Dr Judy Dlamini’s first degree was in Medicine – now 34 years down the line she walked onto the same UKZN stage to receive an Honorary Doctorate in Economics in recognition of her achievements as one of South Africa’s most successful entrepreneurs.

‘I can’t believe it’s been so long! My honorary doctorate, for which I’m truly grateful, is in a different field because after practicing Medicine for 13 years I ventured out into business. I’ve now been in business longer than I have been a Clinician,’ mused Dlamini.

Being back at UKZN, especially on the Westville campus, was very nostalgic for Dlamini because she was born in the area and grew up during the apartheid era with her mom – a primary school teacher – and her father – an entrepreneur – always emphasising the value of education.

‘As a little girl I walked the streets of Westville to catch a bus to school or to the grocery store. More importantly, I remember going to the then University of Durban-Westville (UDW) with my half-sister, uSis Phumzile. When my sister heard I had applied to Medical School, she advised me to also apply at Durban-Westville to do Physiotherapy,’ said Dlamini.

‘Though she didn’t say it outright, I don’t think she believed I would be accepted at Medical School and wanted me to have a plan B. I went with her out of politeness because that was not my dream. In those days you had to apply for ministerial consent to study at a university that was classified for a race group different to your own.

‘Education is a liberator – the education of one person has the power to change outcomes in a village. Educated people who are successful make success accessible in unlikely neighbourhoods.’

With education as her motivation, Dlamini  – who also holds an MBA and PhD in Business Leadership – continues to chart her own path, which includes various business ventures in fields such as medicine, retail and property, including the Mbekani Group she founded 22 years ago.

Serving on many boards and embodying the spirit of philanthropy through community outreach initiatives, Dlamini is not willing to let the knowledge she has acquired be solely for her benefit and has shared it in her book: Equal But Different: Women Leaders’ Life Stories – Overcoming Race, Gender and Social Class.

The work relates positive stories of contributions made by ordinary African folk to foster a positive mind-set in youngsters.

She has this advice for students who aim to follow in her footsteps: ‘Entrepreneurship is about hard work and taking calculated risks. You prepare a business plan but the market is almost always different to what you have on paper, so it’s important to understand what the market dictates and respond accordingly. Failure is part of the journey, don’t allow it to define you.

‘There’s always an element of luck but you have no control over that. It’s also important to understand that entrepreneurship is not for everyone. I drop some balls along the way. However, I have a very good support system, the people I work with and my family make it possible for me to try a few things and fail at some but persist. My strength is resilience and a good support system.’

Words: Thandiwe Jumo 

Photograph: Rogan Ward