Bongani Phakathi shares that his varied career prepared him for doing good for people and the business


”Each move was not by design, but I am grateful for it. It’s given me rich experience, says Bongani.

Assore human resources executive Bongani Phakathi has seen the world of HR evolve from “personnel” to “human resources” to “human capital” in his 29-year career.

“Our job used to be to keep people happy and to pay them,” he says. “Today, we think about how we do good for people and for the business. We cannot do things for people that undermine our commercial imperative – so the good we do for people has to support that commercial imperative.”

He says that the HR leadership job is a coin with two sides. On one side is the interests of the company, and on the other, the interests of the people within the company. “Whether the company is in engineering or finance or is any sector with commercial interests – you have to walk that balance.”

For example, he says in the FMCG space, the customer experience is materially influenced by the individual who faces and serves the customer as a representative of the company. So, he explains, you have to make sure that the individual is competent, capable and empowered to do the job of advancing the business.

“If they engage with a customer, the last thing you want is for the representative to constantly have to refer to someone else to resolve the customers enquiry. The representative looks bad because you as the company have not empowered them to effectively resolve customer enquiries. The customer thinks, ‘Why do I have to deal with this person who always has to go back to ask someone else?’”

He gives the example of, when he was working at a beverage company, a customer claiming to have found a foreign object in a bottle. “As a company, you have to make sure that your production processes are water-tight and all your representatives are fully familiar with them.

“When this incident happened, the customer engaged with a representative of the company. Unfortunately, the person that they engaged wasn’t knowledgeable about the production process. If they had been, they would have said that this is how the product is manufactured, so it’s factually impossible for there to be a foreign object in the bottle. It became a PR issue, but it could have been dealt with effectively months before. If You want competent people, invest in them so they know what they are doing and how it contributes to the broader business strategy and deliverables.”

He says that the same is true in the banking space. Because the environment is so regulated, what distinguishes reps is how well they understand their clients and their businesses.

“In one instance, what won over a customer who was multi-banked was not how well the rep understood the banking products, it was that they understood that the client was an owner-operator and offered them estate planning services in addition to basic banking services, which was important to the client and their family. Because of that advice, they were able to win over a very big customer.”

He says that it’s considerations like these – thinking about the relationship between staff capability and market share and credibility – that HR should be spending time on. “You have to invest in the coal face from a commercial point of view.”

Bongani believes he was well prepared for this balancing act by his early aspirations of becoming a chartered accountant. “It was one of the things to aspire to in those days if you wanted to be something important.”

He completed his B.Com, but never pursued the chartered accountant career path, and instead ended up in industrial relations. “I had a mentor when I was doing my vacation practical work in the mining industry who said, ‘Industry is run by engineers and accountants. They make industries work and they make money, but they don’t understand people.’”

With that advice ringing in his ears, when his degree was complete, he moved on to the Tiger Management Development Programme, then on to Transnet, and Distell. He’s worked in the beverage, social science, steel, property, and banking sectors, and then today, is back in the mining space. Each move in this varied career has been a considered one, and he is grateful for the insights he has gained across so many different industries.

“It was not by design, but I am grateful for it. It’s given me rich experience.”

A legacy business
Bongani joined Assore in 2018. Assore is a mining company, with interests in Iron Ore, Manganese and Chrome, owning both smelters and mines. Bongani says that as the company is “blessed with good ore bodies” it can focus on long-term sustainability, built on its 85-year track record.

“Commodity prices are globally driven and US Dollar denominated. You can’t control these as a producer. You can control production costs and quality so that’s what you have to focus on. If you get that right, then that’s where your sweet spot is.”

He says that the industry is currently in a good space, because commodity process and the rand-dollar exchange rate have cushioned some of the detrimental effects of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Culture-wise, Bongani says Assore has a stable and experienced management team which has allowed for consistency and a long-term perspective to create value within the organisation.

“We have strong family values, which is why people generally stay for a long period and we have built long-term relationships with customers and communities. Our Community Trusts, which form an integral part of our ownership structure, were established in phases since 2005 and had created the second highest value for public benefit from BEE deals according to Inlellidex’s June 2017 Empowerment Endowment study report. These trusts continue to create greater value for their beneficiaries.”

Bongani asserts that safety always comes first for a mining company. “If you don’t have a strong safety culture, you’re going to have serious challenges in the mining sector. The only way to manage it is with a strong risk management approach. You cannot knowingly make a decision that’s going to potentially harm people, you just can’t go there. We never put profits above people.”

