Updated: Jan 27, 2022
Mzi Tyhokolo describes himself as a typical South African. He was born and raised in the Free State by a single mother. His education was traditional, and a Sasol bursary enabled him to study chemistry at the University of KwaZulu-Natal from where he graduated with honours. Mzi then went to work at Sasol Gas where his long journey within the gas industry started. He joined SLG in 2006 where his 14 year career resulted in his appointment as Group CEO SLG in 2020.
Reflecting on his education, Mzi commented, “I have gathered many other qualifications along the way, but I speak fondly of my time at the University of KwaZulu-Natal because that is where my beginning is.” Mzi also holds an MBA degree from UNISA among his other postgraduate qualifications.
During his school years, Mzi dreamt of becoming a doctor and in particular a paediatrician because he has a love for children and has always wanted to make them feel good. “My second choice was science because I thought that if I could not be a doctor, I would be involved in creating the solutions that would ultimately touch the world in one way or another.”
Although chemistry wasn’t Mzi’s first choice for a career he quickly realised that mainstream chemistry was not in line with his personality, and he had long discussions with the Sasol human resources department to change careers. He was advised to complete his degree and soon after graduation found himself in technical sales on the gas marketing side. “I used my background in chemistry and decided that this is where I would build a career. I stayed in the gas space and developed my knowledge in the energy sector, which brought me to a place where I now lead the second largest gas trading company in South Africa.”
In commenting on challenges he has faced in his journey to the top, Mzi said that his was a typical life of a black South African born in the mid-1970s growing up in various townships where challenges abounded. “We faced challenges every day.”
One of the challenges that stands out for him is that Mzi thought that his education would not progress beyond matric “simply because there was no money for further education”. “I can remember sitting and agonising over the future that I wanted to have, which was to become a medical doctor and wondering just how I would achieve this dream. I wrote twenty-four letters applying for bursaries to various institutions. Twenty-two came back with replies saying ‘declined’ because no one was giving bursaries for medical students in those days. It was heart-breaking and it’s one of my earliest challenges; wherein you had a dream and the biggest decision that you had to make was how do you make it happen? Subsequent to that challenge everything else has looked minor. If you develop big muscles to deal with big issues quite early in your life you get some resilience, which helps you overcome most things.”
Mzi is the first-born child in his family so there were big expectations placed on him. Because he was raised by a single mother one of those was to become a father figure within the family. “This role helped shaped my character from an early age and is the reason for whom I am today.”
The first multiracial environment that Mzi was in, was in his first year of university. “The cultural shock, the transition that was needed, my ability to adapt or die meant some big calls needed to be made. It was at a time in South Africa where we just got introduced to democracy, with all the turmoil that brought. If you made it through those days, then the South Africa of today is a little bit of a breeze.”
Mzi believes that his successes are driven by two things. He explains, “I always refer to myself as a pit-bull. If I set my mind on something it takes quite a lot to knock me down. I am the guy who says as long as I have an ability to keep going, I am going to keep going. Once I start it’s very hard to stop until I see the results of my pursuit. I have resilience to be able to stay the course – falling but knowing exactly how to get up and I think that comes from my childhood. As a child I never had much but I had a mind, so I tried to access all the possibilities of getting something done. I always believe that if your intention is not to succeed at something then don’t start – it’s a waste of energy.”
Secondly, family life is important to Mzi, and he tries to give as much as possible to everyone who depends on him – his wife and his children as well as his mother and his brothers.
Significantly, Mzi says that his grandmother is his primary inspiration. “She did not have much to work with or much of an education but was able to build a strong family foundation and raise six grandchildren, while her own children were out at work trying to eke out a living. She was that dependable, capable beacon of hope. I do what I do today, in her memory.”
The second source of inspiration is his family. “They inspire me every day to get up and do what I do and achieve the dreams that I have for myself. I’ve always aspired to live a life of significance. I want to live, not just be alive – there is a major difference.”
Mzi’s goals for the future are to build a legacy where people can say that they were inspired to achieve what they have by him. He explained, “I get commitment from my team by looking in the mirror. By that I mean that I don’t follow people who impose authority. My type of leadership is transformational or servant leadership; humility is huge. I try to be that person that they want to be. The team at SLG don’t actually have to follow me, I want them to choose to follow me. I do what I need to do in order for that to happen.”
In respect of business goals, Mzi believes that SLG is a little ‘dynamite’, that has much potential energy stored which needs to be unleashed. “We always talk of ourselves as the second largest trader of natural gas in the country – second only to Sasol Gas. However, we have achieved so much in a short period of having been in business. I certainly believe we can lead the natural gas revolution in this country, and I want SLG in my time as a leader to actually be very much advanced in achieving that goal or have achieved it before I transition to wherever else I wind up. I think that the team I have around me today is very well capable of getting us there.”
Mzi finds it hard to disconnect or let off some steam as there is always “something you are thinking about”. However, what helps him to disconnect from the world is fishing. “I am an avid bass angler which I do with diligence and craziness sometimes. I also represent the country in international events – that is the one space that when the whistle blows for us to start my mind thinks of nothing else but the fish. It’s my therapy, it’s my psychiatrist and it is everything that I need to recharge and to be able to face the world again the next day.”
In concluding, Mzi says his motto to live by is: “If you are going to do anything, give it your all, and do it to your utmost.”