Co-founder and co-owner of Tswelopele Productions and Head of the Businesswomen’s Association
This is an extract from My Success, Your Success: Top tips from South African women entrepreneurs. It is reproduced with permission.
Most people know her as the first black Miss South Africa, but Basetsane (Bassie) Khumalo is not at all the beauty queen type. Although undeniably gorgeous, at just 34 this woman has run her own television business (Tswelopele Productions) for 14 years, has her own line of cosmetics, is head of the largest networking body for businesswomen in the country and is about to launch the first black, woman-owned coal mining company in south Africa.
It’s more than some people achieve in a lifetime, and rather puts the achievement of winning Miss South Africa, which she did in 1994, in its place.
‘Being Miss South Africa was not my lifelong dream,’ she says dryly. In fact, her mother entered her into the competition while she was studying to be a teacher at the University of Venda in the early 1990s and she went ahead with it because her mother was ‘not the kind of person you said no to!’
‘I was not really into beauty pageants at that stage,’ she says ‘I was on the SRC and getting involved in politics on campus. The next thing she knew I got a call saying I had made it to semi finals of Miss South Africa!’
Once she had attained the honour of the title however, Bassie says it has not been without its advantages.
‘This whole Miss South Africa thing has its pros and cons,’ she says. ‘On the one hand I’ve had to carry around the beauty queen stigma – that I don’t have anything between my ears – and have had to prepare that much more and work that much harder to prove to people that I have substance. On the other hand, it has been undeniably useful in opening doors. Having been given the opportunity I used it wisely to catapult myself to another level. People are often curious to meet you and that’s often enough to get you an appointment. But of course it’s what you do with that appointment that counts.’
Bassie proved this last point when early in 1995 she and business partner Patience Stevens hit on the idea of setting up Tswelopele Productions – one of South Africa’s first and most successful independent television producers.
Bassie met Patience a few months after she became Miss South Africa when Patience was filming a pilot show on fitness for the SABC.
‘As Miss South Africa you are interviewed by all sorts of people here and there and invited into lots of fora,’ says Bassie – appearing on the fitness programme was one of them.
Immediately struck by Bassie’s camera presence, Patience invited her to become a presenter on a new magazine show called Top Billing that she had conceptualised and was producing on behalf of the SABC. Not knowing much about anything then, Bassie thought it sounded interesting and agreed. And thus, as easy as that, did she ‘transition into the crazy world of TV’ and began a glamorous career (just one of the many of course) as a TV presenter on one of the country’s most enduringly popular TV shows.
The novelty wore off fast.
‘I am kind of person who gets bored very, very quickly,’ says Bassie. ‘And regurgitating somebody else’s words week after week was not very interesting. After three to four months I was well and truly bored.’
Thinking that there had to be more to TV, Bassie went to speak to Patience. She wanted to learn more about the business of TV: how it worked behind scenes.
In those days, the SABC produced all of its own material internally. Essentially, Bassie learned, they made big profits from somebody else’s brainchild – in the case of Top Billing – Patience’s brainchild. With the clarity of youth, Bassie thought the whole thing was a bit unfair and she urged Patience to join her in doing something about it. Specifically, what they decided was to negotiate with the SABC to produce Top Billing independently and to take back what was rightfully Patience’s to start with. It had always been a long-term goal of Bassie’s to run her own business, it just looked like the plan was about to be moved up a bit.
Bassie approached the SABC and exerted the Miss South Africa charm to secure that all important interview with then CEO Zwelake Sisulu. That was the easy bit. Actually turning up at the interview to talk business was the part that she was not so confident about.
In fact, she says it was the most frightening thing she had done to date – and this from someone who had represented South Africa on the global stage at the Miss Universe contest (she came second, by the way).
‘My heart was beating!’ says Bassie. ‘I didn’t have any fancy business speak or business language. But I just told him our idea and asked him if he would be prepared to give us the opportunity. I threw in the empowerment word – which was something of a new buzz word in those days – and told him how it was important it was for us as women to be given an opportunity like this.’
When she had finished she says that Sisulu just sat and looked at her – dead quiet. Eventually he said: ‘My child – the future of this country looks bright if young people like you can do what you have just done’. Clearly she had made an impression.
It took eight months – the decision had first to be ratified by the SABC Board – but at last the day dawned when Tswelopele (which means appropriately enough ‘progress’ in Tswana) was born.
