Transforming society: Professor Pumela Msweli, Executive Dean and chief executive of The University of South Africa (UNISA) School of Business Leadership (SBL).
South Africa is not a silo, and a world of business opportunities lies just beyond our borders. According to Professor Pumela Msweli, this is something that many South African entrepreneurs and business leaders must still realise. As the Executive Dean and chief executive of The University of South Africa (UNISA) School of Business Leadership (SBL), Msweli is at the helm of one of the country’s oldest and most influential business schools. Since its inception in 1965, the SBL has produced more than a third of all the MBA/MBL degrees awarded by South African universities.
Msweli is quick to point out that legacy, however, does not mean rigidity and stagnation: “We aim to be an influential African business school that disrupts markets and leads the continent into the future; a business school that is trusted to create leaders of distinction that extend the boundaries of thought leadership and transcend physical borders for maximum societal impact — and, thus far, we are succeeding!”
This is no mean feat, especially in an ever-changing world that is often not just unstable, but outright chaotic: “Those who do not move with the change will be crushed by it. Whatever we knew — as business schools and about business skills — has been disrupted. At SBL we provide today’s business leaders and the leaders of tomorrow the opportunity to join the transformation.”
Fortunately, the executive education space is agile and the SBL was up to the challenge, introducing more than 26 new programmes dealing with relevant topics — like big data, cybersecurity, leadership, ethics, governance and sustainability — over the past two years. There is also a focus on the soft skills needed to traverse this new world of work: evolving communication skills, resilience, creativity, innovation, change management, critical thinking, problem solving and analytical prowess.
Value-driven leadership for future success
The SBL programmes are driven by a philosophy of innovation, social responsibility, ethical engagement and global connectedness, all with a focus on leadership and not just management. “A manager achieves an organisational objective,” Msweli explains. “Leaders transform society, influence and shape the world as we know it and ensure that our institutions, our communities and our planet are better off than when they arrived for the generations to follow.”
Leadership does come easier to some but this does not mean that it cannot be taught. “Some people do seem to have a natural inclination for leadership,” she admits. “But even the best natural leaders gain new skills daily because leadership is a lifelong journey and not a destination.”
Leadership is about self-mastery and service to others. “It’s about channelling your service to transform society — because our society desperately needs transforming,” she said. “Business and business leaders can be vehicles for this change.” The Environment, Sustainability and Governance (ESG) principles that guide best practice in business are also value-driven. “Meeting the triple-bottom-line of people, planet and prosperity is not just about compliance and cannot be separate from your other business values — they must be something you are, not something you just do.”
Ahead of the trend
The business world of today demands resilience and innovation, and a business school that wants to remain relevant must match those demands, she explains: “We know we cannot just be on a trend — we need to be ahead of the trend!”
Msweli said to ensure that their offerings remain relevant and cutting-edge, collaboration is critical: “We are positioned as a transnational business school and we partner with institutions and with different sectors across the continent. We also collaborate with the African Union, especially when it comes to intra-Africa trade.”
There is immense value in these networks: “We also have the infrastructure — physical infrastructure — in 30 different regions, where our students can access our services and libraries. We even have a regional centre in Ethiopia, where our doctoral programme is in high demand.”
She said other universities often enrol their academics in the SBL doctorate programme, and this continental cross-pollination of ideas and knowledge is one of the things that sets the school apart.
“Our students are encouraged to work in groups, but we have also introduced the International Engaged Scholarship Conference, a platform to share knowledge and create collaborative opportunities between the public and private sectors that allows our students and staff to network, transnationally and globally.”
The African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA) has changed the game. “We are pioneering a new, integrated way of doing business, because we are not operating as a South African market anymore — we are operating as an African market — and South Africans must be ready to see an influx of opportunities as new markets open to them.”
Msweli said the SBL programmes are developed with this in mind. “I encounter so many entrepreneurs who are not aware that they are no longer operating in a South African market, and remain blind to the world of possibilities beyond our borders. Our programmes teach you how to tap into that potential.”
This merging of markets also comes at the ideal time, she said, adding that one just has to look at the price of cooking oil to see that: “Instead of waiting for oil from Ukraine, this is the perfect opportunity to create our own products and our own value chains. We have the resources, and the geopolitical wars have given us a reason to start tapping into those to create affordable alternatives, instead of sending them across the ocean and buying them back at a quadrupled cost.”
The skills and resources exist to develop homegrown solutions for the continent’s unique context. “We have everything; we are the envy of the world! When we tap into that to develop African solutions with African resources, we are also able to create industries that will absorb our talent, create jobs and get our economies to fire again.”
