I have something of a rebel in me, says Westfalia Fruit's Bongani Manzi

Bongani Manzi, Westfalia Fruit's GM of Finance, says he has a future CFO role in his sights.

Bongani Manzi is a self-described “rural boy” hailing from Mount Frere in the Transkei. He has built an impressive career for himself, now working as the GM of Finance at Westfalia Fruit, but he says that his roots keep him humble. “It’s never been easy. I didn’t grow up with a silver spoon in my mouth. It helps me when I deal with people – I always come from a position of respect. I don’t see myself as being any better than anyone else. It doesn’t matter which road in life you come from, we are all human beings with hopes and dreams and ambitions.”

Bongani has a lot to say about hopes and dreams, as one of five boys born to a single mother. For the first ten years of his life, he lived with his grandmother in Mount Frere, but as it became apparent that he and his twin brother had academic potential, they went to live in Umtata with their mother so that they could focus on their studies. His mother had initially hoped that he would become a doctor, but Bongani didn’t agree.

“I think I have something of a rebel in me,” he says. “As soon as they told me I should become a doctor, I decided that they couldn’t tell me what to become. So I started looking at options other than being a doctor.” 

Studies and pitfalls
He ended up going to UCT to study electromechanical engineering (his twin brother went with him and also studied engineering), but after a year, he had to drop out. “It didn’t go so well,” he says. “I struggled with maths, didn’t pass physics – I only passed two out of six subjects.” He and his brother went back to Umtata, and after a year of considering options, their mother enrolled them in a Marketing and Business Management Diploma at Damelin. “Bless her soul, our mother always believed in us,” says Bongani.

During that two-year diploma at Damelin, Bongani found that he excelled at accounting, which was one of the subjects. So, he stated to do some research to find out what he could do with it. This was how he first became aware of chartered accountancy as a profession. When he finished his diploma, he started his undergrad at the University of Transkei in Umtata. And his brother went along with him. He then applied for a bursary from the National Research Foundation to complete his Honours at the University of Durban Westville, and also applied to KPMG in East London. They said that they would take him, if he did his Honours first. 

Recruited by Nkonki
While doing his Honours, there was a graduation ceremony for the undergraduates at the University of Transkei. When he went up to collect his certificate, all his distinctions were listed, and Siphiwe Sithole, who worked for audit firm Nkonki, took notice. She approached him after the ceremony to ask if he’d be interested in coming to work for them. Since he already had a place at KPMG, he said he’d think about it, but after she flew back down to Durban to meet him again, he was convinced. He started his articles at Nkonki in Johannesburg in 2005.

“Those three years were very important as far as my development was concerned,” he says. “You get good exposure at a smaller firm – looking at audit, revenue, costs, payroll at your clients, as opposed to if you’re at a big audit firm with a big team, you don’t get exposed to all aspects of a particular business.”

Pursuing a career
After he completed his articles, he stayed at Nkonki for another 18 months, and then joined the Hans Merensky Group – which owns Westfalia – where he’s been for ten years. He started out as group management accountant for Merensky Holdings and was then promoted to his current role at Westfalia Fruit Africa. “I have reported to Rian du Toit, our CFO, since day one. He’s someone I respect a lot. He’s always had faith in me, supported me and been good to me. He’s challenged me, but always been true to his words whenever we’ve had discussions, or I’ve had questions,” Bongani says about the Hans Merensky Group CFO, a nominee at the 2018 CFO Awards. 

In his current position, Bongani lists his challenges as ensuring the proper functioning of systems, processes and controls to provide accurate and timeous information for reporting, forecasting and decision-making. He also focuses on liquidity management, working capital optimisation and change risk management. And he ensures that the finance functions are adequately resourced with people with the requisite skills to provide a quality service to the business, while also building succession. 

Pursuits, pride and passion
Sport is his biggest out-of-work interest and pastime. “I used to play soccer and cricket, and a little bit of tennis as well. Now I mostly just enjoy watching – especially football. I am a big Barcelona fan and in South Africa, I support the Orlando Pirates.” In addition, he enjoys reading financial publications and self-help books. He is married to Labesutu, whom he describes as “a blessing”, and has two daughters Langalethu, who is nine, and Kwanda-Okuhle, who is five. “They are my pride and joy.” He says that they have taught him lessons in patience.

“You work long, hard days sometimes and when you get home, you’ve got these little people that just want your attention running up to grab you because daddy’s home. I can’t say I’m tired or I’ve had a rough day. I have to make the time for them.”

He hopes that this has made him a better boss. “I enjoy dealing with people, and I am generally patient. I relish the opportunity to groom a person, help them to improve and help them to become better versions of themselves. I enjoy the people aspect, and as with my kids, I try to engage with them, but to give them their space to be able to voice opinions and talk about whatever issues they have.”

When asked what he’s learnt on his professional journey, one of the things he’s proudest of was starting over when things didn’t work out at UCT. “The lesson was that just because you’re not good at something, doesn’t mean that there’s nothing you can be good at. Be open to changing direction and finding your strong points, and then, when you do, make the most of them. I can look back and say that it’s not been easy to get here, but I am proud that I am here.”

He adds that he hopes that the people who work with him have learnt from him. “I believe that I have impacted them positively. And the business itself has grown tremendously since I have been here, and I would like to believe that I contributed positively to that development. I could never claim sole credit for what happens, because we work as a collective, but I would like to believe that my contribution helped to point the company in the right direction.”

Bongani says that the next step for him would be to be the CFO of a leading South African organisation. “I would like to see that happen in the next three to five years – I believe I’ll be ready for that challenge.” His brother, who also did his articles at Nkonki, now works at the Auditor-General. “I am proud of him. He’s doing well for himself,” says Bongani. “Maybe he’s the next AG in the making. I certainly think he has it in him.” 

The distant future 
While Bongani’s ambitions will certainly keep him in the big city for the time being, he says that he misses the rural lifestyle. “I’d like to live in a place like East London – not too big, and you can still get out to the countryside. I like my peace and quiet. The big city has its conveniences, but once one has made one’s millions, he will most likely retire to a small town.”

While Bongani might be hearing the call of the countryside, he has plenty of years to express his drive and focus before retirement, peace and quiet becomes a reality.