MTN CEO Ralph Mupita reveals how good parenting, racist Rhodesia moulded him

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Zimbabwe-born president and chief executive officer of South Africa’s MTN Group Ralph Tendai Mupita has credited his parents for shaping him into the leader he has become.

Mupita (RM), who grew up in Mutare, told Alpha Media Holdings chairman Trevor Ncube (TN) on the platform In Conversation with Trevor that his father believed that “education will set you free”.

He spoke about his upbringing, coming face to face with racism at a young age and his role at MTN.

Below are excerpts from the interview.

TN: Ralph Tendai Mupita, welcome to In Conversation With Trevor.

RM: Trevor thanks very much.

It is a privilege to be on this platform, and I am looking forward to this conversation and also asking you some questions.

TN: Absolutely. I look forward to your questions.

I am grateful that you have found the time because a couple of hours ago you were in the air flying from one place to another.

So for you to create this time, I am truly grateful, and I have no doubt that this conversation is going to inspire quite a lot of people.

RM: Thank you.

TN: Ralph I will start with your dream.

When you were 10 years old you dreamt of going to the moon? But someone discouraged you from that dream.

What was your response to that?

RM: Trevor people ask me about that and I chuckle a bit because it was quite a transformative point in my life. At 10 years old, you are at that stage you think everything is possible and there is nothing that holds you back.

I was told that there had been people going to the moon and I looked at all of them and they were white.

I never got a satisfactory answer, but it got me very curious and it got me really thinking about you know, why are there limitations for people?

I come from a small town, yes I grew up in Mutare, but why should that be limiting?

So I was never happy about it. I think I was once misquoted to say I reconciled with it and that is not true.

TN: Ten years old and you say you have this dream, and somebody said no it is impossible.

What did that do to you? Does it crush you as a 10-year-old? Or you keep dreaming?

RM: No, it did not crush me, it kept me dreaming and it kept me searching for you know, what is possible.

Trying to figure out; are there really boundaries for people?

What is it that you really cannot do?

Today when I speak to young folk I talk about no one is limited, but it started a very curious process in my head about limitations.

Where are the boundaries? Where are the limitations?

Growing up in a small town like Mutare, why could I not be something that it is on a world stage?

I used to ask myself those things. So it did not crush me, it just created more curiosity.

TN: Within that context, what should we be saying to young stars who are watching us from all over the world?

They have these crazy dreams? What realistically do you say? You say be realistic? Be pragmatic? Or dream on?

RM: I say dream on because you never know until you try.

My life if anything has been about trying things that sometimes people would say you shouldn’t be doing or you cannot do.

I encouraged people to really think about what it is they are really passionate about, what really stirs them inside.

If that stirring is very kind of profound, and gets them up in the morning they must try and pursue it.

They might not succeed, but they will learn something on the journey.

So I do not believe there are any limitations, people are not limited. Limitations are constructs we put around ourselves.

My belief system, and I try and encourage my children and people I meet, is you know, to keep dreaming.

Do not have self-limiting beliefs.

TN: So you were born in Mutare?

RM: No, I was actually born at Goromonzi High School.

TN: Aha.

RM: Yes. My father taught maths and physics at Goromonzi, both ‘A’Level and ‘O’ Level in the 1970s.

You know well that Goromonzi was one of the very few schools that offered ‘A’ Level for black people during the days of Rhodesia.

So I was born at Goromonzi. All my siblings were also born there.

A very interesting life surrounded by students. My mother was a nursing sister at Goromonzi High School in the 1970s.

So we all grew up there in a little bit of an enclave while this war was going on around us.

I only really got to understand what was happening when we moved from Goromonzi to Mutare.

So we left Goromonzi in 1978 I think, so I was then six years old, and we moved to Mutare.

TN: That is interesting. I see.

RM: The move to Mutare was the one where I really understood what was going on.

I was seven years old then, so you could also argue that you know seven year olds should not really know too much about what is going on, they should have this idyllic life.

TN: Tell me, so your dad taught physics and maths you say?

Talk to me now about given where you are now as president and CEO of MTN Group, when you look at your upbringing what is it that you got the most from your father and from your mother?

RM: My father is late now, he died about 13 years ago, my mother is still strong and going on.

