Sizwe Nxasana is Chief Executive Officer of FirstRand Limited, one of the big four banks in South Africa with a market capitalisation of R157 billion. Previously, he served as CEO of wholly-owned subsidiary FirstRand Bank since 2006. Having succeeded Paul Harris, one of three founders of FirstRand, as CEO of FirstRand in 2010, Nxasana has responsibility for the entire banking operations, which includes First National Bank, one of the country’s leading retail banks, Rand Merchant Bank, a leading corporate and investment bank, and WesBank a leading car financing company.
Nxasana graduated from the prestigious East London-based University of Fort Hare, which was established in 1916 and is recognised as the oldest historically-black university in Southern Africa.
The cosmopolitan university boasts a long-standing tradition of non-racism which is characterised by intellectually enriching and critical debate. Fort Hare graduates have enjoyed prominent careers in fields such as politics, medicine, literature and art. Nxasana’s urbane demure could certainly stem from his time at Fort Hare, which was attended by some of Africa’s most prominent influencers in the 21st century including Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo, Govan Mbeki, Chris Hani, Mangosuthu Buthelezi, acclaimed South African poet Dennis Brutus and accomplished journalist Can Themba among many other prominent African leaders.
Nxasana graduated with a Bachelor of Commerce degree from Fort Hare in 1979 and went on to become one of the first 10 black chartered accountants in South Africa, which at the time wasn’t part of his planning. Having decided to enrol for a marketing degree at Fort Hare, Nxasana was inspired by Professor Wiseman Nkuhlu, the first black person to qualify as a chartered accountant in South Africa and who had started lecturing at Fort Hare that year.
Nxasana worked for Unilever and PricewaterhouseCoopers before establishing Sizwe & Co in 1989, the first black-owned audit practice in Kwazulu Natal. In 1996 he became one of the founding partners of Nkonki Sizwe Ntsaluba, the first black-owned national firm of accountants and was national managing partner until 1998 when he joined Telkom SA as Chief Executive Officer.
At Telkom Nxasana had to draw on his innate ability to remain quiet and listen to the issues surrounding him as he implemented significant change in an organisation that had gone from being a government department to becoming a fully-owned parastatal. One of his major goals at Telkom was to make the company more efficient, which required negotiation with unions and employees and changing an entrenched “job-for-life” culture, where employees were rewarded for loyalty, to one that rewards for performance.
Nxasana holds numerous Executive and non-Executive roles including non-executive directorships of Momentum Group, Zenex 1995 Trust, Zenex Foundation, Telkom Directory Services (Proprietary) Limited, and Business Against Crime – South Africa. He is Vice Chairman of the South African Revenue Services Board and has served as a member of the Income Tax Special Court. Between 1991 and 1994 he served as Chairman for Absa Group Limited and from 1994 to 1998 served as National President of the Group.
Nxasana is a passionate entrepreneur who believes in building lasting companies around quality people. He is quoted as saying that his philosophy is that a CEO should not lead an organisation for more than 10 years. “It’s vital for a company to have access to new people and new ideas; otherwise, the whole organisation thinks just like you do,” he said.
Of his role as CEO of FirstRand, which runs an “owner-manager” culture where business divisions are operated as individual companies, Nxasana says: “My role at the centre is to be a catalyst, to help make things happen, to offer guidance that empowers people, and to pave the way for ongoing discussion and debate.”
Nxasana has also been quoted as saying “Openness is the bedrock upon which success is built,” referring to the difficult task that CEOs have to communicate bad news in difficult times, a lesson pertinent to all companies that survived the global financial crises.
In 2004 Nxasana was awarded an Honoury Doctorate of Commerce from the University of Fort Hare. He also holds a Bachelor of Commerce degree from the University, a Bachelor of Accounting Science (Honours) degree from the University of South Africa and is a Chartered Accountant (South Africa).