22 August 2023 

Written by Milpark Communications 

Thobile Mhlongo, 43, has garnered many achievements in her career, but speaking on stage at the Nedbank Top Empowerment Conference held this July ranks high on the list. Addressing over 400 people in the audience and 6 000 online attendants was both daunting and exhilarating for Thobile. 

“This was the biggest conference in the country targeting top women and other leaders in the business community, as well as global leaders, policy makers and entrepreneurs. It was very reassuring and rewarding to be recognised for some of the work we have been doing” she says.   

As a senior manager working at the South African Local Government Association (SALGA), she has unique insight into 257 municipalities in the country – including metropolitan, district and local municipalities. While she acknowledges that municipalities have work to do to improve service delivery and build capacity, she sees the many gains that have been made within the local government sector too. Much of the progress has been in laying the groundwork for stronger leadership through the introduction of online learning in 2021 supported by an e-learning portal called the Leadership Village, which enables the virtual training of government officials. 

“My passion is the digital transformation that is taking place in the local government sector,” says Thobile, citing initiatives like the Smart City project, which the City of Johannesburg has pioneered as well as e-payment systems.   

“My job is challenging, but I love it.” Giving up a promising career at a major national bank to work in the public sector is not a common career progression, but the desire to make a meaningful impact and improve people’s lives prompted her to make the move to local government. 

The biggest challenge in local government is capacity building, says Thobile – offering leadership development programmes aimed at increasing the skills and capabilities of municipal councillors and officials within their current roles and offering them these learning opportunities consistently throughout the five year term. Overseeing the virtual training programmes for officials, including the induction programmes for new councillors, she believes this will make a meaningful impact. 

Educating and upskilling herself has been her own way of pursuing professional growth, and how Thobile came to specialise in digital transformation and learning technologies. She is forever encouraging colleagues and officials to do the same, while reminding them to keep at it even when the going gets tough. And persevering in the midst of challenges is something she knows a lot about: when Thobile was forced to take a break from her studies because of work demands and financial constraints of funding her studies, although she was determined to re-enrol she struggled to find an institution that would accept her.        

“Only Milpark would give me the opportunity to start over – and I gave it my all.” She insists that her Milpark journey was made possible by the school’s flexibility, which allowed her to manage a busy work schedule while studying. A pursuit that began in 2019 will end this year, culminating in a DBA, but Thobile insists that the process has already been rewarding. As part of her qualitative research for doctorate, Thobile interviewed a digital executive officer in local government, who has since then extended invitations for her to speak at events on digital transformation in the public service and the value of online learning. 

“Milpark has really helped me to succeed, creating an environment where I could change the narrative around my academic journey,” says Thobile. “It was difficult, yes, but if you are focused, nothing is impossible.”