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GC Magazine




Zukiswa Sithole is legal manager: projects, at the Development Bank of Southern Africa. Working in the development sector has brought her great involvement in the renewable energy space, and she is passionate about this emerging African industry. She chats to Catherine Wycherley about her career path so far.

G C     I N T E R V I E W

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GC: Did you always want to be a lawyer?

Zukiswa Sithole (ZS): My first option was to be a doctor - back then it was just cool to be a doctor. And then I started watching a lot of the Law & Order programmes, and those lawyers looked so che’che and so cool in their suits; they just looked so commanding and confident and I was also really impressed by how they spoke. I then discovered I was really not into mathematics, which was required if you were going to go into medicine, and so that became a pipe dream. Years later I have discovered that it’s a good thing I didn’t go into medicine (at least good for those who would have been my patients), because I can’t stand the sight of needles and blood - I almost pass out myself! .

So I went into law instead and I really enjoyed it, although, in practice and in “real life” terms, it didn’t turn out to be the scene that I had envisioned when I was young, i.e. the sensational walk into courtrooms and the striking regalia and everything.  I actually didn’t opt for criminal law, which is what I was initially drawn by, I ended up in commercial law, which I rather enjoy.

GC: What took you into commercial law, away from the criminal work that you saw on TV?

ZS: When I started doing my articles at Bowman Gilfillan Attorneys in 2005, my first rotation for the six month stint was in labour and litigation. I wasn’t really much into the litigation side and the criminal side of the law, or trying to defend people when it is sometimes very hard to ascertain what is fact and what is not. I had moral issues on some things that I couldn’t get around, so I just thought it was not for me - I think it needs a certain type of person who would be able to overlook certain things at certain times, and I don’t think I’m that person. So I then went into other rotations for competition law and for project financing. When I went into project financing I found my home, and thought, “wow, this is what I want to do.” It’s so funny, I never thought I would want to have anything to do with financing of whatever sort because I was always bad with numbers. But once I got into the project financing space from the legal perspective I really enjoyed it and I’ve been there ever since. This is all quite ironic now, as I am currently doing my MSc in finance and I enjoy it even more…. who would have thought?

GC: How did you end up going in-house?

ZS: After a period of five years in practice, I just thought it was time for me to jump ship, to go to a bank and try and get deep into the lenders’ perspective of things as even if you’re advising lenders, you don’t really get to go deep into the lenders’ point of view, at least from a commercial point of view. Yes, from a legal perspective you know what the lenders want, but what I wanted to get was a sense of how the lenders think commercially, and why they want certain things to operate in a certain way. Obviously all these things must be informed by their commercial incentives and I wanted to understand what those incentives are, and what drove commercial banks’ decisions. So I jumped ship and came to a bank. Although it’s not a commercial bank (it’s a development bank), it does operate largely as a commercial bank would. This is my sixth year now. I had a two-year plan when I came here, so that’s an indication that I’m really enjoying what I’m doing still.

GC: What are the best things about working for Development Bank of South Africa?

ZS: When you are in practice, you wait for the partner to give you work, and you would do the type of work that he or she wants to pass on to you and your learning and experience is also affected by the type of work that gets passed on to you how much the partner can bill or how much you can bill and so on… so it’s not as straightforward as I find it to be where I am now, it was a pull and push kind of thing. When I came here, it was interesting to see that it works completely differently. There are quite a number of exciting and challenging matters from across the spectrum of the many sectors that we operate within as a bank that come through quite rapidly, and all of these are at the disposal of the lawyers willing and capacitated to implement the projects. So your opportunity to get upskilled and to broaden and deepen your experience is not quite dependent on being “fortunate” enough to be handed down the interesting and challenging projects, but rather on your willingness and availability to learn and experience new things. When a matter is then allocated to you, it’s also great that you have to start it from point A and take it right through to the finish line. Of course you do have the option to appoint external legal counsel if you so wish, if you feel it’s too much, based on either capacity constraints or perhaps skills shortage in that particular area of law. But I was really thrown into the deep end when I came here, I wasn’t used to that kind of arrangement, and for me it was probably the best thing that’s ever happened because it made me learn so much more than I could ever have learned from practice. Because you’re not cocooned by the partner you really get thrown into the deep end to swim or sink. I think that is one of the best things that could have ever happened for my career. I’ve learned an incredible amount being here.

The kind of projects and sectors we get exposed to is very vast. DBSA is involved in the transport and logistics sectors, in the health sector, the energy sector (including renewables of course), the ICT sector, education sector, we play a lot in the municipal space, in infrastructure building, like schools and hospitals and all those things. It’s not like you’re boxed into this one type of industry or sector. That’s a phenomenal thing. That’s probably one of the reasons why I’m still here – because the exposure you get here is almost second to none. .