From my parents, my father in particular, he had this belief that education would set you free.

He taught as I said maths and physics, in particular he was passionate about maths.

Our library was probably three quarters maths and physics books, and then history and National Geographic books then would have been the other quarter.

He was a deep believer in the ability of education to transform our lives, kind of linking it back to this thing about possibilities.

So he was kind of hard on us about, you know being diligent readers.

I will tell you an interesting story. One time the television blew up.

Remember those big televisions we used to have in the 1980s, he did not fix it for about two or three years.

For sure he could have fixed it, but that pushed us to read.

So you know with no television you cannot watch Night Rider or whatever so I and my siblings were always reading.

So he was of the view that education will set you free.

He was always a very moral guy.

He would say there is always right or wrong in most situations, and we should lean very heavily toward the right side.

I am not sure I have always got that right!

As I said, my mother is alive and is a very spiritual lady, deep in her faith. From her side it is all about “This too shall pass”.

She has this tremendous belief that there are no situations that are permanently difficult, you know this too shall pass.

As I said we grew up, I had three other siblings, grew up a very kind of idyllic, middle class, typical Zimbabwean lifestyle.

I mean we were not kind of materially wealthy, we were wealthy with books and ideas, which is what we grew up in.

Thinking about ideas and that is why this crazy I want to go to the moon kind of thing came from because I read about it and thought why I shouldn’t.

So I was surrounded by a lot of love, which created the safety net for us to explore, but I was the naughtiest of the four.

So if you ask my siblings they will say this guy would be president one day because he was very naughty as a kid!

Our parents gave me a very solid foundation.

TN: Your primary school? Just talk to me about primary school and high school.

RM: Mutare. Yeah primary school I went to Mutare Junior School, a government school.

We were the first black people at the school.

It was very kind of a traumatic experience.

All your relationships had been black relationships, we did not really engage with others.

So I went to standard one, I cannot remember what these things were, kindergarten one.

I arrived at the school, this was 1979, the only black kid in the school.

So I was kindergarten one, my two elder siblings went to the proper primary school, so there were at least two or three other black kids and there was like a complete awakening.

I remember being ostracised right at the beginning.

No one wants to play with me because there was this black kid at the school.

I was a bit of an athlete, when everyone saw me winning the sack races and other things that kids do then, people wanted to befriend me.

It was also a great experience. I had some really great teachers.

Even at the Grade 3 level, I remember a teacher named Mrs Baisley, she spoke about anything you can conceive and believe you can achieve, CBA she used to call it.

That was at Grade 3. It comes back to this going to the moon idea and belief. It was really great, I had a great time.

TN: You do say it was traumatic? Can you talk to me about that?

RM: It was just the trauma of not being accepted.

You have come through, you are six or seven years old you know and you are not just being accepted because purely of your colour.

I got over it, my parents helped me get over it pretty quickly.

Their advice then was just do well in class, you have a bit of a mathematical brain, and you are very good at sport.

Just do those things and in a term they will all run to you, which is actually what happened.

The trauma did not last long.

TN: So no scars at all?

RM: No scars from there. I mean there were some scars, the scar that is deep in my mind, actually let me take you a little bit back.

At the turn of what was then Zimbabwe-Rhodesia, the kind of white sports clubs became open in Mutare, so we went to one called Penhalonga with my dad and my grandfather and my siblings.

My mother was working, she was on duty as a nursing sister at Mutare General Hospital.

Again this thing about being, my dad always said if there is something open we are going to do it so we went to this white sports club outside Penhalonga.

This white gentleman comes up and says we were not allowed, but you know the laws had changed so black people could go to these places.

Then this 16-year-old boy talks to my grandfather and my father and he calls them boys.

That scar as a six or seven year old is still there.

I often tell people please do not call me boy, because it takes me way back.

TN: It is amazing how we forget those things.

RM: It is amazing. I mean I have not really forgotten it because I said to myself I will never let or find myself in a situation where me and my people, my people can be as broad as you want it to be, will not be humiliated. We have our dignity, we are people.

Fast forward thinking about what I do at MTN, at the end of the day what we are trying to do at MTN is give people dignity and hope by being able to communicate, participate in financial services.


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