Visionary Women Leader: Barloworld’s Tantaswa Fubu reflects on a tumultuous year for her and her family

After losing her father and aunt to Covid-19, Tantaswa tested positive for the virus.

By Tantaswa Fubu, group executive: human capital, internal audit and corporate affairs at Barloworld.

Whoever said, “In every dark cloud there is a silver lining” was spot on. I doubt, though, that they foresaw the current state of the world and this terrible pandemic. Nevertheless, these words are more true for me now than when I first read them.

To say that this year has challenged me as a person and as a leader would be a massive understatement. The month of January has always been a joyous one to me because it is the month of my birth, but this year, it brought me much pain and misery and yet ushered in the greatest gift.

On 14 January 2021, we had a cremation service for my mother’s youngest sister, u’Makazi, who really was a second mother to me. U’Makazi has always been an amazing person in my life, always there for me. She was there even when my parents disowned me because I dared to have a boyfriend when I was a second-year university student. But that’s a tale for another day.

Before we could even dry our eyes, my father took his last breath at 11.42pm – the same night. It rocked my world, because I had barely begun my journey of mourning u’Makazi. Thanks to the healing power of time, I now realise why she and my dad had to go together. They were the best of buds. Their love for each other was as palpable as their passionate disagreements.

All of this happened while my dear mother was fighting Covid-19 in hospital. I asked the family not to tell her about her little sister’s passing, since u’Makazi was my mother’s best friend, and the news quite literally could have killed her. When my dad passed on, my brothers asked me what to do, and I said, “There is no way we can bury my mother’s husband without her knowing. Let us tell her, but please do not tell her about her little sister.” How we finally told her about her sister is another story.

When it rains it pours
After she was discharged from the hospital, my mother moved in with me to have easier access to physios and home doctor visits. During this time, while my mom was recovering from Covid-19 and getting her strength back, I tested positive for the virus.

The sickness was brutal, but I had to keep a brave face. I did not want my mother and my daughters to see how sick I was. I soldiered on and ensured that everyone was comfortable.

After healing, I returned to work. I thought I was ready, but I wasn’t. I often became extremely fatigued, especially in the afternoons. I was quite forgetful, irritable, and my muscles were sore to the point where sometimes I could not even lift up my arms. They felt lead-heavy.

I eventually went to see a functional medicine doctor (until then, I didn’t know that such a profession existed). Among many other things, I was diagnosed with long Covid and menopause. How lucky can a girl be?

When I returned to work, I began calling colleagues who had contracted the virus and beat it, to understand how they were coping. I soon realised that people were actually not coping.

The afternoons were the worst. People told me they were taking naps between meetings. Others told me that they were disappointed that the business expected them to function as they did before Covid-19.

My go-to response to this was that they had to keep in mind that someone who has not contracted Covid-19 and survived would have no clue what they were going through.” I realised that people equated Covid-19 recovery with flu recovery. That once you have “beat it”, you are over it. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Lead with empathy
Now the leadership call was: how, then, do we ensure that the Covid-19 survivors are understood and the environment made conducive for us? I was given an amazing lesson when my boss (Barloworld CEO Dominic Sewela) said to me, “You do not have to attend all the meetings.” Dominic has been a beacon of light in what has been one of the darkest periods of my life.

He has had to deal with my mental illness (I suffer from depression) as well as me testing positive for Covid-19. I have never come across a better example of empathetic leadership. Indeed, the pandemic is teaching us as leaders how to be humane. We are being taught to listen and respond to the silent cries of our people.

The questions we have to ask ourselves as leaders in a post-pandemic world are: How do we ensure that our people do not feel “less than” because they cannot attend all the meetings on any given day? What does leading in a humane manner mean, and how does it manifest?

The leaders that will emerge out of this era, I suspect, will be those who have internalised what it really means to lead with empathy. They will be the leaders who have wrestled with how to prioritise all the stakeholders, not just the shareholders. And they will be the leaders who have a true understanding of how to treat our people in the most decent and dignified manner.

That is the silver lining for us as leaders. Though Covid-19 has come with all sorts of challenges, the most important challenge of all is to emerge a stronger and more humane leader. Which of you leaders are up to unwrapping this challenge, staring it in the face, and smiling at the recognition of the amazing opportunity it presents?

Similarly, the challenges that our country has faced in the recent past, specifically the looting and economic fallout thereafter, come with new opportunities. “Never waste a good crisis,” they say. It’s much easier said than done, but I believe that we can make the very best of an extremely difficult situation and emerge as better versions of ourselves.

Leaders, stand up!