Zimkhitha Saungweme, Head of People at Discovery Health, ascribes her success to being curious and continuously challenging herself out of her comfort zone, committing fully and being blessed with leaders who believed in her potential and invested in her growth. Today, she is devoted to being a role model for others.
Along with strong mentors and hard work, Saungweme says key to her success were her studies at the historic University of Fort Hare, followed by specialist diplomas and an MBA.
Zimkhitha Saungweme says when she was growing up in Queenstown in the Eastern Cape, families with few resources and assets used education to uplift the next generation. “It was a given that each generation had to rise up from the previous one. There was no debate about education, because there were not many opportunities.”
“I was fortunate to come from a family that valued education highly. My mum was a teacher who retired at 65. Even with five children to raise, she registered at Vista University to study part time. My father was a policeman who joined an insurance company later in life. He might have not educated himself further, but he firmly believed in our education,” she says.
Following in big footsteps
After finishing boarding school, Saungweme completed her Bachelor of Commerce degree at the University of Fort Hare in Alice in the Eastern Cape. The university was the alma mater of struggle heroes like Nelson Mandela and Oliver Tambo. “Reading about the history of the university taught me that people with very basic backgrounds went on to become great leaders. The perspective was that ‘it is possible, and you can do it’,” she says.
Venturing to Johannesburg, she found a prestigious internship at a consulting firm, which she says was another form of learning about the corporate world. “Those nine months exposed me to so many areas of the business, which was invaluable. Eventually, I landed in IT and systems development, but I felt that I needed to study further to establish myself, so I did a diploma in Information Technology.” In 2004, she also completed her MBA at De Montford University.
Work hard but smart at the same time
Saungweme says to excel in a field, one has to get involved and “roll up your sleeves”. “I do believe that people should work smart, but really, hard work is behind everything I have achieved.”
She explains that her experience in business analysis and IT systems has given her a unique view on how things work. When she stepped into a business role at Discovery in 2003, it quickly evolved into one where she was also focusing on systems. “To work well, everything has to work together.”
Saungweme says her career path included managing service teams, setting up health divisions and for a short while, she dabbled in social media and digital strategy. Then she was appointed as the Head of People at Discovery Health in 2017.
“In my career, if I am given an opportunity, my strategy is to dedicate myself to it, no matter what the role is. Apart from the right education, mentorship and coaching determine where you go. You cannot do it on your own, which is why I have always had executive coaching from valuable mentors.”
The Discovery way of life
“I work at Discovery because I admire the people who work here, the innovation, the energy and fast pace and, importantly, the progressive management team inspires me,” she says.
“What resonates most for me is the concept of shared value. It is something I live by personally. When you are in relationships, it has to be mutually beneficial. I ask myself what value a person engaging with me is getting from me, and vice versa. In business, the same applies. The value proposition for the consumer with regard to health, safety and financial benefits is as solid as the business offering for Discovery. This helps me walk tall, knowing I am making a significant difference to our community.”
A short message to women in SA
Saungweme says her message to women in South Africa is that in 2019, “we do face challenges. Generally, there is still under-representation in terms of diversity, especially in senior leadership positions as well as on board membership. But what are we reading and hearing, tells me these challenges are not South African, they are global.”
She says the solution goes back to mentorship. “One implication of under-representation is that there seems to be insufficient role models. People look up and look for some form of assurance that they can be in a corporate space and make it. We in those leadership positions need to show young people that it can be done.”
Nonkululeko Pitje, Head of Employee Health Solutions at Discovery, believes in the power of visibility and that female leaders must be visible to be visionary.