Thobela takes printing into a new era

“In South Africa, very little is known about the printing and packaging industry and its role in our daily lives. I believe the promotion of this industry can add much value to the economy of this country and that would help alleviate the many social and economic challenges that we face.”

That’s according to Steve Thobela, CEO of Printing SA, a trade organisation that not only represents the interests of the printing and packaging Industry at large but also ensures that it is sustainable when it comes to the triple bottom-line with stakeholders growing financially as well as caring for others and the environment.

Whether he is lobbying government, engaging with members or non-government organisations or working with the organisation’s staff, Thobela is all too aware of his role in making PrintingSA’s vision a reality.

Having joined Printing SA in January 2014, he was appointed CEO a year later. He took the helm at a time when the industry was grappling with challenges that will continue for some time to come.

“The pace at which technological developments are happening in the printing and packaging industry has increased more in recent years than during the past decade or two. Companies and even individuals who have not adapted fast enough rapidly become the dinosaurs of the industry.

“On the other hand, technology has helped to open doors to markets in the rest of the continent, if not the world. Buyers of print can now purchase from anywhere in the world and ship in the completed product. We can either sit and mope about this or we can begin to strategize as an industry as to how we can grow our markets,” he says.

Already strides have been made in the right direction under his watch. Research intended to underpin a wider industry growth strategy was completed at the end of last year.

“I believe in changing lives. This industry did that for me 27 years ago when I first joined as an apprentice at the Pretoria News. I grew up in the dusty village of Winterveldt on the Northern outskirts of Pretoria with limited opportunities but yet, through the industry, I have made it to this point. In this role, I have the opportunity to inspire the industry to change many more lives,” he shares.

Thobela joined the industry completely by chance as an apprentice typographer in a trade that was known in the industry at the time as composition theory. This has since been replaced by electronic origination.

Thobela completed a one-year Certificate in Agricultural Management at Funda Mlimi Agricultural Training Centre after matriculating at Tswaing High School in Winterveldt.

He went on to do his Technical Training N1 at Manu Technical College and N2 and N3 at Pretoria Wes Technical College. This overlapped with his studies for his Christian Ministry Diploma at Port Elizabeth Bible College.

Even during his earliest days, his academic and leadership abilities came to the fore and he won an award for the 2nd best apprentice in the country for his National Certificate N2 and was elected the regional chairman of the Media Workers Association of South Africa (Mwasa).

Over the years, he has worked in the print production departments of the Pretoria News, Perskor, the Sowetan and The Newspaper Printing Company (TNPC) before becoming Operations Manager of Independent Newspapers in the Western Cape.

It wasn’t an easy path and he experienced, first hand, the fallout as print has gone digital.

Thobela recalls the pain of being retrenched from the Pretoria news 22 years ago. “My trade, composition theory, became redundant when computers entered the industry. I could not understand the short-sightedness of an employer who introduced me to a trade that became redundant just two years after I qualified! It made me very angry and, of course, I blamed it on apartheid!

“But now, with the benefit of hindsight, I understand that I was a victim of technological development. The impact of this could not have been fully understood by the captains of industry at the time as there was no precedent. The lesson learnt is to remain relevant or, even better, influence the market and encourage others to. I took on my current role as I saw it as a perfect way to do exactly that.”

After completing his Christian Ministry Diploma, Thobela founded and pastored the Grace Berean Church Soshanguve, the Grace Berean Church Montana in Cape Town and the Grace Berean Church Tshepisong in Krugersdorp.

He also continued his studies, obtaining his Business Management Certificate from the University of the Witwatersrand and a Bachelor of Business Administration (BBA) from Newport University through the South African study centre Executive Education. He has also recently completed his Master of Business Administration (MBA) at Regenesys Business School.

In addition, he served for four and half years as the founding General Manager of one of three of Nelson Mandela’s official charity organisations, The Mandela Rhodes Foundation in Cape Town.

At around that time, he was also appointed on the board of Oxford University Press. Prior to joining Printing SA on a full time basis, Thobela served as Director Print Production at the University of South Africa, Unisa. His role as CEO of Printing SA comes with many, many meetings – and plenty of challenges.

He explains that, whereas most company heads deal mainly with boards, shareholders and senior executives that report directly to him or her, the CEO of an organisation such as this reports to a board and, through them, to members who are small medium and large companies and institutions. Often, these members have different, and even opposing, expectations.

With a limited permanent staff, a great deal of important work is done through professional contract staff or consultants and committees consisting of volunteers from member organisations.

“This, of course, affects how quick the organisation can react to situations and poses a serious challenge for me as CEO. But it is an approach that cannot be done away with as it is most effective in terms of managing operational cost and decision making processes for a body that directs the whole industry,” he explains.

When he is away from the daily demands of his job, Thobela teaches at his local Bible school, plays keyboards and sings with family or young people from his  church, works on his cars’ engines and reads. Recently, he has taken up cycling.