Westbury in Johannesburg has an interesting but tragic story behind it. First, it was a sewage dump and then it became the place where Coloureds were dumped like sewage. This is also the childhood home of Jesmane Boggenpoel, one of the most influential businesswomen in the world.
Jesmane grew up in a place of poverty, but her mom and dad did whatever they needed to put food on the table. Her dad was an especially hardworking man, which eventually resulted in him in having a nervous breakdown and her mom becoming the primary breadwinner of 3 children.
Of course, Jesmane, along with her twin sister, were naturally clever, A grade students. She confesses that she did not want to be an A student and had, in fact, hoped to score a B. Like any other kid, she wanted to fit in but in a community that was broken by apartheid, the bright kids were often seen as outcasts. Unfortunately for the young Jesmane, the Boggenpoel twins not only kept making it to the top of the school’s performer list, but at the time, they attained the school’s highest marks. She soon realised that this could be her ticket out of poverty, so she did what any smart person would do: she cashed it in.
Because of her outstanding matric results, Anglo American offered her a bursary to study at the University of Witwatersrand, where she completed a degree in accounting (ranking top of her class in many of her modules), and qualified as a chartered accountant. She says her only real big disappointment at university was that there were not many Coloured people that she could identify with. Jesmane however always sees an opportunity in everything, and in this instance, she saw an opportunity to learn. She made friends with people from different backgrounds and began to learn about and appreciate their cultures and experiences. This lead her to have a ‘global view’, the kind of expansive thinking that allowed her to quickly adapt to the environments of each country she has travelled to. To date, she has travelled to approximately 69 countries.
After graduating in 1995, Jesmane spent the next ten years building her corporate profile, starting off as an accountant and then ‘Corporate Finance Manager’ at KPMG; and moving on to Anglo American as a ‘Corporate Finance Analyst’. In 2002, she started working as a ‘Deal Executive’ at one of South Africa’s top private equity firms, Brait, where she also managed investments in a technology firm and a health retail firm. In 2005, she decided to venture out as an entrepreneur and co-founded an investment holding company, of which she was an executive director and shareholder. In this new venture, she largely focused on investments into finance and technology firms. In 2007, she started a consultancy, Harvestfield, which focused on advising firms in the areas of technology, investment and agriculture. Through her consultancy, she designed the investment methodology for a R5 billion program and was part of the presidential delegation to China.
Despite her growing business profile, Jesmane decided that she wanted to do something different, and applied to study for a Masters degree in Public Administration. She applied for a scholarship at Harvard in the US, was accepted, and completed her Masters in 2012. She was then appointed by the World Economic Forum as their Head of Business Engagement for Africa and it is here that her influence in the business world grew exponentially.
Not just anybody gets accepted to Harvard and of course, not just anybody gets to work in a highly influential executive position for the Forum. The World Economic Forum is the most influential corporate governance forum in the world, its board consisting of the former US Vice-President Al Gore, Chinese Billionaire Jack Ma and the Queen of Jordan. In this new role, she was in charge of overseeing the engagement of over 60 of the largest companies in Africa, and developing relationships with the most powerful people in Africa and in the rest of the world. She also became one of the Forum’s ‘Young Global Leaders’, forming part of what is described as the most powerful and exclusive social network of business and government leaders.
After 3 years spent in Switzerland, working for the Forum, Jesmane stepped down and decided to return home. She had by now developed a formidable network of business and governmental influence which is why she was approached by various companies to serve on their boards. Earlier this year, she was appointed the Interim Board Chairperson of technology firm EOH and still serves on the board of EOH’s holding company as the chairperson of the governance and risk committee. She also sits on the board of agricultural conglomerate, ETG Input Holdings; and she is a founding board member of the ‘African Women Chartered Accountants Investment Holdings’. Other boards that she has sat on include the Land Bank, the Land Bank Insurance Company, Agri-Business Senwes, Cell C and Intersite Property Management Services. Of course, being Jesmane means that she is not just satisfied with being a powerful businesswoman. She actually wants to contribute positively to the world.
