“In business and life you have to work hard, you have to have integrity and you have to choose your partners carefully,” says Judy Dlamini, medical doctor, MBA, doctor of business leadership, University of the Witwatersrand chancellor and one of South Africa’s most successful entrepreneurs.
On December 12, the Nelson Mandela University’s faculty of business and economic sciences awarded her with an honorary doctorate at its undergraduate, master and doctoral graduation ceremony.
“I am most grateful to Nelson Mandela University, the only university totally led by women,” Dlamini says. “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.”
She practised as a medical doctor for several years before pursuing a business career as the founder and chairperson of the Mbekani Group, which she launched 22 years ago. Today, it includes a range of companies, including surgical equipment, facilities management, security, commercial property and luxury fashion retail. She has served on many boards and is actively involved in women’s empowerment and education improvement initiatives.
Her message to all 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.”
She says this philosophy also applies to the people with whom you 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.”
She adds that there is always an element of fear about starting anything new because it requires strength and resilience. But, she says, this is healthy fear, as opposed to a crippling fear born out of a lack of self-belief.
Self-belief is a major theme in Dlamini’s 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 parents, Rita (nee Ngwane) and Thomas Dlamini, refused to be broken by the apartheid system. Their strength, resilience and entrepreneurial spirit led to their daughter’s success.
“My mother was a primary school teacher and my father was an entrepreneur. My mother would run night schools at no charge to empower domestic workers. To supplement her teacher’s salary, she sold snacks at school and made children’s clothes, petticoats and jerseys, which she sold on weekends.
“My father started his own painting business and bought land where African people could in those days. He then built and rented out apartments, or ‘flats’ as we called them back then. He had entrepreneurial flair, which apartheid erased in many people.”
But not in her father and mother. “That is why I am so resilient; I never give up and I have been like that from birth. I had no choice; it was how I grew up.”
Her father died while she was waiting for her matric results. He never got to see his daughter graduate as a medical doctor, continue in his entrepreneurial footsteps and become the success she is today.
What is so important for her is to convey to all African children is that they, too, “can be anything they choose to be, which is why I am where I am today”.
“A lot of positive stories, stories of successful people, don’t have an African face. We need positive African stories to build a positive mind-set in the African child. Neither do most ordinary people have a sense of how important their contribution is.”
She pursues this in her latest book, The Other Story, which is coming out in February.
“So many people have given back to their communities and in this book I tell a range of stories, mainly stories of South Africans but also from other parts of the continent, about ordinary people, men and women who consistently do what is right for their employees, families and their communities, but about whom we never hear in the media … I don’t believe in big names; I believe in ordinary people doing what is right. And there are a lot of those,” Dlamini says, adding that President Cyril Ramaphosa’s Thuma Mina (Send Me) campaign is all about this, as it highlights self-sacrifice, individual responsibility and the importance of positively changing mind-sets.
She repeatedly emphasises the need for hard work. “Whether you are an employee or entrepreneur, the hard work never stops if you want to be successful. You also might not get the job that you are qualified for at first, but you need to apply yourself as if it is the best job in the world. This creates success and character, and you can advance from here.”
She is also 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 stereotypes and prejudices about women leaders. “If you stick to stereotypes about who can lead, you will have a very mediocre leadership.”
Dlamini’s first book, Equal But Different: Women Leaders’ Life Stories, Overcoming Race, Gender and Social Class, based on her research for her doctorate, explores the intersection of race, gender and social class and its effect on women leaders’ career progression.
On the education front, Dlamini is the co-founder with her husband, Sizwe Nxasana, of the Sifiso Learning Group. He is a leading businessperson and was one of the first black chartered accountants in South Africa. This group includes Future Nation Schools, Sifiso Publishers, Sifiso Education Properties and Sifiso EdTech, all of which provide education, content, tools and places of learning to help pupils and students to fulfil their potential. The group is named in honour of their late son, Sifiso Nxasana, who received a BCom honours degree from Wits in 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 preschools 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 is treated as a valued being with great creative and thinking ability, she says.
Dlamini was installed as chancellor of Wits 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”.
She adds that tertiary education should not only be about university. “It needs to emphasise the importance and elevate the stature of our technical and vocational education and training colleges, and create a desire in young people to become artisans, including electricians, mechanics, plumbers, carpenters, sound and instrument technicians.
“We need all sorts of diverse, skilled, qualified people to grow the economy and address poverty.
“The only way out of poverty is through quality education. Any self-respecting country has to be able to educate its poor, and this includes comprehensive free higher education for academically deserving students.”
As a reflection of this, one of her companies, Luminance, a luxury fashion chain, offers South African-origin labels such as MaXhosa, David Tlale and Clad Chic alongside renowned international brands. Her in-store magazine, Luminance, showcases high fashion alongside pressing health issues, such as the dangers of skin lighteners and black hair products that lead to a loss of hair.
“With my background as a medical doctor, I am very invested in these issues and what concerns me is that most of the pharmaceuticals come from First World countries and predominantly address First World problems. I am driving for African solutions for African problems.”
She says it’s critical to change the idea that our knowledge and innovations are inferior to those of the Global North. “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.”