The SABC had effectively changed the way it operated to bring this about and Bassie and Patience were at the vanguard of a whole new era for television. They were the first to get an independent licence to produce television for the SABC, opening the door to the thriving industry of today.
Of course the real work only started after this happy day. The proud owners of Tswelopele Productions, now they actually had to produce an entire television programme – lots of them – without a studio, without premises and without the infrastructure of the SABC. Money clearly was the most pressing concern. They urgently needed to buy equipment.
They approached the banks but soon found that with no collateral and no track record, no financial institution was willing to even look at them. Having come so far, however, they were not about to let a little thing like money get in the way.
‘If you have a vision and a dream, I believe that you cannot let anyone stand in your way,’ says Bassie. ‘We had to understand that the banks did not share our passion and they didn’t really understand the industry so it was hard for them to see where the returns lay. It was up to us to make them see that. But first, we had to find money somewhere.
‘All of a sudden we had to go and look under the mattress to see how much money our parents had saved so we could buy what we needed and function as a company.’
In the end they scraped together a decent amount. Bassie borrowed some from her parents and put down her winnings from Miss South Africa while Patience also put in some of her own money. With this show of good faith, they went back to banks with a business plan that explained exactly why it was important that they loan them the rest of the money.
‘We had to haggle and show commitment,’ says Bassie. Fortunately they were convincing and they got what they needed to start production.
It was hard work. In addition to presenting the show – which she continued to do for the next nine years until the birth of her son in 2005 – Bassie handled all the marketing and internal HR issues involved in setting up and running Tswelopele. Patience, the technical guru, meantime got on with doing what she does best – making great TV.
Bassie had no previous experience of business so she had to learn as she went along. At just 21 years old, it was a far cry from what other girls of her age were up to.
‘I grew up very fast,’ says Bassie. ‘I didn’t spend my twenties clubbing and partying like a lot of other girls did.’
She can, however, rest in the knowledge that it was not a misspent youth! As everybody knows, the Patience, Bassie combination is a great one. Over the years, Tswelopele has flourished. It now employs 130 people and produces, in addition to its flagship Top Billing, Pasella and SABC 1’s youth show Ses’khona. Four years ago they also decided to diversify into publishing and now produce a monthly glossy Top Billing magazine that successfully translates the brand from television to print, and a series of Pasella cookbooks.
Bassie says it is all as a result of daring to dream and holding fast to that dream as she and Patience did. She believes that this ability to dream is an essential ingredient in the make up of any entrepreneur. Whether it is a characteristic that is born in or made is another question. For herself, she thinks she was given this gift by her parents and her upbringing.
Born in Soweto in 1974, one of five children, Bassie comes from a family and a community with a strongly Christian ethos and entrepreneurial mindset. Given the historical context, times were hard and from early on she learnt the value of hard work. Although her father was a bus driver and her mother a teacher that didn’t stop either of them from engaging in a host of activities on the side to generate income.
‘There’s nothing that my parents didn’t try,’ says Bassie, ‘from making curtains to sell in Lesotho to starting a construction company, they did it all.’
Maybe not so surprising then that from a young age Bassie too was out there working. From selling sweets in the playground at school to selling hard boiled eggs in the neighbourhood or ice creams at the soccer stadium, she and her sisters were kept busy.
‘One learnt to work with money at an early age. I didn’t realise it at the time but this was a form of education,’ she says.
In addition to this, her ‘wise’ mother found activities to keep her three girls from straying into harm’s way. From church choir and Sunday School to beauty pageants she made sure that there was no idle hands for the devil to make work with. This is how Bassie came to win Miss Shoe Shop while barely out of childhood and in 1990, at age 16, was crowned Miss Soweto and swiftly after that Miss Black South Africa. It’s easier to understand now why her mother couldn’t resist the grand prize of Miss South Africa itself.
All of this, Bassie says, was carried out against a backdrop of tremendous love and support that gave her and her siblings all confidence they needed to succeed in life.
‘Although we didn’t have a lot of material things, one thing we always had in our home was love. We knew that we mattered and from young age we were allowed to have a voice,’ she says.
‘I could look back and say, oh I had it hard, but actually I didn’t. I had all the love and support and the best informal training in my own home with my own parents. They taught us how to stand up and survive in this world.’
Nobody could ask for more and it is something that Bassie seeks to pass on to her own son. Although she feels constantly guilty for being a working mom, she reminds herself from time to time that she is product of working parents and she didn’t’ turn out too badly!
