Monwabisi Thethe definitely doesn’t fit into any neat box. Serial entrepreneur, restless visionary, demanding businessman, social activist and spiritual sojourner, he has spent his life breaking convention and thinking out the box. Enigmatic, demanding, bold, brooding, charismatic, generous, fun, serious, spiritual, provocative and controversial, it has taken ten years and much convincing for Bisi to agree to appear on the cover and tell us his story.
PARADOX AND POSSIBILITY
Raised in the township of Kwa-Thema by his teacher dad and social worker mother, Bisi had a stable, loving childhood. Growing up in a township and attending school in the suburbs during the transition of South Africa from apartheid state to constitutional democracy, exposed him to a lot of paradox and possibility. From a young age, he displayed a highly-developed sense of responsibility, an acute awareness of societal dynamics and a consuming drive to succeed. “My father, Sir Bonisile Prince Thethe, was the much-loved principal at the local school and I often felt as though I was one of thousands of siblings competing for his attention. I think it’s one of the things that has made me so competitive.”
Bisi had a stellar school career, breezing through academically and excelling at sport, representing his province in both cricket and soccer. Furthering his education was always a high priority for Bisi. “I had big plans for my life and I never even considered not getting a university degree. I chose computer science because I believed that’s where the future lay and I wanted to be at the forefront of technology.” But his real passion lay in media and marketing and after earning a BSc in IT Finance and Business Systems at the University of Pretoria, and working in the field for a few years, Bisi signed up at Vega Brand Communication School and completed a Postgraduate Honours degree in Brand Leadership.
BORN FOR BUSINESS
It was only a matter of time before this born entrepreneur turned his back on the corporate world and leapt into the world of business. Like any successful entrepreneur, he is not afraid of risk. In fact, the amount of risk he has taken would turn most people grey overnight and put them in their graves prematurely. But Bisi doesn’t think like the average person. When most are saying let’s do it this way, Bisi has a different idea.
He attributes the original spark for Blaque Magazine to his dad who used to say to him, “Monwabisi, if you want to hide something from a black man, put it in a book”.
“I hated every truth and non-truth about this saying. It used to trigger anger in me that I didn’t know I had, growing up in what we could call a privileged upbringing. I felt like my masculinity was in question. Then, when I got into the media profession, and saw the skewed way marketers perceived black men in general, I saw a gap in the market to unravel this man I saw within myself. I knew that we had to address the way brands looked at this African man. Bold and strong, people just didn’t capture him in the way he saw himself.”
Make no mistake, Bisi is not always easy to work with or for. Driven by a mix of love and restless discontent with the status quo, he could get a job as a professional juggler with the number of balls he has in the air at any one time. Not even those in his inner circle know everything that is going on in his life. Most people have given up being surprised by the people, projects, deals and events that are constantly flowing in and out of his life. It can frustrate and confuse those around him, but it’s part of his DNA.
“The mark of every true entrepreneur, a strong bias for action.”
A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS
If there is one thing that will instantly light up Bisi’s face and bring out the soft side in him, it is his daughter. He quite simply adores young Mihle and is a devoted and engaged father. “She is the main reason I do what I do. She keeps me grounded and focussed. And on the straight and narrow!”
South Africa is without doubt one of the most complex and diverse societies in the world and Bisi is one of those “new South Africans” who is able to navigate this complex terrain with ease, and bring an international flair to it. A true Afropolitan, he speaks seven of SA’s eleven official languages, has a deep understanding of and respect for African tradition, embraces the pan African ideal, is fascinated by the raw possibilities of the Chinese manufacturing machine, loves African originality and lives firmly in the middle of the Global Village. He eats sushi and phuthu, enjoys cognac and mageu and is equally at home in a township shebeen and five-star hotel.
MAKE IT HAPPEN
Bisi is constantly scheming and when it comes to a deal, he can’t help himself. He never says no to an opportunity. It is what has led him into business interests as diverse as advertising, restaurants, car-wraps and transport. He has the mark of every true entrepreneur, a strong bias for action. They say “a boer maak a plan” but Bisi takes that to the next level. Whether it’s pulling off a major event with 48 hours notice, raising millions to save a business or rescuing a friend stuck on the highway at midnight, Bisi always comes through. He hates to hear “we can’t do that” and members of his team know they need to come with solutions and not problems.
What a lot of people don’t know, because he doesn’t like to broadcast it, is that Bisi is a philanthropist at heart. If someone is in trouble, Bisi is the first to get involved and he can be generous to a fault. He sits on a number of NGO boards and has launched many people in business and careers. An accountant examining his financial records once admonished him to “stop giving to people”. In a world where so much philanthropy is about blowing one’s own trumpet, it is very refreshing to find someone who loves to give but doesn’t want it to be known.
