Change the world


“In business and life you have to work hard, you have to have integrity and you have to choose your partners carefully,” says Dr Judy Dlamini, medical doctor, MBA, Doctor of Business Leadership, Wits University Chancellor and one of South Africa’s most successful entrepreneurs.

“In business and life you have to work hard, you have to have integrity and you have to choose your partners carefully,” says Dr Judy Dlamini, medical doctor, MBA, Doctor of Business Leadership, Wits University Chancellor and one of South Africa’s most successful entrepreneurs.

On 12 December, Nelson Mandela University’s Faculty of Business and Economic Sciences is awarding her an Honorary Doctorate at its undergraduate, master’s and doctoral graduation ceremony.

(Left to right) Vice-Chancellor, Professor Sibongile Muthwa, Chancellor: Dr Geraldine Fraser-Moleketi, Dr Judy Dlamini and Chair of the University’s Council: Ambassador Nozipho January-Bardill.

“I am most grateful to Nelson Mandela University, the only university totally led by women,” says Dlamini. “I have never received any honorary recognition, I worked for my doctorate and there is something especially significant to be awarded this honorary doctorate in Nelson Mandela’s centenary year.”

Dlamini practised as a medical doctor for several years before pursuing a business career, as the founder and Chair of the Mbekani Group, which she launched 22 years ago. Today it includes a wide range of companies, including surgical equipment, facilities management, security, commercial property,  and luxury fashion retail. She has served on many boards and is actively engaged in women empowerment and education improvement initiatives.

Her message to all the graduates is: “We find ourselves in an environment where too many people are lacking integrity and who are only about serving themselves. If you operate like this, sooner or later things will go bad and you will have to account for what you have done. Rather conduct yourself with integrity from the outset, and treat yourself and others with respect, because then there can be no skeletons and no risk of destroying your reputation and legacy.”

Dlamini says this philosophy extends to the people with whom they do business: “Choose your partners carefully. I say this with experience after having made a bad investment a while ago by partnering with people who turned out not to be clean business people. When I discovered this, I had to get out of that business because my name was going to be compromised. Detangling myself from this partnership was difficult and I had to go the litigation route, which was expensive, both emotionally and financially.”

Dlamini also encourages all graduates to nurture their self-belief, which is a major theme in her life: “I grew up in Westville, near Durban, at a time when it was a crime to have my complexion. Yet I was raised by parents who encouraged me to pursue my education and who told me I could be anything I chose to be.”

Dlamini’s late parents - Rita Dlamini (born Ngwane) and Thomas Dlamini - refused to be broken by the apartheid system. Their strength, resilience and entrepreneurial spirit triggered their daughter’s success.

She, in turn, makes it her mission to convey to all African graduates, students and learners that they, too, can be anything they choose to be.

“A lot of positive stories; stories of successful people don’t have an African face. We need positive African stories to build a positive mindset in the African child from the youngest age. We also need ordinary people to know how important their contribution is.” Dlamini pursues in the latest book she has authored, titled The Other Story, coming out in February 2019.

“I believe it is the woman and man in the street who has the power to change the status quo. I don’t believe in big names, I believe in ordinary people doing what is right. And there are a lot of those.”

She is a strong proponent of empowering women, which, she says, starts with a quality education from the earliest age and goes all the way through to challenging persistent stereotypes and prejudices about women leaders. “If you stick to stereotypes about who can lead, you will have a very mediocre leadership.”

She adds that all men, particularly those in leadership positions, need to contribute to changing the status quo and proactively partnering women in removing the barriers. “Women make up half of the world’s population and human capital and the world at large can only start to flourish when 50% of the population achieves full equality.”

Dlamini’s latest venture is a partnership with her chartered accountant daughter Nkanyezi Makhari. It’s a specialised debt fund for medium-size businesses on the continent, as she explains: “Medium-size businesses are often family owned and they would rather opt for debt funding than equity as they don’t want to relinquish ownership. We are currently at the fund-raising stage for this initiative and not yet dispersing funds.”

On the education front, Dlamini is co-founder of The Sifiso Learning Group, together with her husband, Sizwe Nxasana, a leading businessman and one of the first black chartered accountants in South Africa. This group includes several entities, including Future Nation Schools,  Sifiso Publishers, Sifiso Education Properties and Sifiso EdTech, all of which provide education, content, tools and places of learning to guide learners and students to fulfil their potential. The group is named in honour of their late son, Sifiso Nxasana (Wits BCom Hons 2008).

The Sifiso Learning Group promotes gender equality from the youngest age, and opened its first Future Nation Schools in 2017. It now has three pre-schools and two high schools in Gauteng. We start from 18 months and go through to Grade 10 at present, with the aim of adding Grade 11 and 12, and expanding to other provinces,” says Dlamini. Each child who enters their schools, she says, is treated as a valued being with great creative and thinking ability. “We integrate the different subjects in projects they work on to solve problems, and they learn about entrepreneurship, coding, leadership and African history.”

In December Dlamini was installed as Chancellor of Wits University at the beginning of December and says she is “very encouraged about how Wits has transformed demographically and at the same time academic excellence has continued and advanced. We need to celebrate our Africanness and our intellectual contribution to the world. We need to celebrate the beauty and diversity of our looks, complexions and beings. The process has started but I believe I will see this significantly advance in my lifetime.”

By Heather Dugmore

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