Mercedes Benz SA's Abey Kgotle on the experiences that shaped his career

From his first HR job at Naschem to a tumultuous period at Lonmin's Marikana mine, Abey reflects on the roles that moulded him.

Mercedes Benz South Africa’s executive HR & corporate affairs director Abey Kgotle hails from a dusty township, Itsoseng, located 38km from Lichtenburg and commonly known as Mooidorpie by locals.  He’s the second of four children of Itsoseng’s former police head and storekeeper.  He speaks fondly of Itsoseng as one of the sources of his passionate pursuit of his life goals.  Father of four himself as well, Abey views family as the most integral part of his life.

After spending a year as a community development officer with the North West provincial administration, he was approached to join Naschem, a division of Denel. It was there that the HR bug bit him.  He immediately enrolled for a post-graduate HR qualification to sharpen his HR knowledge.

“My role as an HR and community development officer was perfect for me at that time, as I was able to do both the things I am passionate about - uplifting communities  via Corporate Social Responsibility projects. Cutting my teeth in HR also provided me with an opportunity to get involved in people development,” says Abey. “It was during my time at Naschem that I decided I wanted to focus a lot more on HR and became more involved in recruitment, running graduate development programmes, and driving the people agenda.”

Abey was quickly fast-tracked to become an executive manager for HR role at a time when SA was undergoing its own transition in terms of driving transformation and employment equity. During that time, Denel was a leading example of how affirmative action should be effected, with many of today’s business leaders emerging from that organisation. It was this experience that laid the foundation and prepared him for everything that would follow in his career.

Time at Marikana

One of the most memorable times of his career were his days at Lonmin. He had been at the mining company for four years at the time of the tragic week that changed his and many others’ lives – the Marikana tragedy. He had held three roles in a short period of time before being asked to take the lead in trying to navigate the events that transpired before and after the tragic week in South Africa’s history where 10 people were brutally killed in the midst of a violent strike action before the infamous police shooting where 34 miners died.  One can only imagine the kind of pressure Abey was under. He had to build a relationship with the then upstart union that AMCU while representing the interests of business under the watchful eye of the media and industry at large, and eventually the Farlam Commission.

Says Abey: “When the tragedy unfolded, I was given the role of finding a resolution to the impasse. The one thing that I had to grapple with was moving beyond my own personal views about what happened and leading the process of finding a solution. I had to overcome the pain I saw in the eyes of so many families, the anger and endless questions and work on finding a solution. The whole nation looking at the organisation to see if we are going to resolve what seemed like an impossible situation. And, at the same time, the industry was looking at us to see if we were going to set a good or bad precedent.  At the same time, we had unions with whom Lonmin had existing collective agreements, which were interested to see if we will dishonour those agreements.  This was a completely difficult situation, with very little prospect of success and an outcome that would not be amenable to all the stakeholders.”

Education and training goes out the window

It was the kind of situation where education and training were not a priority – stabilising the workforce was. Abey recalls how the Industrial Relations toolbox - i.e. the Labour Relations Act, the Recognition agreements, wage agreements, etc., which companies refer to during labour disputes – was simply inadequate. It was such an extraordinary situation that a business-as-usual approach was clearly not going to work. The leadership team had to think outside the box and be intentional in finding fit for purpose solutions that may not necessarily appease everyone.

“At a personal, emotional, spiritual level it was tough. I don't want to lie. There were days where I would cry and consider walking away from the whole thing. Some days, I would ask myself, ‘why do I have to be the one going through this? Yet, I would always got back to as ‘if not you, then who?’” says Abey.

“Were it not for my family, I don’t know what would have become of me. My wife, Nthabeleng, in particular, was a blessing. She stood by my side and created a space where it was okay to be vulnerable and express my frustrations. She remained a true pillar of strength and a source of inspiration.  I was also lucky to have had friends and colleagues that I could safely confide in and take constructive criticism from. Because, in that situation, you have to have someone who will be honest with you about the decisions you are making.”

Digitisation is a reality

Now at Mercedes-Benz South Africa, Abey is in a less tumultuous environment but the challenges remain as significant as ever. Automation and digitisation remain a cause for concern among workers while prosperity within the automotive industry hinges on government addressing policy uncertainty. For Abey, a lot of the focus for HR, in all industries, has to go towards demystifying the Fourth Industrial Revolution so that approaches to finding and developing the talent needed in the future world of work become entrenched.

“Most people look at digitisation as a threat. But it's not a threat, it's a reality and an opportunity. If you look at how the automotive industry has evolved, how we are already using robotics. It's a matter of how we adapt – the future of Human Resources  will always need,” says Abey.

“Since I have joined MBSA, we have digitalised a large number of processes and will continue to do so. We have done away with payslips and almost all of our employee communication and  engagement happens via mobile phone. That is how we are embracing technology. But there is still so much more that can be done and we continue to look for more opportunities.”

Taking on the open road

When he is not in the office, Abey and his wife get on their motorcycles and take on the open road. Whether it is a long distance trip, like the 5500 km round trip to Swakopmund, which they have recently returned from, or a Sunday ride ‘to wherever the road takes us’, they find serenity on those bikes.

Says Abey: “You get to feel and see a lot more than you would if you were in a car. There is an element of meditation and self-introspection that comes with it. Because, when you hop on, everything else has to stop. You have to be completely present and focus on what you are doing because there is little margin for error.”