From small beginnings, good and great things happen

Below we talk with Maureen Erasmus, Non-Executive Director at the Standard Bank Group.

PSI: Tell us about your background.

ME: I was born to a New Zealander mother and a British father in a beautiful mountainous town of Umtali/Mutare, on the east of Zimbabwe, right on the border of Mozambique – paradise except for the fact that when I was five-years old, the UK imposed sanctions on us and when I was 10, a guerrilla war broke out between Mozambique and Rhodesia. My hometown, Umtali, was very much in the frontline. I grew up knowing there was no safety net in life, but also thinking how fortunate I was to grow up in such a spectacularly beautiful place.

The guerrilla war lasted over a decade and over time, you had to adapt. I shall never forget returning from university on a plane, flying at 20,000 feet directly above our new hometown of Bulawayo in the south of the Zimbabwe, with the announcement that we would literally dive to 10,000 feet, and do a brief circle before landing to avoid the heat-air missiles.

My father had hoped that I would go to UK for university, but I opted for Cape Town University. It was utter paradise and the happiest four years of a fun-filled life; mountains, sea, vast array of beaches, learning to scuba dive, being able to see the sun rise and set, and everyday climbing the lower end of Table Mountain to the campus, seeing spectacular wildflowers and a few deer on the way. When I meet my maker one day, I do hope paradise is half as good as Cape Town!

Whilst I was at Cape Town University, my parents, who had remained in Zimbabwe, had to emigrate suddenly; my father was arrested and charged by the Mugabe government for breaking sanctions and allegedly supporting the prior regime. His ‘crime’ was importing schoolbooks, which he would then take to the rural Catholic mission schools at great risk, as most roads were dirt, and many were land-mined. My father was a great believer that through education, a well informed and just society would evolve.

In 1989, I emigrated with my husband, Lawrie, to the UK – I always knew I would end up here as I grew up listening to BBC World Service and Big Ben’s chimes. However, on arrival, I would painfully realise that I was different.

PSI: You had quite the formative childhood. What did ‘different’ mean to you once you arrived in the UK?

ME: On arrival in London, I was re-hired by Arthur Andersen, though you couldn’t just transfer from South Africa to the UK, you had to get myself over and hope the London office would accept your application.  On my first day at work in London, an HR lady loudly announced in an open plan office, ‘I had got it all wrong’ – my transgression was ticking the African box on ethnicity, not the Caucasian one. I simply had no idea that ethnicity and colour could be based on a set of mountain ranges. I was belittled relentlessly on my accent and pronunciation. For the first six months, I was not assigned to any client engagement, as I was a married woman and ‘could get pregnant at any time’ (incidentally I had my son 10 years later). When they finally assigned me to an engagement at a bank (not telling me the client had dismissed two prior male managers), the person that was assigned to support me was the only person of colour in the office – a female secondee from Nigeria. The project was a resounding success and the only business to survive the HSBC acquisition many years later. Two years later, I stopped apologising for my accent. The assigned person, Omobola Johnson, returned to Nigeria, later became Managing Partner for Accenture in Nigeria, and subsequently was asked by the Nigerian government to help with the roll-out of the internet across the country… so from small beginnings, good and great things happen.

PSI: Great things, indeed! How did your early career experiences shape your professional journey?

ME: I served as a partner in three global consultancy firms and a Managing Director in two global investment banks. I now have, what is regarded as a “plural” career – I sit on several company boards and PSI is my only not-for-profit Board. I am delighted to serve on the Standard Bank Board, as it is truly an institution that serves the broader social and economic purpose across 20 African jurisdictions.

I have one child – a son, Nicholas, who I had at the age of 39. A combination of a full-on career and emigrating meant I chose motherhood fairly late. I can unequivocally say that Nicholas is my greatest joy, and he has taught me so much in life. He has had to cope with a mum who had a career and while there are many times when I may have mis-aligned priorities, we have always found a way forward and we are very close. In fact, the Covid-19 lockdown provided an unexpected opportunity to spend 18 months with him – a first in his lifetime.

PSI: How did you come to join the PSI Board and what motivates you about PSI’s mission to make it easier for all people to lead healthier lives and plan the families they desire?