After her time at the World Economic Forum, she decided to take off a few months to complete a book that she had been working on. She eventually released it this year and it has thus far been praised from people as diverse as Stanford’s University’s Julia Novy-Hildesley and the Nelson Mandela Foundation’s Futhi Mtoba. The book, My Blood Divides and Unites, explores her background as a mixed-race South African who not only felt like she had no history, but was also told that she was inferior. She says that she constantly felt “immense bouts of shame and incredible self-doubt”, asking questions like ‘who am I and where did I come from’. This book was a personal attempt to answer those questions and what she found was that not only did she belong, but her blood spoke of the history of the world. As part of answering these questions, she did a DNA test which showed that she is a mixture of African, Asian and European, so if someone talks about the foreigner, the Jew and the ‘blacks’, they are talking about her. She is a South African native whose bloodline extends across three continents, multiple cultures and an even greater number of religions; and that is something that makes her feel proud. She hopes that the book will serve as a positive contribution to the development of the Coloured community.
When Jesmane is not being a corporate juggernaut, she likes to relax by reading books, exploring nature, doing intense exercising routines and travelling (she has travelled to every continent except for Antarctica). She also enjoys visiting with her family, who has been a rock that she could depend on, from beginning to end.
Her mom and dad were constantly encouraging them to do their best, along with her grandfather and uncle ‘Reg’. She remembers how her mother, Patricia, would make the 40-minute journey with them to school and if it rained, she would run back to get them some dry clothes. Her uncle Reg, a high school mathematics teacher, used to take the twin sisters for extra mathematics classes which helped them get the grades to get into university. Her grandfather, Fred, who was a plasterer and builder, built the wall around their home and made sure that his old car was ready to take everybody to church on Sunday. Patricia also instilled in them a love of reading and made sure they knew that they could be anything they wanted to be. And then there is their dad, Johnny, a man that would have sacrificed everything for his family, and did.
In the beginning, it was written that Johnny had a nervous breakdown, and this is how it happened. He was a construction carpenter who took on a job at a mine in Namibia, a job that required of him to work ten hours a day, seven days a week; and he had to live in the bleak dormitories that were reserved for persons of colour. It was a physically backbreaking job but he wanted a better life for his family and the large paycheck kept him working himself into exhaustion. The company, Murray and Roberts, knew that they could exploit and abuse workers of colour under the protection of apartheid. Three months later, the job was done and Johnny boarded a train for more work opportunities. Sitting down, he experienced an intense sense of anxiety, could not sleep and felt a wave of exhaustion settle into the depths of his soul. His family did not have a history of mental illness so he did not know why he started hearing voices in his head. People were having conversations even though there wasn’t anybody in his compartment. Apartheid had done what it set out to do, which was to break him, with the final hammer blow being swung by Murray and Roberts. Afterwards, he experienced a series of nervous breakdowns and could no longer work as a carpenter, due to his condition posing a danger. This is perhaps why Jesmane is as hard-working and determined as she is. Her father gave everything, and she would not disappoint him.
Now, getting back to the history of Westbury. It was initially part of an upmarket, whites-only area, until the government decided that it would become a site where sewage was dumped. Of course, the white residents fled and sold their surrounding land to whomever was willing to buy it. At the start of apartheid, the area was declared ‘Coloureds-Only’, and Coloured people were forced to live in this place that was once a sewage dump. They had their land stolen and homes demolished in what is now the upmarket areas of Doornfontein and Pageview. Of course, these forced removals destroyed families, created financial destress and led to an increase in social ills such as crime, violence and substance abuse. On this already broken land was forced a now broken people, broken by the brutality of colonialism, genocide of the indigenous Khoi and San, slavery, apartheid and forced removals. It is not a place where people are expected to thrive but the truth is, from the ashes, a phoenix does rise. This was of course, the place where a certain Jesmane Boggenpoel was raised, and she decided that she no longer wanted to be broken. She reminds us that we can rebuild and retake our dignity, and all that is needed, is a little bit of confidence.
Note: We’d like to thank Jesmane Boggenpoel for taking the time to speak with us and for providing us with extracts from her book. If you want to get a copy of her book, you can find it at Exclusive Books and it can also be bought online from Loot and Takealot. It can also be ordered on Amazon as a Kindle e-book.