Four senior executives of major companies in one family: what is it about the Ratshefolas that gives rise to business leaders like Velaphi Ratshefola, managing director of Coca-Cola Beverages South Africa and an alumnus of the former University of Bophuthatswana (Unibo)?
“It must come from the grandfather, Benjamin Rakomane Ratshefola, who was a special man. He had two farms at a time when most blacks were not allowed to own any land,” Velaphi says, after pondering the question. His nephew Hamilton (also a Unibo alumnus) is the managing director of IBM South Africa, his sister Victoria is the chief executive officer of First National Bank Forex, and another nephew, Dr Eugene Watson, is CEO of the Road Accident Fund.
“But we are all here by God’s grace. A person must not think you are special. Sometimes, you are just in the right place at the right time, or have very good mentors to teach you.”
By all accounts, that response is typical of Velaphi who, despite heading up a company that earns R25 billion a year, remains as humble and unassuming as when he was a homeless teenager sleeping in a stable.
Forced removals turn life upside down
“We were very poor,” says Velaphi, whose family lost everything when they were forcibly removed from Putfontein (the village of one of his late grandfather’s farms) near Lichtenburg to Ramatlhabama outside Mahikeng.
He was 14 years old at the time and an orphan; his mother, a single parent, passed away in 1976.
“I had been living with my elder brother in Soweto and we had a falling out, so I ran away and got transport back to Putfontein. When I arrived, the village was being subjected to forced removal. It was flat and people’s furniture was being loaded onto trucks.”
The community was resettled in Ramatlhabama, which had no electricity, running water or decent housing. Velaphi lived briefly with a relative but soon left. “I had to focus on my studies. Schooling was always my priority.”
School came first
That attitude paid off. Although he lived alone in his last three years of high school, first in a shack and then in the stall of a disused stable for horses, he was one of only two matric learners out of 100 at his school who obtained university exemption.
“My mother had instilled in me the need for a university education, and a cousin in Dobsonville gave me the money to go to university,” Velaphi says, adding that this cousin had run a shebeen to supplement her income as a “tea lady”. “After matric, I worked for her in December and January. She made a lot of money - I serviced the customers so well.”
The fly in the ointment of his plans to go to Unibo was that he had not applied beforehand. “I went there and the administration told me it was already full. Then they asked to see my marks and said, ‘What do you want to study?’ I said, ‘I’ll take law.’
Velaphi completed his BJuris degree, and then his LLB, and still found the time to be active in student politics and play soccer. “I became captain of the university soccer team in my second year and was captain for the next four years.”
From soccer captain to captain of industry
After graduating in 1989, Velaphi worked as a public prosecutor in Mahikeng before joining packaging company Nampak in Sandon, first as a legal officer and later in industrial relations. He then moved to brewing and beverages company SABMiller before being headhunted back to Nampak, and then headhunted again back to SABMiller.
He moved swiftly up the ranks and was appointed MD of Amalgamated Beverage Industries (ABI), the soft drinks division of SABMiller.
Earlier in 2016, he became MD of Coca-Cola Beverages South Africa, a soft drinks bottling company created from the merger of ABI, Coca-Cola Fortune, Shanduka, Appletiser, Coca-Cola Canners and the Valpré Company.
This is the highlight of his 28-year career to date. “Coca-Cola Beverages SA is the biggest Coke bottler in Africa and produces at least 40% of the total Coke volumes on the continent. We also contribute 65% to 68% of the turnover and profit of Coca-Cola Beverages Africa.”
Velaphi has been known to joke that he has Coca-Cola flowing through his veins. “This brand is my passion. It is one of the great equalisers. Rich or poor, everybody has access to it.”
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