Like anyone with the courage to pursue his dream, Bisi has experienced some hard knocks and deep disappointments along the way. Business has made him tough and he has developed a somewhat philosophical approach to being let down. “I don’t hold on to grudges. People make the choices they do for reasons known to them and I can’t afford to let it affect me negatively.” The result is that he doesn’t trust easily and plays his cards close to his chest. Even those in his inner circle often don’t know half of what is going on in his head.
The name Blaque has provoked a lot of emotion over the years. “When we launched, people thought that we were anti-this and anti-that. The big assumption was that celebrating anything black is hating anything white and vice versa.
I can remember offending so many people at ad agencies when we went looking for advertising. Some got it and some just felt offended. I can admit that it wasn’t for everyone”. For Bisi, the word Blaque carries a great deal of meaning. “I get a picture of His Majesty, the African MAN and WOMAN revolutionising himself/herself to cast out any preconceived notions. The man we would all like to be and aspire to.”
Blaque Magazine was started on a failure equation. “We figured that if we could get all the business that the major publishers didn’t want, we’d make a success of it. We would capture all the stories that didn’t make it to mainstream media.
We decided early on that we didn’t want to be a tabloid magazine and taint people’s identities that are on a trajectory to greatness. We had no money and no idea of the battles that lay ahead, but we had the ideas, energy and drive to give this a shot.”
The original vision of Blaque was to speak to men and women who were going somewhere in their careers and home life. “We wanted to be the light in a continent that needed the light. Africans are great story tellers and we wanted to do that in an aesthetically beautiful way. The vision was simple: tell stories the way we wanted to tell them, without any distortions, keeping the stories simple yet relevant to the audience. For example, having Gusheshe’s as opposed to BMW 325IS. We knew where we were coming from, who was celebrating where we are going to?”
“We’re all responsible for writing the African story.”
SCHOOL OF HARD KNOCKS
The toughest challenge for Bisi has been keeping the team motivated over the long haul. “People left their jobs to join us to start a revolution in the media industry. People with children and wives to feed. We have had amazing minds work for us, sometimes which we couldn’t afford, but they stuck it out with us. I’d say the biggest challenge was to share a common vision. You must remember that we didn’t have a blueprint for what we were embarking on. That and funds. Money has been a huge challenge. We needed more resources at different stages. Publishing is a very unforgiving industry that needs large sums of cash up front.”
It’s virtually impossible to embark on as many ventures as Bisi has and not experience some failure. “We’ve had a lot of “bomb-outs” and over the years I’ve learnt to see them as an essential part of my success. Sometimes you make the same mistake over and over again until your wallet decides that you have to relearn the lesson. I can safely say that I allow my mistakes to be part of my DNA. It lessens the pain! My advice to business people: don’t keep your eyes on one transaction. Keep going. If it fails, try again and again until you get it right. Quit on ideas, don’t quit on yourself”.
Many things have inspired Bisi to keep it all together. “Seeing the final product in print kept me going. Family kept me sane. Friends kept me from taking myself too seriously. Reading kept me updated and God kept me faithful to the cause. The end result and the stories that change other people’s lives keep me inspired. Our readers are amazing and kept me believing that this publication was relevant and exactly what they wanted to see. I remember our very first cover of Blaque with the ever so gracious Lucas Radebe. He was so nervous and excited at the same time.”
Bisi’s faith plays a leading role in his life. “God is my greatest inspiration and first and foremost my everything”. He has a unique approach to role models. “I see everything and everyone as role models. I believe that everyone I meet has something I can learn. So, my role models change every day.”
The highlight for Bisi has always been the people. “It’s all about the people. Internally and externally. The many careers we launched. The jobs we have provided. The companies we have supported that today are serious industry players within the media space. The many stories we have had the privilege to tell. Seeing KALAWA Jazmee on the cover for the first and last time together EVER. Seeing Gareth Cliff with the boys he raised within the entertainment space. Having Zam and Nkhensani as a first cover. Somizi and his daughter, ever so graceful, and now recently Greg Maloka and Desmond Mabuza. Each cover has a unique story to tell and has had some sort of prophetic meaning to the individuals that have been featured. Some of the people we’ve featured we now call friends and family. It’s a legacy I am very proud of. And there is so much more to come. I live to see a different society than when I found it. It’s priceless”.
For Bisi, sharing the African story is all important. “If we don’t do it, someone else will and we won’t have any control of how that story is shared. It is all about celebrating who we are and where we are going, one story at a time, creating more champions that we would like to pass the baton to. We want to hear from wise men and women and continue to celebrate success on the continent.” For this pro-active visionary, the future is not something to be passive about. “I am excited to be part of shaping our future. We are all responsible for writing the African story. It’s unfolding right now and we have the power to make it a good one, a story our children and their children will one day be proud to tell.”