by Charlie Mathews (@CharlesLeeZA) Mathe Okaba, Association for Communication and Advertising (ACA) CEO, knows how to face challenges head on. At the height of her career, after many successful years in the advertising industry as a media strategist and later as SABC 3 GM, she faced her fiercest challenge — a struggle with mortality. A cancer diagnosis saw her take on a life-and-death struggle, and transform. “When you go head to head with cancer, it teaches you who you are, and what’s most important to you,” she says. In this interview, MarkLives discusses transformation with Okaba.

MarkLives logoHow has facing, fighting and overcoming cancer changed you?
Mathe Okaba: I struggled with cancer for three years and had a bilateral mastectomy. You can’t go through this without it redefining you. I know exactly who I am and what I want. I have become incredibly certain — for good or for bad. I am unafraid of making decisions and am willing to be accountable for the decisions I make. I don’t allow things to fester. When I’m presented with something, I know whether it’s bullshit or not. I have agency and a clarity of vision, and I know it when something is good for me or not. My cancer journey of getting better has made me unafraid to be myself and to do me — regardless of how unpopular that might make me.

MarkLives logoWhat brings certainty?
MO: I know myself, my agency. I can decipher things and see patterns. Once you’ve been on your deathbed, you become less afraid to fail. But, more than this, I have come to understand how important confidence is to transformation, and how it drives forward movement and progression. Confidence breeds action, and action incites change. You know, for me, it’s all about understanding your personal power. Understand the power you possess; once you get this, you understand the authority you have over your entire life — over the things that you want and the very direction you want to follow.

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MarkLives logoWhat is personal power?
MO: It is remembering what is important to you in life, and what experience has taught you. There are multitudes of humans [whom] we engage with daily, and we live in a world where some of these people will build you [up]. But some will try break you. When you abdicate your power to humans who diminish you, you take away your own authority; you take away your own knowing. Don’t ever take that away from yourself. Understand that, whenever you engage with anybody, you’ve got the power to walk out the door or stay in the room. You have agency. Use it.

MarkLives logoML: Why is confidence important?
MO: When you lose your own confidence, you begin to doubt yourself, and don’t have faith in your decisions. You don’t trust yourself. I think self-trust is important because, when you know and trust yourself, others can trust you. Confidence breeds confidence.

MarkLives logoWhat is your personal experience of transformation in the South African marketing and communications sector?
MO: I came to advertising in the early ’90s and back then the heads of business were all these white boys, no disrespect to them. All these white boys having a good time playing golf together. Not having to share their social spaces, not having to share their monetary rewards.

MarkLives logoML: Why is the industry so untransformed?
MO: It is a latent fear that nobody wants to recognise or to talk about. I understand that change is hard, that it is difficult, but we must survive. To survive, we must change. And, to change, we need to understand each other, all of us. This means having difficult conversations with each other. It doesn’t help to be defensive about white privilege or about the fact that South Africa’s education system is still unequal. And it doesn’t help if those who have power and ownership are aggressive and refuse to let go or take risks. To survive, everyone needs to now reach out and collaborate; it is more essential to our collective survival than ever before. But, despite this, we still have some people of color who sit on boards and who are afraid to initiate change because it may prejudice their own success or status. This is a huge concern. I don’t understand this fear of loss, and this is something we must challenge. Fear shuts transformation down, but conversation and speaking about our fears can drive transformation forward through creating understanding.

MarkLives logoML: How do we take the next steps?
MO: We talk. We listen. We understand. We empathise. Transformation is negotiated; we get there through conversation. By learning. But mostly by being courageous and opening ourselves to diversity and new thinking. By letting go and embracing change head on, no matter how difficult it is.

See also


Association for Communication and Advertising (ACA) logoTransformers Transform 2020” is a special series produced by MarkLives and HumanInsight and sponsored by the Association for Communication and Advertising (ACA), running Jun–Sep 2020. Our objective is to explore and map new paths for brands and marketers to transform, adapt and build resilience while the world adapts to covid-19 and its resultant social, political and economic toll. This is an independently managed, journalism-driven research project.


Charlie MathewsAs an entrepreneur, Charlie Mathews (@CharlesLeeZA) has worked in growth teams with Naspers, Microsoft, and (the global prepaid card company). Mathews has also successfully founded and exited two marketing companies. Published in Rolling Stone magazine, Guardian UK, and SA’s Greatest Entrepreneurs, edited by Moky Makura, Mathews wrote for Daily Maverick during the title’s legendary startup era. Today, Mathews is the founder and CEO of HumanInsight, a research, insights and learning company that helps brands better understand, and serve — humans.


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One reply on “#Transformers: Mathe Okaba on change & transformation [interview]”

  1. what happened to the 31 march 2018 MAC Charter deadline for transformation?

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