GC: What do you think the difference is working for a development bank, as opposed to a commercial bank?

ZS: The difference is fairly simple, in that commercial banks are driven by profits, returns, earnings and all of those good things, and of course that’s understandable.. A development bank on the other hand has a bigger aim and purpose. It’s not just about turning a profit, and making money and returns and the like. Of course in order for us to sustain ourselves we’ve got to make sure that we do make some profits, but the ultimate aim is to really focus on the country’s needs, starting with South Africa’s needs (as charity begins at home)  and attending to the socio-economic and the infrastructure development needs of the rest of the continent as well. .

Our mandate has recently been expanded to the whole of Africa and the Oceanic islands, so it’s so different in the sense that in every project that we do, one of the key things is to ascertain what the developmental impact will be, what the socio-economic impact will be. I don’t think these are as high-focus areas in the commercial banks as they would be in a development bank, because our key driving force is that we need to ensure that there is ultimately some developmental impact that we bring about every time we do a project.

Yes, we also want to make profits, yes, we also want to make returns in order to sustain ourselves. We have the government as our shareholder, but we don’t get money from the government all the time; we also have to sustain ourselves economically. But the main aim is that we are driven by developing the African continent. I think it’s something really transcendental to be part of - something quite fulfilling. I tell you, every time we go somewhere and we see wind masts or we see some other renewable energy plant somewhere, or we see some CSP [concentrated solar power] plants that we know we’ve been involved in, it gives you such a great purpose in life. You get to understand what you’re part of. It’s a bigger, fantastic picture.

GC: Are there any particular challenges that that sector throws up?

ZS: Every time we’re sitting around the negotiation table, the challenge emanates from the perception that  because we’re a development bank and because we have the state as our shareholder , we should accept less than what the commercial banks would accept under the same circumstances. That we shouldn’t go for the same profits, returns, rights, or even the same security, as a commercial bank would expect.

Depending on the type of project and its objective, at times we could look at allowing for more concessionary terms. For instance, in terms of our Black Economic Empowerment funding, we could accommodate things that a commercial bank would not accommodate because they find that type of funding riskier, whereas we can accept those types of risks because that’s in the spirit of development. But some people automatically assume that we will accept less than the commercial banks will at any given time. It becomes like a pull and tug issue and it can be frustrating because in my mind it’s very simple to comprehend that we are also a business that needs to sustain itself, and I don’t understand why we should be accepting less rights if we are exposed to the very same risks as the commercial bank is exposed to. Evaluations and determinations are of course made on a case-by=case basis.

GC: In terms of your career and projects you’ve worked on, is there one that stands out as a highlight?

ZS: That’s very easy. I’ve been extensively involved in the renewable energy power plant producers’ programme that South Africa has embarked on since 2010. It’s been such a phenomenal journey since it’s a fairly new thing in the African continent, and there’s a need for these producers to come and help us out of the energy crisis that we face in Africa. To be part of such a big thing, for me, has been such a highlight. I’ve been involved since the outset –I came to the DBSA when the programme was actually starting, so I was thrust into it, which was fantastic. I’ve learnt so much and I’m still continuing to be part of it. What also makes me realise that it’s been a personal and career highlight is that I’ve been invited to Renewable Energy Forum South Africa in May to be one of the speakers on renewable energy in the country and how this will affect the continent as whole. So this is extremely exciting.  

GC: Over the last 12 months are there any other standout projects that you and your team have been working on at the Bank?

ZS: Over the past 12 months we’ve also been doing a lot in the municipal space to aid with the water reticulation projects, to assist with housing, and the supply of electricity to households. And of course, post the expansion of our mandate to the entire African continent, we’ve been heavily involved in trying to find interesting projects within the rest of Africa and not just the SADC [South African Development Community] region.

GC: Looking forward to the next few months, are there any particular legal challenges or issues that you predict are going to be on the horizon for you and your team?

ZS: Our internal legal issue is staff turnaround, which seems to be informed by people wanting new things and finding other opportunities or horizons that they want to charter. So at the moment as I speak to you my team is very skeletal, so it means that we have to push a lot of hours, more than we ordinarily would, because it is two people instead of five or six people. It can be a challenge because when you have investment officers who also have their targets to push to get their deal to go through, sometimes it’s not always easy to get an understanding response to our current capacity constraints. So you have to deal with that, and manage that with your internal clients. However I am in the process of trying to fill the vacancies that we have and the current team continues to traverse through these challenges quite aptly

GC: What do you think is the secret to being a good legal manager? And how would you describe your management style?