ME: I will be eternally grateful to former PSI Board Chair Brian Atwood, who put forward my candidacy to join PSI’s Board. Brian and I served on the AFS International board, joining at the same time. Although we had vastly different careers, I knew that Brian was a kindred spirit, and it would be a lifelong friendship.

However, nothing really prepared me for the PSI Board’s ‘rich tapestry’ of characters.

On my first meeting, I was allocated to a newly formed Board committee with the other two new Board members, whom I nicknamed Perfect Peter (Smitham), a quintessential Brit (understated, mild mannered and carefully interpreting non-verbal cues) and Mighty Marty (Schneider), the polar opposite of Peter. Words fail me to describe my initial impression of Mighty Marty, however I am reminded of a Churchill saying (though adjusted for Mighty Marty): “I am ready to meet Peter and Maureen, but whether they are ready for me, is quite a different matter entirely.”

I leave every Board meeting amazed and humbled; it is a consummate privilege to serve on this Board and see the intellectual and executional excellence.

I have been extremely fortunate to visit PSI Zimbabwe three times and each time it has been a transformational experience. The team is utterly extraordinary, and I have learnt more about my birthplace than ever before. The eminent Country Representative, Staci Leuschner, is a force of nature and extraordinary leader – she took me at my word to see PSI in rural areas, and with Brian Maponga, I was shown what we did on the voluntary medical male circumcision programme. On my next visit, they arranged a visit to my birthplace, Mutare, and to add to the experience, I was driven by a charming raconteur, called Shakespeare. They took me to the main township one evening to do community-based outreach of HIV prevention, treatment, and care services for marginalised populations. The following day, I was at their centre where they were conducting outreach and mentoring; I wish that the Board and more importantly our donors heard the individuals’ testimonies and gratitude where there was no national lifeline – it is often the emotional support that is equally, if not more powerful, than the medication. I will always be deeply appreciative to the PSI Zimbabwe team who help decent people in desperate situations.         

PSI What does Consumer-Powered Healthcare (CPH) mean to you and how do you see it making change for the people PSI serves?

ME: PSI applies the best medical thinking and adjusts its approach to suit the end patient – dignity and respect are a core part of this interface.

Thus, my interpretation of CPH is that the ultimate decision rests with the patient (or end consumer). It is beholden on the healthcare provider to outline safeguards and risks so that consumers can make informed choices. CPH assumes that the consumers preferences are understood and respected.

Poverty, pestilence, and disease are dehumanising. PSI serves communities throughout the developing world where economic and political structures are unstable and under-developed. Therefore, in providing healthcare to the vulnerable and economically disadvantaged consumers, it is crucial that the needs and cultural preferences are understood and respected for these services to be accepted and embraced by the ultimate recipient.

PSI: What are you looking forward to in the remainder of 2021?

ME: Well, it is wonderful that economies are opening up, seeing and meeting people face-to-face is a joy. That said, during the past 22 months, I have not been on a plane, and I have slept in my own bed – my body feels infinitely healthier. In lockdown we have acquired a German Shepherd – our first dog, which has been great fun with daily walks in our nearby woods. I love the fact that the people I meet on these walks are mostly known through their dog’s name, so ‘Barney’s owner’ and only after a year, it may be mentioned that the said individual may have been a top tax lawyer. For the first time in my life, you get to know people without knowing their status or achievements – it is a welcome leveler.  

PSI: Any interesting stories or tidbits about yourself that you’d like to share?

ME: I used to love horse riding, especially in Umtali, riding in the mountains every weekend was bliss. Whilst at university in Cape Town, two dear Zimbabwean friends and I decide to go for a horse ride on a spectacular beach called Noordhoek – white sand and endless beach. We noticed on arrival there was a group of young girls, kitted out immaculately in jodhpurs, boots, hats, and whom were also quite precocious. We mounted our horses and went in the opposite direction. When we reached the beach, my horse called ‘Firecracker’ went into an uncontrollable gallop, returning to the other end of this beach (more than 3 miles/5 km). The group of young girls on their horses started screaming ‘Firecracker is coming’ and to my horror started jumping off their horses in sheer terror! Unmitigated chaos. Needless to say, it was not a repeat experience.      

Sign up to
Receive Updates

Donate to
Support Our Work