What happened to SA’s queen of talk?

Felicia Mabuza-Suttle

It is the the year 1995. South Africa is celebrating a year since the dawn of its democracy. The shackles of apartheid have been shattered and a nation united is emerging from the ashes. But while the victory is heralded as a triumph for those previously cast in chains, a deep wound is left festering in the wake of the battle. With tensions still running high, the message becomes clear: “We need to talk!”

Emerging from a backdrop of struggle and liberation, a vibrant black South African face makes her debut on national television. Her title in years to come: South Africa’s Queen of Talk. Who else could occupy such a radiant title and be celebrated as the woman who got South Africa talking, than Felicia Mabuza-Suttle? And while her countenance no longer graces our television screens, Mabuza-Suttle has far from given up on the united, empowered, South African dream.

Following the release of her recent book entitled, Live Your Dream, the BBQ team could not resist: we had to find out where South Africa’s Queen of Talk finds herself today and what inspired her new book. As the follow-up to her book, Dare To Dream, which follows the icon’s footsteps and journey from her own personal triumph over apartheid to pursuing her educational and career goals, Live Your Dream is geared towards inspiring and helping young South Africans achieve theirs.      

“Live Your Dream is about accomplishing your goals. It is about moving your success to significance. Success is about self-empowerment and significance is about using your success to empower others. The experts say that you should share your legacy, because no one can tell it better than you can. In my presentations, I usually tell my audiences: ‘Your life has a purpose; your story is important; your dreams count; your voice matters; you were born to make an impact’. Live Your Dream is aimed at assisting you to use your legacy and to make a difference in the world. It is also aimed at helping you to ignite your passion, and to follow your purpose in life,” Mabuza-Suttle says.

Having made her way from growing up in Soweto, all the way to become a successful South African-American business woman, Mabuza-Suttle has achieved phenomenal success both in terms of business and education. When asked how exactly she has lived her dreams, Mabuza-Suttle says when you get to a stage in your life when you can say you are on ‘preferment’---when you are able to do only what you prefer to do and impact lives at the same time---that is living your dreams.

Mabuza-Suttle says we all have interesting, inspiring and informational stories to tell, and she encourages people to tell their stories. “That is the reason I wrote the book---for my children and grandchildren to know my legacy. If I leave it to someone else to write, they might miss the most important lessons I want to share.

“In this book I talk about the lessons of Ubuntu that I have been brought up with. These include growing from adversity, staying away from negativity, using affirmations to thrive, and more. So many young people ask me to mentor them. This book is about mentoring and inspiring future leaders. Living in the US, yet wanting to reach out to many young South Africans, I thought by putting the lessons in a book, I can help make a difference back home,” she says.

As a young girl living in Soweto, she says she used to envy people who came from overseas and gave her their business cards (“with all those alphabets in front and behind their names”). “I wanted to be like them and have those letters as well.” She says as a child, her father used to drive them around on Sundays to go and see the mansions of wealthy people in the suburbs of Houghton, Sandhurst and Northcliff.  “I used to tell my sister and brother that one day I would live in one of those mansions. They would remind me it was impossible in those dark days of apartheid. I used to dream about living in the US, studying there, teaching at a university or working at a major corporation. I have accomplished all those dreams and today I am living the American dream.

“I used to watch the Phil Donahue Show, later the Oprah Winfrey Show, and I admired Barbara Walters, the doyenne of American television. I wanted to do what they did. I then studied print and broadcast journalism and followed my passion. I am proud to have accomplished that dream and to have produced and hosted a talk show in South Africa and in America,” she says.  

As a former South African ambassador to the United States once told her, “The Felicia Show was a weekly mass counseling session for South Africans on how to reach out and forgive during our time of transition from apartheid.” Today, Mabuza-Suttle is continuing her mission of changing negative perceptions about South Africa abroad and impacting the lives of others, addressing major conferences and the youth.

Mabuza-Suttle is currently actively involved in conducting talks, inspiring young people to dream big and to live their dream. She also addresses conferences in the United States and South Africa and recently did a talk show with The Africa Channel aimed at changing negative perceptions about Africa.

Mabuza-Suttle says, following her success with The Felicia Show, her biggest challenge has been being away from a country she dearly loves and that while her head is in America, her heart continues to be in South Africa. She says there is so much to do with passion in South Africa, and so much to do for profit in America, but right now her life is all about purpose. “The author Robin Sharma says his father once told him: ‘Son, when you were born, you cried and the world rejoiced. Live your life in such a way that when you die, the world cries and you rejoice.’ That is how I strive to live my life,” Mabuza-Suttle says.

