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“Africa is our home and we drive her growth” – meet Nolwazi Nzama, Head of Operational Risk for Personal and Business Banking, Standard Bank SA

Written by Staff Writer

November 23, 2020

As the Head of Operational Risk at PBB SA for Standard Bank, Nolwazi Nzama supports CE Funeka Montjane in managing the risk associated with the personal and business banking business. We spoke to her about housing the nation, career angels and wealth creation.

What is your portfolio at Standard Bank and how do you manage operational risk?

Essentially banking is a business where risk is taken in return for reward. Our primary job is to enable business to identify risks, understand them and then deliberate whether they are within their appetite of risk pursuant to the rewards they are pursuing. We become a balance between driving sustainability and being a conscience to the business. We are a regulated function but we thrive to provide a service whereby even if we weren’t regulated they would still want to have us around because they see the value in the engagements we provide. The beauty of us is our job is to enable conscious risk taking for the bank which inherently means we do the same for customers – because without our customers there is no bank. So we manage the friction between ensuring great customer experience and the risk associated with delivering it.  We ensure products delivered to customers meet not only regulatory standards but that the interests of our customers have been met and my performance is measured not only on the bank’s losses but on customer losses – two sides to one coin!

What have been some of the major highlights in your career at Standard Bank?

Standard Bank generally has been a great place for me to work and develop. I came in as a middle manager and have been able to work my way through the ranks. A lot of women struggle with a degree of the “imposter syndrome” – which I have never felt at the Bank. My greatest highlight has been the opportunity the Bank gave me to be the head of Affordable Housing Business Unit and Head of Credit at Affordable Housing. Affordable Housing essentially is the BU that deals with the strategy around lending and collaboration with government concerning the delivery of housing solutions and funding to the majority of South Africans. We played a big role in helping government think through their subsidy policy – FLISP – and helping government deliver houses to the masses of hard working South Africans who wanted to own their own homes and the dignity that comes with that.  So my biggest milestone you could say is that Standard Bank allowed me to house the nation! We say in Standard Bank that Africa is our home and we drive her growth and for me that role made me fall in love with Standard Bank. I choose to be in banking because I know what it does and I’d like to make a big difference to the lives of people.

In your current life journey, what parts of your experiences are unique to you and give you a valuable perspective when it comes to being a female leader and imparting your knowledge to the next generation?

It is quite ironic when you take a step back and realise the real problem in South Africa is not necessarily one of race but the gap between the haves and have nots. As a black African female I have to admit that I am a “have”. I may have come from a history of being disadvantaged but once I was able to acknowledge that I am now a have, what comes with that is a responsibility to challenge myself to make sure others become similarly advantaged. This means moving away from a victim mind-set to an empowered one – which in turn means I have the agency to make a difference in other people’s lives – however small. When I look at South Africa today, I look at what I can do to dilute the racial polarisation in the country and contribute to a general sense of responsibility of the haves – black and white – to the have nots. I sometimes have feelings of guilt and am constantly looking for opportunities in both my personal and work life to remedy that by making a difference.

Most of the people who have contributed to my career have been men – black and white – I call them my career angels. And I will measure the success of my career on the number of women to whom I was a career angel.

What trends have you noticed over the last 5 years in terms of appetite for credit applications in South Africa?

There has been greater access to credit for financially active people in SA – but how do we find more ways to lend to more businesses? We need to make bigger inroads. That is the biggest challenge which has been brought to a head in this pandemic where so many businesses are taking strain. When you lend you go through a form of statistical analysis based on the probability of repayment – we therefore continue to struggle with lending to small businesses in particular. That is the problem statement we are going to have to solve if we are going to get this economy back on track.

Do you think we are doing enough in terms of financial literacy education at school level?

We obviously aren’t! My father always told me “From your first salary save R100” – and I now understand why. He also said “Don’t get addicted to the smell of a new car – it is such a bad idea.” I wish we could find ways we could teach the majority of South Africans to understand the difference between a value adding asset and a value eroding one. We need to find ways to not only teach our youth financial literacy but to live it. We need to get better at wealth creation in South Africa. People are working hard but they are just surviving. Wealth creation is not an over night thing – it is the result of self discipline, the ability to deny yourself instant gratification and being consistent in adhering to the big decisions you make. Financial literacy and wellness is similar to physical and personal wellness in that being disciplined makes all the difference. You need to have a healthy relationship with money and know when you have enough and you’re ok.

How did you celebrate Women’s Month?

It was so different this year. I celebrated it with my team; the gentlemen in the team arranged a lovely celebration on the 7th August. We made delicious drinks which we shared virtually and had a wonderful fireside chat. Gender-based violence – GBV – felt so much worse this August – so we were discussing how to help colleagues who may be suffering at home, as well as how to help those among us who are grieving from the loss of loved ones. Different but meaningful.

What have been some of the key CSI initiatives that you are involved in?

I have an awesome team – team Jenga (a Swahili term which means to build) – and this year we funded a few initiatives: an old age home; a church; an animal shelter – supporting the vulnerable. On Spring Day, we usually plant trees so this year we did that in our own gardens. We are currently looking to identify a university student whom we want to sponsor from next year.

On my side, from a citizenry point of view, I contribute data to 3 security guards’ children. Plus, during COVID I have channelled money into households where there were retrenchments.

The Top Women 2020 “Brave Conversation” narrative is aimed at showcasing a culture reset within the women empowerment space, where Standard Bank is challenging the status quo and how the role of women in society is viewed – As a leader and a Standard Bank Top Women, what does resetting the culture for women mean for you? What are some of the changes that still need to happen?

By and large women struggle with the burden of feeling they are failing someone when juggling home and work. How do we enable women to manifest their dreams without the feeling that it is at the expense of… This means that in corporate and the civil service we need to create environments that allows for the flexibility for women to make trade offs that they are comfortable with. COVID-19 has proven that this can be done. We need to focus on delivery and not on how the delivery is executed. We as women also need to be comfortable with the idea of strong men who are contributors to the family. So the culture shifts we need are not relegated only to the workplace but need to be societal.

How would you like to be remembered?

I was raised with the view that you are blessed to bless others – so I would like to be remembered as someone who is a blessing, no matter how small, to others. I believe we all come into this world with a purpose and I would like to think I was able to nudge some people to fulfil that purpose and be whatever they came here to be.

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