Thriving economies for a better world
The school also boasts a strong focus on rural and township economic development. “We all need to contribute because small, medium and micro-enterprises (SMMEs) constitute 90% of South Africa’s businesses, employ more than half of the workforce and contribute more than a third of the GDP,” she explained. “If we are able to upgrade micro to small, and small enterprises to medium, then it will make a massive contribution to the economy.”
This is particularly important as the government injects more resources into the informal economy as part of the country’s economic recovery plan.
“All that those businesses need to move from the shadow economy and be considered mainstream is support, resources and skills. These businesses have enormous potential to contribute to the fiscus, create more jobs and result in a better life for all,” she said.
Born in the Eastern Cape, rural-urban linkage is one of the SBL’s focus areas that Msweli is particularly passionate about. “I know both worlds because my parents eventually moved to the city but we would go home to my grandparents quite often,” she explained. “I have also, on a number of occasions, done a five-day walk from Port St. John’s to Coffee Bay that passes through very rural areas, and I sleep in those homes among the people who live there and see their hardships and suffering.”
The return to the city can be jarring, she said. “When I get back home I’m surrounded by opulence and people who have forgotten where we come from. There is such a disparity in our society, and we should focus on bridging this gap. One way to do this is through rural-urban linkage, where we connect deserving entrepreneurs from rural spaces with the urban markets and vice versa to create a bidirectional flow of resources.”
She said she feels she’s privileged to be in a position where she can help drive change in an environment like SBL, where upliftment and empowerment are part of the institutional fabric and where her actions can have a ripple effect.
“We can’t enjoy this beautiful country that we have if we can’t address the social ills — that drives me to do my little bit, and then infuse that in my students, who do the same. Little by little, we can make a big difference.”
Solution-based research for
Engaged scholarship and co-creation key for the African markets of tomorrow
Research must be academic and scientific, grounded in ethics and sound practice, but this is not enough. Africa needs research that impacts society, drives change and offers solutions to real-world problems. According to Professor Nhlanhla Mlitwa, this is the type of engaged scholarship that business schools should strive towards.
Mlitwa is the Director of Research and Innovation at the University of South Africa (UNISA) Graduate School of Business Leadership (SBL), an institution that is leading the way to a more connected, empowered and sustainable Africa.
Engaged scholarship takes off when an institution’s core functions — namely teaching and learning, research and innovation, and community engagement — are not siloed. Mlitwa said that when each of these pillars has a role in informing the others, the influence and impact extend far beyond classrooms and institutional borders.
Research must inform teaching, drive industry practice and transform society.
“In the past, it was enough for research to have value for the scientific community, but today, we want it to be relevant to other communities too,” he explained. “These communities can take many forms — commercial, business, industry-specific, civil society — and, of course, the physical communities and regions like SADC and BRICS that we operate in.”
Each of these communities, in turn, operates at various national, continental and global levels. “At SBL we believe these communities must inform our research, but must also be informed and transformed by our research, and this must all speak to the teaching and learning that takes place in our programmes,” he said. “This is how we ensure engaged scholarship with maximum impact.”
Can we do better? Always!
This type of research, although business-orientated, speaks to various industries and disciplines and can incorporate fields of engineering, medicine, economics, technology, marketing and communications, humanities, law, education, human resources, development and more. Regardless of the field or industry, however, research should answer one vital question: Is this the best we can do?
The answer, he says, is usually no: “Years ago, I did not wear glasses, but we had big green screens in those days with a terrible glare, and it damaged my eyes. The first computers and laptops would overheat and melt their plastic coverings, so we added chemicals to help cool them down. But over time and through research, we found that these were poisonous. Today, our screens are different and our technology is safer because somebody asked if we could do better. And the answer was yes.”
This disrupts the status quo and allows liberalisation of the sector and of the economy, promoting free trade, further innovation, increased efficiency and more opportunities for all.
Mlitwa believes the African Continental Free Trade Agreement that kicked in at the beginning of 2021 is one of the most exciting things to happen to the African research and innovation space because its success necessitates change: “How are we going to realise this united African market if we don’t have electricity, if we don’t have technology, if we don’t have data — or if we cannot afford to access them? We are in a space where there is tremendous potential for innovation and development in areas like information and communication technologies (ICT) as we expand connectivity and infrastructure for the continent.”
It’s these ideas that drive the SBL, and it is research that drives these ideas: “The underlying premise is that of transformation, not in a political sense but in the sense of tapping into the potential and opportunities around us as we navigate these new frontiers to change — for ourselves, our organisations, our communities and our continent. We’re asking people to believe that together we can shape the world and change the future, and invite them to join hands and partner with the SBL as we lead the way into tomorrow.”
Articles written by Jamaine Krige