It took a less-than-pleasant divorce to make Samke Mhlongo realise she had built the castle that was her picture-perfect marriage on sand.
Samke Mhlongo is a South African personal finance expert and the founder of TNC Wealth Partners, a personal finance consultancy. She was in Nairobi last week for a night to share her life experiences and lessons for women on personal finance management.
When Samke was married to a wealthy South African businessman, she lived a champagne lifestyle. She drove a sports car, lived in a big house on a golf estate, and could shop in designer stores.
Things changed after her divorce, and she found herself struggling to make ends meet at one point. All this because while she thought she and her husband were well-to-do during their marriage, the reality was it was her ex who was well-to-do.
Despite being a personal finance expert and offering advice on how to protect assets to top-tier clients at one of South Africa’s top banks, Investec, for years, Samke had somehow not thought she had to protect her financial stake in her own marriage.
She left her marriage with pretty much nothing and was even faced with paying her ex alimony. And why? Because most of his assets were under a trust.
WOMEN AND WEALTH CREATION
The ‘Redefining the Narrative Around Women and Wealth Creation’ event in Nairobi, which Samke spoke at, was organised by the self-proclaimed War Cabinet, comprising Samke, Branding Without Borders CEO Nana Wanjau, life coach and radio host Renee Ngamau, feminist writer Valentine Njoroge, communications specialist Cynthia Nyamai and Graca Machel’s daughter Josina, who is an activist.
The women are members of the Graca Machel Trust — Women Advancing Africa Unit — which seeks to empower women economically and socially.
RENEE NGAMAU’S STORY
Renee said the event was organised after a dinner where the women listened to Samke’s story and felt it needed to be shared with other women.
“Every woman goes through an experience in her life that shakes her to her core. If that hasn’t happened to you yet, just know it is going to happen.”
For Renee, the tough experience was discovering she had a tumour in her brain and being given five years to live. She survived and made it her life’s mission to help people discover and fulfil their purpose.
Samke narrated her story from meeting the man she thought was the love of her life in campus, falling pregnant, deciding to keep the baby and get married, to problems that emerged in her marriage that finally led to divorce and then having to start over financially.
There is a happy ending to the story, though, because like the proverbial phoenix, she rose to rebuild her life and now advises both women and men in the middle-income tier about how to make wise financial choices.
THE LOVE STORY
Samke fell in love with the father of her children when they were both studying accounting at the University of Cape Town.
She thought she had found the one. “I was in love and we would do everything together. He would buy me ice-cream and I would call him my ice-cream man.”
She fell pregnant and got married to her ‘ice-cream man’, and during the initial stages, the marriage seemed to be working well. But Samke was later to realise this was only because she was a ‘good wife’ in her husband’s estimation.
Being a good wife meant focussing on family and not being too career-driven. This behaviour was rewarded.
THE GOOD WIFE
But as is the case with most women, there came a time when Samke wanted more out of her life. It is then that she decided to push harder at her job as a personal banker at Investec bank.
Her effort paid off and soon, Samke got a promotion and had more responsibilities. That did not go well with her husband, who felt she was competing with him and not being a good wife by spending enough time with her family and doing her ‘wifely duties’, including cooking.
“When we first started out, we used to share responsibilities. He would cook one day and I would do so the next. But at some point, things changed and I was the one doing all the cooking.”
Samke’s ambition started to negatively impact her marriage. Samke became a threat and “men are wired to fight threats, so, I was being fought”.
She soon realised she was not in a healthy marriage and she was like the anecdotal woman crying in a Range Rover rather than laughing on a bicycle.
Samke decided to leave the marriage.
Her husband taunted her, though, telling her that if she left, she would leave every benefit that had accrued from being in that household; simply, she would leave empty-handed.
Samke was not given time to organise her move. She was told to leave immediately.
And if that was not stressful enough, Samke found out her husband had been dating another woman and when she told her family about it, they asked her why she was surprised.
They though Samke knew and just was not talking about it. So bad was the affair that her husband’s new catch had been visiting her matrimonial home when she was not around and Samke’s family knew.
Samke had to move to a flat after living in a posh maisonette. By this time, she had two children with her soon-to-be ex and the agreement was that they would spend two weeks with her and the rest of the month with their father.
When Samke tried to get financial compensation, she hit a dead end. She had hoped to get 50 per cent of what the couple had owned as is stipulated in South African law, but she realised all the assets had been bought under a company.
Although the shareholder was the family trust whose members were Samke, her husband and a lawyer, the lawyer was appointed by her spouse so his loyalty was to him.
With two signatures needed to make decisions, Samke found she was excluded from many transactions and even knocked off ownership of some assets.
IN CHARGE OF CURTAINS
Samke says she was not involved in making major financial decisions during her marriage. “I would just get a call to go pick a sports car from the dealership and I never knew how the bills were paid. I was like a trophy wife told to take care of domestic chores, like buying curtains and groceries.”
She says that despite having advised many clients during her career as a financial expert, she neglected to follow her own advice in her home.
As if her woes of not getting a penny after her marriage were not enough, she had to deal with the new woman trying to replace her in her role as mother.
Samke says the new woman in her ex’s life treated the children well and because she had access to the many good things money can buy, the children started to take a liking towards her and even called her ‘mummy’.
“I started resenting the thought of my children coming to spend time at my flat because I knew they would not have the same fancy things they had at the other house.”
MAKING A CHANGE
Samke made the decision to change the course of her financial life and slowy by slowly, she started appearing on TV to share her financial advice. This helped grow her profile.
She also pursued her MBA.
But these developments did not go well with her ex, who thought Samke would be finished and unable to survive without him.
Because Samke seemed to be doing fine financially, her ex thought of another way to sting her.
The final blow was when her ex tried to get full custody of her children. That was a tough battle for Samke. Her ex said she was not fit to take care of her children because she travelled a lot and when she was around, returned home late.
So much for trying to be an independent woman and financially stable to provide a better life for her children.
“I didn’t realise he had been keeping tabs on me and tracking what time the shows I appeared or aired — some aired late at night.”
It reached a point where the courts had to order a psychological test be done to see how the children acted around her — if there was any bond or whether she was away so much that the kids had no emotional attachment to her.
The psychologist took Samke through what she termed the lotion test. The children were asked to apply lotion on Samke’s hands and the psychologist would observe whether they were uncomfortable doing it.
“Luckily I have a close relationship with my kids and they were comfortable doing it. But imagine if it was those days when distance showed respect for parents and you could not even touch your father’s head.”
Samke won the battle and still has shared custody over her children.
ADVICE FOR WOMEN
Samke has come a long way and now advises women to be wise when it comes to relationships and finance to protect themselves.
She says everyone can make better financial choices if they take the time to understand how money works.
On making it as a businesswoman, Samke has the following tips:
1. Scale. Samke says she is never shy to tell potential clients to pay 50 per cent before service delivery.
2. Spoil yourself every once in a while. If you love shoes, perfume or holidays, don’t deny yourself the little pleasures in life. Incorporate the good stuff in your life and then find ways to make money to sustain your life.
3. Protect yourself in a relationship. Don’t leave your spouse to make all the financial decisions in your marriage. Get involved and understand what is going on so in case things don’t work out, you are safe.
4. Reduce your overheads. Depending on the nature of your business, there are certain costs that can be cut. For a consultancy, for example, you don’t need an office. You can partner with other service providers to use their premises in exchange for publicity if you are a recognisable figure, or you can hire offices when you need them.