When asked to comment on the current state of affairs in South Africa, Mabuza-Suttle says, as she does not live in the country, she is not really in a position to make an educated and rational response to the present political and economic situation. She does however point out that during the transitional stages after apartheid, South Africans, black and white, young and old, had a platform to talk and create understanding. This, she says, needs to happen again--- we need to get South Africa talking.

Although many might not be aware of this, Mabuza-Suttle has achieved phenomenal success in her career as business woman and today is shareholder and founding member of Pamodzi Investment Holdings and Felicia Eyewear. She was also the creator of the Back O’ The Moon restaurant.

“Felicia Eyewear is one of the longest selling local brands in the country and in a number of African countries. Local is lekker, as we say in South Africa. I created Back O’ The Moon to encourage black and white to come dine and dance together. During apartheid we could not. My grandfather used to own a restaurant when we grew up in Sophiatown. It was my dream to own a restaurant one day. Thanks to the Krok brothers, who started Gold Reef Casino and encouraged me to open my restaurant, that dream was realised.

“I created Back O’ The Moon and brought in great operators (who were also partners). We employed over 60 people. Unfortunately, you cannot run a restaurant from 10 000 miles away. The restaurant is now owned by Tsogo Sun, who also owns the Gold Reef City Casino. I am proud to have been in a position to ensure that the new owners retained all 60 young people I initially employed. I am also proud that the Pamodzi Group was one of the pioneers in black business empowerment. The company has played a key role in empowering many of the disadvantaged,” she says.

Looking at what inspired her to venture into business, Mabuza-Suttle says that at the time she decided to enter the business game, there was talk around employment, affirmation and empowerment after the transition. At the time, she wanted to contribute towards alleviating unemployment and uplift others, as she believes that when you rise, you have to help raise others.

While South Africa has made good progress in putting gender transformation high on the agenda, a lot still needs to be done to promote the empowerment of women in society. When asked what it is like to be a successful business woman in a patriarchal country, Mabuza-Suttle says you have to bring your own chair to the boardroom table, as nobody else will. She advises business women to be prepared for opportunities and get close to people they admire to find out how they got there.

She also says there is always someone who is willing to open the door for you. “Find that man or woman who has vision and is willing to assist you. To a large extent, it was men who helped me out. Most men are not chauvinists---they can be your cheerleaders. Understand that being the only woman at the boardroom table or at the top, can be lonely. You cannot win a battle alone. You need soldiers---women soldiers as well.” Her advice to young women who are interested in becoming entrepreneurs, is “follow your passion and the profits will follow.”

Reflecting on some of the women she has met that inspired her and the lessons she has learnt from them, Mabuza-Suttle highlights Hillary Clinton for her resilience and perseverance; Barbara Walters for her interviewing techniques, Oprah Winfrey who epitomises determination to succeed against all odds, Thuli Madonsela for her integrity and courage, Wendy Luhabe who has made sure she brings many other women to the board table and Maya Angelou for her eloquence, courage and strength.

Reflecting on some of the lessons she has learnt along the way, Mabuza-Suttle says she has learnt that the road to success is not straight and smooth. It is an uphill---a winding and rocky road. On her journey, she has learnt to appreciate the adversities and to cherish the rewards.

“When you are on a mission, learn to ignore the cynics, skeptics and critics. I always say, never lower yourself to the level of your critics, they will bring you down to their depths of negativity and beat you at it. That is undoubtedly my greatest asset. No one and nothing can stop me if I am on a mission. On the positive side, I am guided by what Martin Luther King Jr. once said; ‘An individual has not started living until he can live above the narrow confines of his individual concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity’,” she says.

Commenting on the important topic of leadership, Mabuza-Suttle says her own leadership style is guided by ‘the three H’s’ namely: lead from the head (integrity and intelligence); lead from the heart (empathy and Ubuntu); and lead by the hand (be giving and grateful).

She concludes with some encouraging advice for young people in disadvantaged communities: “Dream big, regardless of where you were born. Ella Fitzgerald said it is not where you come from that matters, but where you are going. Don’t allow your past to determine your destiny. No one and nothing should stop you from realising your dream!”


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Issue 83


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