Alistair Mokoena has the kind of CV that probably causes extreme performance anxiety in even the most accomplished of corporate players. His is the kind of carefully crafted career that follows a stellar trajectory in a step-by-step choreography that always results in scoring a perfect goal. I’ll hazard that he imbibed some of this strategic skill for big-match temperament from his famous Kaizer Chiefs’ footballer father, Johnny “Magwegwe” Mokoena. His academic discipline, however — he has a PhD and is the extraordinary professor of practice at the North-West University Business School and associate professor of practice at the Johannesburg Business School — must have been honed by his mother’s example. Dr Joyce Mokoena’s life-long commitment to furthering her own and others’ nursing education at what was then the Medical University of South Africa is testament to the family’s value system. As was their business-driven mindset: a young Mokoena learnt his entrepreneurial skills working in the family’s liquor business over holidays and weekends.
A childhood spent north of Pretoria in Ga-Rankuwa and boarding school in Bophuthatswana, which he describes as, “A very nice, modern, cosmopolitan world in Mmabatho [now Mafikeng] with kids from across the continent and teachers from Ghana, Sri Lanka, and India,” were followed by the classic expectations for the children of aspirational parents: law or medicine. As a child of Greek immigrants, I totally relate. He studied a BComm LLB at Rhodes University, which he says had the right, small-town, nurturing feel. His precocious talent for business, which had manifested in high school through a side hustle in sneaker cleaning and selling MC Hammer pants, then flourished into a kwaito and house-party events company aimed at democratising and filling the musical gap that existed in ’93 on a campus with a predilection for rock and pop. His stint in the campus legal-aid clinic, while fascinating, also confirmed his feeling that he was not going to practise law, despite the parental pressure. So he embarked on a career path that took him from first steps as a young gun at the university of marketing — from Unilever to South African Breweries, Cadbury, Absa, then MD of advertising agency FCB, and CEO of Ogilvy — to finally landing in the pound seat at Google South Africa as its country director.
Mokoeka’s tenure at Google began in April 2020, just as the lockdown hit its stride and tech companies came into their own. If, before the pandemic, there was a sense that the far-distant future was crashing into the present reality, then the lockdown pressed fast-forward on a panoply of global economic and lifestyle trends that appear to have permanently altered our world. Not least our reliance on the internet and its networked universe to make everything we took for granted in our connected lives possible.
It also highlighted the great technological divide between the haves and the have-nots and its implications for the future. For Mokoena, this accelerated reality underscored the career and life choices that have led him to this role. His LinkedIn profile speaks to this personal vision: “I am a servant leader who is driven to make an impact in society by improving lives and livelihoods.” When pressed, he explains that he has an abiding faith in the ability of technology and a company of Google’s depth and magnitude to make a sustained difference in the lives of his fellow South Africans and Africans more broadly.
I am a servant leader who is driven to make an impact in society by improving lives and livelihoods
Mokoena describes Google as the place where strategy, creativity, technology, data, customer experience, and insight coalesce. He says the lockdown has been a kind of proving ground, putting its technology to the test: “Remote working really works; you get to use your own products and see first-hand how they help with productivity and delivery. We have been living it, and it makes it easy to show clients and customers how Google products can help their business thrive.” His conviction that, as a mid-40s professional, he needed to work with purpose and make a difference in the world intersected perfectly with the Google mantra of organising the world’s information and making it useful. Over the past year Google has collaborated with government to make a considerable impact, both around Covid-19 information management and economic recovery.
The pan-African project to assist small businesses, which employ 48% of the labour force in South Africa, to join the digital economy is impressive. The past eight months have seen more that 300 000 small brick-and-mortar businesses go digital with an online presence, a marketing and advertising strategy, and access to a market-finder programme so that they could expand geographically. A partnership with the massive-open-online-course institution Coursera is answering the huge need to bridge the digital divide, and hopefully capacitate millions of Africans to access entry-level IT qualifications. Education and employment projects in vulnerable communities through the YES (Youth Employment Service) and the Praekelt Foundation have been huge drivers in the past year. Google has also partnered with SA Tourism to encourage a return to tourism through the “South Africa, an explorer’s paradise” project, which has highlighted our majestic assets.
“What is my purpose? To make a difference in society; to help bridge the digital divide; to serve as tide to lift up all boats,” says Mokoena. “Access is a big, big barrier. There isn’t one company that can sort out all the issues; it will take an ecosystem of partners to invest in undersea cable and, of course, deal with the reality of data costs. The UN Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development has stipulated that the cost of a gigabyte of data must not exceed 2% of monthly income. We are at 2.1% and ranked 31st on the continent in terms of that ratio. The plan is to be ranked in the top 10. Thirty-eight million people — just more than half our population — are online: the explosion of mobile phones has ensured that at least one member of every family has access to the internet. Government says that, by 2024, 80% should be online. That is the opportunity to be the great equaliser for South Africans. The sooner the better. It’s my dream and vision, and I want to be part of it.”
• From the May edition of Wanted, 2021.