1 November 2021

Be a perfect stranger - Mpho Mpgoba

Mpho is grateful that she has had the opportunity to work remotely and acknowledges that the pandemic has changed a lot of things for a lot of people. ‘It has highlighted what is important in life and what’s not so important. This flexibility of being able to work from anywhere gives me a bit more time to spend with my loved ones. It has also changed the way we think about things. Every problem has a solution.’

It has also helped change her perspective about the world. ‘It has highlighted some of the imbalances in our society. At the start of the pandemic, I was fortunate to pick up my laptop, buy a chair and a table and work from home. In the process I didn’t consider that some of my colleagues may have different circumstances and are not able to do the same. Someone’s living and travel arrangements are not conducive to working remotely, you have space constraints, connectivity as well as security challenges.’

The way she approaches other people has been changed. ‘Before the pandemic people were just colleagues at work. Now I get to speak to you and understand your situation. It’s almost as if we are invited into people’s homes. So, you change in approach and start looking at people differently. I think we appreciate and understand each other better.’

Growing up, Mpho lived in the rural areas of Limpopo with her siblings and was raised by her grandmother. ‘It was a very impoverished neighbourhood. Eventually, we moved in with my mother and father in the townships where we lived in a one-bedroom shack, and there were seven of us at that time. We thought everything was going to get better. But it was in a shack, so it was not easy, but we made do with what we had.’

As a little girl, Mpho had no dreams for her future. ‘I didn’t think about it. The environment was so bad that I was lucky to be … most nights we went to bed hungry. In those circumstances, you stop yourself from dreaming too big because your poverty restricts you. You’re not going anywhere … I didn’t have dreams, just goals to get through the next day.’

According to her, she only ever watched TV at other people’s houses. The first time she was in a car other than public transport, was in her twenties when she bought her own and ate cheese for the first time in her life after she had started working.

Mpho felt the burden of her circumstances most intensely while doing her matric in 1999 when she was merely 15 years old. ‘I didn’t have access to the support materials. My family couldn’t support me because they didn’t know how to, it was a very difficult journey for me. So, I was lucky to actually pass my matric.’

During that year, a typical day would be to walk a long distance to school to attend. Walk in the opposite direction from her house to study at the library for a few hours and then rush back home to complete all her chores only to study again after everyone else went to bed. ‘At the end of the year we were so poor that I didn’t even have enough money to buy a newspaper to check if I passed and didn’t know my results until someone passed the house and told me I had passed and even got a distinction!’ she remembers.

‘And then came the challenge of what happens next …’ Mpho explains. ‘All I knew was that I wanted to do better than what I had. My mother, a nurse, used to say to me, “look at where I am and aim to do better”.’ However, she had no access to information or options to plan a bright future for herself.

One day Mpho was sitting in a park when a perfect stranger approached her and asked her why she wasn’t in school. ‘It was sheer luck that someone took a chance on me.’ The guy she met worked in the accounting department of the University of Limpopo. ‘He told me that registration was closed, but that he would speak to them and see if he could get me enrolled. A random, perfect stranger in a park. And that is where my life actually started. It was one of the biggest turning points of my life …’

Mpho’s late grandmother, who believed in education, helped her get the registration fees. ‘The rest was up to me.’ She obtained funding for her studies and completed her degree.

‘Then it was time for the next level. I wanted to be a CA even though I didn’t know what it entailed; I was influenced by the perfect stranger who told me about it after finding out that I studied accounting in school. I knew it was the ticket out of my current conditions.’

Her heart was set on completing the next step at the University of Johannesburg, against the wishes of her mother. ‘She felt I was too young to go on my own. So, I showed up in Johannesburg with one bag and no place to stay. It was the first time I went against my mother and disrespected her, but I knew I had to grab the opportunity with both hands or it will fall through the cracks.’

Fortunately, she met a lady who went to the same university who gave her a place to stay and became her friend.

‘I failed my honours the first time. It was the first time in my life I failed at anything. I finished my matric early because I skipped a couple of grades. I was always a straight-A student … so this was a great opportunity for me to learn a life lesson!’

After two sleepless nights spent crying, Mpho picked herself up and worked even harder. ‘Failing meant I had to go back home, which I couldn’t do, even though, looking back, my mother would have supported me.’

She got a job at a bank to support herself while completing her studies. ‘I was in my early twenties. Other people were out socialising, but my life was different. I had to work and study and I wanted to be a CA so badly … My grandmother always told me if you want something, go grab it, so that’s what I did.’

Mpho passed her CTA the second time but because she used all her leave to study for it, she had none left to prepare for her board exams. ‘That was the second time I failed in my life, but it was different because I now knew how to deal with it.’

She embraced this opportunity to better herself. ‘I have never studied so hard in my life! I was fortunate enough to come across SAICA’s Thuthuka programme, which taught me “just because you have failed, doesn’t mean you are a failure”.’

Through the programme, Mpho got the support she needed to not only pass her first board exam, but she reached the Top 10 when she passed her second board exam. ‘I am so grateful to Thuthuka because it enabled me to pass, but it also supported me in other ways. If somebody puts financial assistance into you, it means they’re seeing your value. You just need to see the same value in yourself …’

Even in her highly respected role today as regional FM for FNB Business, Mpho does not see herself as a success yet. ‘For me, success is bigger. It’s not just about me. I would consider myself successful if I have uplifted everyone around me and they have uplifted everyone around them. It’s about how many people you impact, and I try my best. If you want to change the world, start with one person. You have to take a chance on someone so that they are willing to take a chance on themselves. It is truly fulfilling to be the perfect stranger for other people,’ she smiles.

In her experience, Mpho explains that once you qualify as a CA(SA), you think you know how the world works, but that is a big misconception. ‘You quickly realise it’s not so. When you get there, you realise that you were taught theory, but in the real world, there are other factors involved. We’re not taught to deal with people while studying and people bring a whole different dynamic into things. Secondly, we are not taught how to be leaders of others and ourselves. That was one of the biggest things that I had to learn to deal with in my career.’

She explains the higher you move up the professional value chain, you need to bring more than just knowledge of the job. ‘There’s a whole lot of other skills you need to develop including how to network, to deal with conflict and to handle difficult situations and conversations. Nowhere in our training or careers are we taught that, so you need to learn those skills by yourself.’

Mpho firmly believes that on her journey, every pothole, every detour and stop sign brought her to where she is today and she is grateful for it all and she is looking forward to being a perfect stranger to many others.

Mpho’s advice to other CAs(SA)

  • Be agile, roll with the punches and deal with it.
  • You are capable. You don’t have to be like someone else. You can be authentically yourself.
  • As a woman, you are not weak. You are strong in your own way. You don’t have to lead like a man.
  • Don’t be so stuck on your path that you limit yourself to other opportunities.
  • You can do it. Whatever you want, look at it, point at it, and go get it. It’s that simple.
  • Network and make sure you have a great support system.
  • Be kind to other people. A little bit of kindness can go a long way.
  • Believe in yourself.
  • Ask for what you want. If you think you deserve it, go for it. Even if you think you don’t, still go for it. What’s the worst that can happen?
  • Don’t let anybody stop you or try to make you feel you’re not adequate or worthy. Look in the mirror and know you can do this.
  • Support each other in the workplace. Lift each other up.
  • Be a perfect stranger to others and encourage others to do the same.