ZS: My management style is fairly simple. I believe I work with professionals, senior legal advisers who have become senior because they know what they’re doing. So I believe in allowing professionals the space to do what they are good at doing, what they are employed to do. As a manager I think it’s important to allow them that space and not micromanage. I also don’t believe in having people clocking in – you know, where you have to clock in at eight and have to leave at four. I believe that you give people the space to be in an environment where they can do the work effectively, and if that environment is not in the office at that particular time, that environment is at home, but they’re still delivering what they need to deliver at that particular time, I believe if that is when they thrive and excel, that should be the environment provided to them. And not to confine people to certain spaces, because it doesn’t necessarily mean they are working because they are sitting at their stations. Of course, this can come with certain problems sometimes because you may find people who take advantage and abuse that system so it also calls for you to exercise a level of discretion and having to pull the reins a little bit now and then, and ensure that people are indeed doing what they’re supposed to be doing, and manage the people who seem to be abusing that.

I believe that leaders should be exemplary and pioneering, and, most importantly, open to lessons from those that they lead, and it doesn’t really matter where you are – whether you’re in-house or whether you’re in practice. - The difference I found in practice was that you don’t have the room to develop yourself to be the best lawyer that you can be. You’re groomed to fit into in the box of your partner as it were, and to be confined to that space. Maybe it works sometimes, maybe it doesn’t work for some people. It also depends on personalities. What I’ve come to learn is that you’ve got to treat your team members according to their individual personalities, because we’re all individuals. It is quite crucial to recognise and appreciate the individual differences and harness each one’s strength. Different people react to different things in different ways, and I think as a good leader you need to be aware of those differences and then you need to be able to engage with different people on their level, and not just one uniform level. So the leadership style in-house is more aligned to allowing people the space to be the best that they can be.

GC: If you could go back in time and give your junior self some careers advice, what would it be?

ZS: Oh gosh. I remember I was a first year associate in the project finance department. I used to be so daunted by the people that we’d have around the table, all these partners, all these clients. And I was daunted by the language that they were speaking, it just seemed to be these big, incomprehensible words. And so sometimes, even if I wanted to contribute towards a point, I would hold myself back because of the fear that I might say something “stupid” and I would think to myself “these people are so clever, of course they’ve thought of that. I don’t want to state the obvious”. I would then always kick myself about it, because as I would be debating internally whether to ask the question or to pose the statement, someone else would say exactly what I was thinking and more often than not it would be received as either a fantastic idea or a good question. So my advice to my junior self would be to not be afraid to ask questions and to not  be afraid to put yourself out there, because it’s only when you put yourself out there that you learn. It’s only when you are uncomfortable that you grow – you can’t always keep in your comfort zone. lf you’re in your comfort zone it most likely means you have learnt everything there is to learn in that particular space. The minute you get out of that comfort zone you’re going to be uncomfortable and it’s in the discomfort that new lessons are learnt.

GC: In terms of your free time, what do you enjoy doing?

ZS: I have two young ones. I have a son who’s seven and I have a daughter who’s four. So my free time is really their time. Which is fantastic. I like going with them to places like dairy farms, to the zoo, to the movies and any other place with sufficient entertainment to keep them busy and engaged.

I also enjoy spending what we call “date night”, with my husband. Every Friday we make sure that we have date night, which is the time that’s just him and I. That’s really a fantastic time; that has worked wonders for us. And then the rest of the time, I’m a movie fanatic - in front of the TV, just movies and movies galore. Well, now I have to schedule some time to study in between all of that.

GC: What kind of movies do you like?

ZS: My husband always says to me, “what movie have you not watched?” That’s how bad I am. I’m into the popular romantic movies, I’m into the thrillers, I used to be a little bit into the horrors but not so much anymore; as I’m maturing I think it’s a bit silly. I also like the little kiddies’ movies as well. I find that I often say to my kids, “ooh, let’s watch this kiddies’ movie,” and then they end up sleeping, and my husband always laughs because he says, “was that really for the kids or for you?” Because I’m the one that ends up more interested in it than the kids.

GC: If for some reason, you weren’t a lawyer any more, what would be the alternative? What was the career that never was – is it medicine still?

ZS: It’s so funny, I was at the pharmacy picking up a prescription for my daughter, and everything they had on the prescription, I already knew. So every time I go to the doctor now, I know what the GPs are going to prescribe, I’ve taken so much interest in exactly what they prescribe! If it wasn’t seven years of further training, yes, I probably would go into medicine, but I just don’t have the time to study that long any more.

But I think other than that, I would want to do something completely different. Something that involves engaging with people on a more fun level, as an events co-ordinator. Or even own a boutique, do designing of shoes or handbags (I love shoes and bags) – something completely different. Something that’s not going to make me go through documents and documents, that’s for sure. I’d like to go and say, “let me ask my lawyer what that says and what my rights are!” I’d like to be one of those people one day. Otherwise for now, the space that I am in is fulfilling.