Crisis management
During Covid-19, Assore briefly halted mining operations for the first month of lockdown – in March 2020. It re-opened with a new set of Covid protocols in place. One of its operations in Limpopo was amongst the first mines to record cluster outbreaks in Limpopo.

“When we saw how the protocols played out in practice, it became important to share that information with industry peers, as we had learnt from them. That’s what happened – it’s what needs to happen. The industry does a lot of sharing when it comes to dealing with the pandemic and we were all on a steep learning curve.”

Bongani says that in the third wave, they started to see a much greater impact in Gauteng, in their corporate office. “With the transmissibility of the Delta variant, people who are mostly working from home have had to be a lot more diligent about the contact that they do have outside the home. Individuals are more likely to catch the new variant, with even less contact time and proximity to carriers, and unknowingly at times. We have also seen a greater likelihood of whole households being infected or materially impacted.”

He says that Assore has always tried to stay ahead of the curve in terms of its response. “We closed our offices when we went to Level 3, and even at Level 1 and 2, we worked on rotation. The disease was always still around, so we didn’t want to unnecessarily expose people to risk in the workplace. We’ve been doing strict screening and contact tracing, but we’ve found that the criticality for that as a first line of defence has decreased because people are getting better at staying home when they are not feeling well.”

Assore had been supporting an NGO that runs a community feeding scheme before Covid-19 hit. When they closed down operations in the first wave, they used their canteen resources to support the feeding scheme.

“We diverted the resources we had been using to subsidise means for our staff into the feeding scheme. As a company, we got very involved, and our staff started to get involved and also donated to the scheme. We had exponential growth in the number of meals we were able to add to Soul Foods’ basket of meals. Soul Food are providing a million meals a month through the feeding scheme to persons in need. It allowed us to channel our energy towards something good.”

Bongani describes this as a “good experience” both for himself and the business. “People don’t see the levels of hunger brought on by the pandemic. We have a level of privilege and comfort. We are able to function at home. A lot of people haven’t worked since the pandemic began and some sectors have borne the brunt of the pandemics economic impact. So we’ve looked at what we can do and contributed our piece.”

On a personal level, Bongani has been reflecting on a hybrid working model for the future in Assore. He says all his mentors have told him that impactful HR is not an office job – that you have to get out there and be with the people in the business.

Prior to Assore, he used to only spend about two days a week in the office, so he says he will see how much he really needs to go into the office in future.

“I am listening to what my colleagues are doing in their own environment, and then thinking about how to take that back to work. We are considering how to reconstitute workplace arrangements, and make them fit for purpose, going forward.”

When staff have been infected with Covid-19, Bongani allocated a member of his HR team to supporting that individual. This means that they get daily calls, and support with whatever it is they need to get better. He specifically spread the load so that each person is making a couple of daily calls, rather than having one person deal with all the unwell employees.

“It was important for us to keep it in-house, because it’s all about the company caring about you. You’re not getting a call from a call centre agent. We talk about family values and it’s important that we live that. Aligned to the Soul Food programme we supported, we have also used our canteen resources to provide pre-packed meals for affected families during their isolation periods.”

And more recently the company was impacted by the civil unrest in KwaZulu-Natal. “This affected staff at our KZN operation, and again in living our values, we provided food parcels to the entire staff on site – contract and permanent – who had returned to work despite the challenges they were facing. This ensured that they did not have to focus on security basic necessities for their families, and compromise their return to work in the process.”

He adds that he’s a firm believer that charity begins in the home, which is “something we committed to when the pandemic first broke out by ensuring we secured the livelihoods of our staff and contractors, and these gestures are received with heartfelt gratitude.”

Time for himself
When Bongani needs to relax, he avoids his home office and spends time with his family, doing DIY projects or in the garden, and enjoys listening to a broad range of music.

He is a sports fan – both as a former player and as a spectator, although he says that he is cognisant of the fact that watching televised sport for relaxation is simply engaging with another screen. He said that when he and his wife decided to have children, they made the decision to be present for their children, and they spent a lot of quality time with them, and their extended family based in KwaZulu-Natal and Limpopo as well.

“On holiday, I like to get away, unwind and do nothing strenuous, and read. I find South African stories particularly authentic and humorous – they give a good perspective, especially on social issues and how they are experienced by different people. I do read some business books around leadership and culture as well. Black Tax [by Niq Mhlongo] was the last book I finished. I haven’t had a holiday since then.”

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