The line between what you study at university and the career you ultimately pursue has become increasingly blurred, says the Governor of the South African Reserve Bank, Lesetja Kganyago, who was conferred with an Honorary Doctorate of Commerce by Nelson Mandela University, during its online Business and Economic Sciences Graduation Ceremony on 17 December 2020.

Speaking to the graduates, Kganyago explains that “regardless of whether you go into government, your own business, an NGO or a position in the private sector, what you will be doing is applying your ability to master a body of knowledge, because this is what getting a degree is about. Once you have demonstrated your ability to do this, you can choose from a range of careers.”

Kganyago, whose name is on all our bank notes, has served as South African Reserve Bank (SARB) Governor since 2014 and as Deputy Governor since 2011. He has received many awards, but what makes this honorary doctorate special, he explains, “is that it is from a university carrying the name of the founding father of our democracy and a university that gives women hope and determination because the Chancellor, Vice-Chancellor and Chair of Council are all women who excel. They are an inspiration to every woman student and girl learner.”

Growing up with brothers, he says he always wished he had a sister “and so I adopt friends as sisters and have more female friends than male. I was also raised by two very strong women who were not pushed over by any men and they socialised us in a manner that we grew up respecting women.”

When Kganyago turned 18 he moved from Limpopo to Johannesburg and enrolled at Wits. He says that as a student, “one thing that never crossed my mind is that I would one day work for the SA Reserve Bank, let alone that I would be the Governor. I thought I would study medicine, but when Wits accepted me for commerce I decided to do this in the meantime and figure things out from there.”

His first year of economics offered a glimpse of things to come. He recounts that a certain professor said to him:  “You are clearly doing economics because you feel you have to do it, but based on the questions you are asking you actually have the ability to master it”. He wasn’t convinced and started wondering if he shouldn’t rather switch to an arts or law degree. “In my second year at Wits, I was so impressed by the law and arts students as they were the most articulate speakers at the anti-apartheid protest meetings. I thought ‘that’s how I would like to be’.”

Kganyago explains it was a difficult time on campus as there were running battles with the police. In 1987 he decided to leave university and joined First National Bank in Polokwane as a savings and enquiries clerk. The following year he registered with Unisa and completed his undergraduate commerce degree. After Barclays he went to Cosatu as the head office accountant, and later became a national co-ordinator in the ANC’s economics department.

By this time, his economics path was on track, encouraged by people like Trevor Manuel. “He said to me that it was a battle to find economists who understand the challenges South Africa faces and the history of the struggle; he encouraged me to pursue economics.”

In 1993 Kganyago travelled overseas for the first time to do a Master’s in Development Economics at the School of African and Oriental Studies, University of London. “It was a serious challenge living in a foreign city and foreign country, and meeting people from many different countries and educational backgrounds. I had to figure out how to hold my own.”

He studied external debt and how a future democratic SA should approach this, and when he returned to South Africa in 1994 he joined the SARB for two years, followed by National Treasury in 1996, rising to Director General. He remained here until he re-joined the SARB in 2011. He explains that the democratic government inherited a mountain of national debt. It was just shy of 60%, and through a concerted effort of macroeconomic policies, prudent debt management policies and financial market development policies, by the time he left National Treasury in 2011, the debt had been reduced to around 30%, which meant there was more money for social spend, development and infrastructure.

National Treasury is responsible for fiscal policy and has to deal with the current national debt, while Kganyago’s job as SARB Governor is to protect the value of the rand in the interests of balanced and sustainable economic growth. He offers the following anecdote to explain this: “When I visited my home village in Moletjie Ga-Maribana, Limpopo, people said to me, ‘you sign the money, can you please give us some’. I replied the money is not mine to give; it is something issued by this institution called the Reserve Bank which helps to ensure that when you take your rands to the shop the merchant will accept them because they have value.

“I explained that when I was a youngster, a loaf of bread cost 10c and when I asked a group of school kids in the village why it doesn’t cost this anymore, they replied it is because things have got more expensive. Which is true, but I then explained that things have got more expensive because of this thing called inflation and the problem with inflation is that if the money you earn doesn’t increase with inflation then your money will buy less.

“They then asked what can be done about this and I explained that this is our job at the Reserve Bank. We can’t stop inflation and make it zero but we can keep it in a particular range of 3 to 6% which gives some level of comfort and predictability that the money in your pocket or wallet or handbag is able to buy roughly the same basket of goods that it was able to buy yesterday.”

Looking back at 2020, Kganyago and his team have had a particularly hard year doing their job during the Covid-19 pandemic. To refresh for 2021 he’ll be taking a break in the mountains. “I like to hike in the mountains. While I’m walking I get ideas that I jot down in a notebook and share the ones of value with my colleagues.” What he won’t divulge is his mountain destination, other than that it is in South Africa. He just smiles and says: “It’s a very long mountain range and I’ll be somewhere there.”