And these are some of the qualities that help me deliver results and the results we are looking for as a company and as the community.”

While at Transnet Engineering for over a decade, he was executive research manager, in charge of leading a diverse team responsible for Research and Development in machine intelligence, data platforms and analytics, IoT hardware and electronics, control systems, sustainable energy, and propulsion systems and motors.

Traits that are critical for his new environment.

A gentleman and a scholar

Mabaso joined SITA in April 2023 from Standard Bank Corporate and Investment Banking (CIB), where he was Chief Information Officer for digital and customer journeys.

He is an electrical and computer engineer by training. A BSc graduate in Electrical and Computer Engineering, a Master of Philosophy (Inclusive Innovation), a philosophy of business, inclusive business models, solutions prototyping, and start-ups, all from the University of Cape Town, he obtained his Doctor of Philosophy from the University of Pretoria.

His research was on the philosophy of artificial intelligence, machine ethics, machine learning, and minor aspects of artificial general intelligence.

He keeps his word. Recently, SITA invited more than 235 young students to attend GovTech 2023, driven by the theme “Platform Economy for Digital Transformation and Inclusive Growth,” to pitch new ideas and demonstrate their innovation.

Growing up as a young child in Soweto, his parents were intentional about executing their teaching convocation both as teachers at the school and at home. That is where he received his mentorship. He understands that exposing young people from an early age can determine their future success.

His sense of purpose, direction, and responsibility started way back home in Soweto, where he was brought up by both his teacher parents. Education took centre stage, coupled with other pressures and the challenging dynamics of being the firstborn in the family with three siblings behind you.

“It makes you more like a deputy parent. It forces you to mature and to take on the responsibility of knowing what it’s like to be responsible for other people, so they will know that if the parents go away, then you’re the man of the house.”

That is where his leadership started.

“You cannot underestimate the impact of having both parents in your life. It moulds you,” he says.

“I think for me to be in an environment where you know there is stability and there is a sense of direction, it showed me what it’s like to create this desire for stable environments for growth. You could focus on education, on enjoying growing as a boy, on just becoming a better version of yourself, which our parents supported as children.”

Mabaso is married with two children.

The message is clear. Kudos to all the present parents.

Joe Makhafola is the marketing and communications executive and a former spokesperson for the Minister of Communications