Motlatsi Mkalala is the head of Standard Bank’s Main Market division
As a young man, Motlatsi Mkalala dreamt of becoming a chartered accountant. But life, as it often does, had different plans, leading him to become the astute, passionate, and proudly out banker he is today.
Motlatsi’s journey started in Thembisa, where he was initially raised by his grandparents, along with other siblings and cousins. He admits that the environment wasn’t ideal, but he soon learned that excellence made him stand out and gain the attention and affection of his grandparents.
As a teen, Motlatsi went on to live with his mother and younger siblings in an RDP house. Although achieving good results upon matriculating, he didn’t have money to further his studies.
“I ended up in the performing arts, working under [actor, musician, and singer] Tu Nokwe, who became a mother and spiritual guide for me,” says Motlatsi. “At that time, I met Michelle Freedman who later gave me her last R1,570 to register for my degree at UNISA in 2002.” It was this gift that would change his life and catalyse it to where it is today.
“I initially wanted to work for Mercedes Benz South Africa, because they were a brand of prestige,” he reveals, “but as a university student, sometimes you don’t know what’s fully out there”.
With a Bachelor of Commerce in Finance under his belt, Motlatsi applied to work at Standard Bank and Mercedes Benz SA – and they both offered him a placement. “But Standard Bank offered me a permanent job through the graduate programme, whereas Mercedes Benz was a two-year programme and then they would decide. I chose Standard Bank, not knowing where I would end up, and 16 years later, I am still there,” he elaborates.
Right from his start at the bank, Motlatsi made it clear that he was set on a path of success. “Upon starting my rotations, I asked one of my managers what it would take for me to become a manager within a few months of starting my job,” he says. It was this question and his obvious zeal that made him noticeable to his superiors who soon elevated him to a junior manager in the Home Loans department.
I also learned that I needed mentors and career sponsors…”
He has since headed up various divisions within the bank, including the Inclusive Banking department which spurred his passion for purpose-driven work. The department focused on bridging the gap between the lower-end consumer market and financial services.
Today, Motlatsi is the head of Standard Bank’s Main Market division, acting as custodian of nine million customers, across various income levels, who demand the best in their banking services.
“I knew I wanted to succeed and then I started working quite hard to ensure that happens. But I also learned that I needed mentors and career sponsors who would help me build a career that’s primed for success,” he shares. He credits various people within Standard Bank for helping him become the professional and leader he is. He mentions Funeka Montjane and Kabelo Makeke, both execs at the bank, who nurtured his talents, teaching him the importance of hard work and authenticity.
Motlatsi also acknowledges his life partner of many years, Robert, an aeronautical engineer, who became his ardent supporter and rock.
“He was instrumental in me getting here. It was his influence and support that helped me decide to move from UNISA and study full time at the University of Pretoria. I started living with him and that environmental switch ensured that I could focus on my studies and that helped me a lot; I was able to just focus on studying and that has paid off.”
Now 20 years into their relationship, they have shared many milestones in life, blending their families and backgrounds; Motlatsi from Thembisa and Robert raised by a family of farmers. He admits that as an interracial and gay couple, there were some raised eyebrows, but he has learnt to brush those off and enjoy his life.
As an out gay men in corporate South Africa, Motlatsi was determined that he would not ‘come out’ at work but would simply be who he is. “In one of the meetings, everyone was speaking about their weekend, and I just spoke about me and my boyfriend. There was a pause and then everyone quickly moved on,” he says. “After that meeting, one of my colleagues came to me to say he wasn’t aware that I was gay and I replied, ‘I didn’t know you are straight either’.”
It is a policy of the bank that should we encounter a homophobic client, we can terminate the relationship…”
Motlatsi is passionate about ensuring that his LGBTQ colleagues, both junior and senior, are able to enjoy a workplace that is inclusive and where they are free to be their most authentic selves. In his previous and current role, where his responsibilities include the improvement of the branch experience, he’s had to ensure that those working in branches enjoy a safe work environment.
“It is a policy of the bank that should we encounter a problematic, or homophobic client, we can terminate the relationship. This is one of the things that makes me proud to work for the bank.” Motlatsi notes that when employees are free to be themselves when coming to work, this contributes to their productivity.
His future is firmly geared to achieve even more success. Motlatsi recently graduated with an MBA from the African Leadership University in Rwanda. “I had always been against an MBA because I didn’t see the value translating in those who had this degree. But as I planned my career steps for the future, I was looking into the continent, wanting to move to the Africa Regions department. And then I encountered this programme – where African leaders can learn how to devise African solutions to African problems,” he elaborates.
In his personal life, he is just as passionate about making a difference. Having ticked off one of his biggest goals – buying his mother a house – he’s now focusing on changing the story of his family. Motlatsi has helped his younger siblings complete their education and is currently responsible for the schooling of his nieces and nephews, with the hope that this will end the cycle of poverty in his family. He shares that he and Robert are also discussing becoming foster parents of his niece and nephew in the new year; a new chapter in their life and family, which excites him.
Motlatsi Mkalala’s success is a testament to his work ethic and drive, but it’s ultimately his commitment to pay back and share his success and experience with others that stands out. He’s an inspiration to many, and an emphatic confirmation that a black openly queer man can indeed thrive in South Africa’s traditionally conservative corporate world.
This article was made possible with the support of the Other Foundation and is part of a series addressing LGBTIQ+ Economic Empowerment in South Africa and the region. The views expressed herein do not necessarily represent those of the Other Foundation. www.theotherfoundation.org.