‘I may not know all the cartoon characters and nursery rhymes but I make sure that my son knows that I love him,’ she says. ‘I may not be able to tuck him in every night but I am instilling in him a sense of the value of hard work.’
It’s all been quite a journey – Bassie admits. Along the way she has relied on the support of her family and husband – ‘the wind beneath my wings’ – and has also drawn considerable support from her maker.
‘I honestly believe I am where I am in life today because of God’s grace,’ she says.
After 14 years with Tswelopele, she no longer needs to be as hands-on as she used to be. The company practically runs itself these days although she still plays a role in securing new deals. In addition to her other side interests – Bassie is the ambassador for Milady’s clothing and also has her own cosmetics and sunglasses ranges – she now find herself in the enviable position of ‘diversifying even further’. Although she has had ‘mining interests’ for the past few years she plans to get more operationally involved in a coal mining business owned by herself and two other women partners. Called Uzalile Properties, they hope to get to the stage of exporting coal as well as increasing the supply of much-needed coal to local power stations.
‘Mining is something I am really getting my teeth into right now. I am learning everything I can about it through attending workshops and seminars. I even went to mining indaba earlier in the year. It is something I am particularly excited about,’ she says, adding that it is vital to do your homework before getting involved in a business otherwise you run the risk of being blind sided.
She is also getting more and more absorbed into her role as Head of the Businesswomen’s Association, an unsalaried position which she assumed in 2007. As South Africa’s largest networking body for women, Bassie is passionate about the role it can play in building and empowering women in this country. In particular she is working to build the mentoring component of the organisation, which she believes is a powerful tool at the disposal of entrepreneurs and something they need to take seriously.
‘When you are an entrepreneur you have a responsibility to look after a greater whole,’ she says. ‘This is not always easy, in fact its very idealistic, but it’s imperative. Each company needs to do something that matters to somebody’s life.’
Bassie maintains that without others playing this kind of a role in her life she would not be where she is today.
‘I am a product of mentorship. Patience mentored me at Tswelopele and I was mentored by my own mother in my home. A lot of women that I truly admire today – Mamphela Ramphele and Wendy Luhabe for example – are all great mentors,’ she says.
Bassie herself is now mentor to a good number of people, which doesn’t mean that she has ‘arrived’ in any sense. She believes that everyone is on a continual journey and that the future still has much in store for her. And if her first 34 years are anything to go by, she is not wrong in this regard.
‘I am still a work in progress,’ she says, ‘If I wake up someday and think I have arrived that will be a sad day. It will be that day I stop growing, the day I stop striving to be a better person, and that day I’ll loose that all important vava voom in life!’ she says.
Bassie’s top tips for success
1. Never let people’s perception of who you are determine your destiny or determine who you are. Some people want to use my Miss South Africa title against me and I could have decided it was too difficult to break through that but I did not let it deter me. Let people see your true value.
2. Be fearless – what have you got to loose? If you don’t give it a shot you will regret it and you don’t want to live a life of regret.
3. Surround yourself with wise, fabulous people – who know more than you. My mother always used to say that you are a product of the people you hang around with. I am a product of mentoring. Be willing to admit that you don’t know it all and then open yourself to the wisdom of others and learn from them.
4. Pursue your passions, this will help ensure your success. All my business interests reflect the things I am passionate about. For example, my cosmetics and sunglasses business reflect that fact that I love to look good and want to help other women achieve the same thing – without breaking the bank. Knowing what you want and what you are passionate about is a key part in success.
5. Write down your goals – so you have something to shoot for. I always had a vague desire to be successful and not to lack, but after winning Miss South Africa I sat down and wrote our my short-term, medium-term and long-term goals. They were: to get a licence (I had won a car as part of Miss South Africa but couldn’t drive), to travel the world and to start my own business. At the time I didn’t know how and they were very grandiose ideas, but I have achieved them all.
6. Live your life with honesty and integrity and do not conform. When the curtain draws on my life I want to be able to say good or bad, right or wrong I did it my way…
7. Be courageous and determined. An entrepreneur is not just somebody who has a great idea, it is somebody who has a great idea and is not afraid to turn that idea into a reality. It will be tough and you need to not be afraid to fail. Know that you can only can you learn from failure. Remember also when you are an entrepreneur your are not out to win a popularity competition you are there to do the job, to live a dream and to make a difference in people’s lives.
8. Don’t be afraid of hard work. My father always used to say if you can conceive it you can achieve it and hard work ‘baby girl’ has never killed anybody. He was right.