2 - 4 November 2020 | Hosted by the University of the Free State

WSU is encouraging its students to live up to its namesake's ideals of making a difference

Professor Rob Midgley, Vice-Chancellor and Principal of Walter Sisulu University (WSU) in the Eastern Cape, recently implored his students to become entrepreneurial, quoting the anti-apartheid activist after whom the university is named, to support his plea.

He was the first of eight speakers in WSU's video presentation at the Student Entrepreneurship Week (#SEW2020) earlier this month. #SEW2020 is an annual project of the Entrepreneurship Development in Higher Education (EDHE) programme – which represents a partnership between the Department of Higher Education and Training and Universities South Africa, the representative association of South Africa's public universities.

Professor Rob Midgley

Professor Midgley (left) quoted the late Walter Sisulu as having said South Africa's battle could never be won until poverty, unemployment and other social injustices were but a distant memory. So WSU students must not forget they need to make a difference, which is part of the university's vision for 2020-2030. "Our challenge is to use our entrepreneurial skills in a way that will benefit everybody financially and socially. Please be entrepreneurs. Don't wait for others to make a difference in your lives, make a difference, and I ask you, take that seriously," the WSU Vice-Chancellor said.

WSU has 30 000 students spread over four campuses in Mthatha, Ibika-Butterworth, East London, and Komani (formerly Queenstown). "We are firmly located in the area from which our students come," he said. So WSU sees itself as a gateway institution: for its students to complete their programmes, become globally competitive and leave to make an impact in the communities and areas in which they live.

He said the only way they would be able to make a difference, however, was with the skills a 4IR society requires: being agile, flexible and innovative. Existing jobs are becoming obsolete and students have to focus on skills rather than training for specific jobs "because the job that you are trained for might not be in existence in 10 years' time", he said.

This implied that students had to ''make your own waves, surf your own waves", he said, "where you can, create an opportunity for yourself that does not exist elsewhere. And, for me, entrepreneurship is an important skill we need to have".

Everyone is a potential entrepreneur

He said there is a perception that enterpreneurship is for those with business skills, relevant only to commerce and accounting students. "That's a big mistake. Everybody is a potential entrepreneur,'' said Professor Midgley. All fields, including medicine and law, give one skills that provide a competitive advantage, and students have to think not only about their courses, but also about how their studies will provide them with the skills to make a difference to other people's lives.

Another misconception is that entrepreneurship is just about making money. People can use their skills to make a financial difference to themselves, but must not forget about social entrepreneurship, and ''innovative ways of seeking social justice". He, too, has to do his work entrepreneurially, ''so that I can be innovative and transformative in what I'm doing".

Various structures and initiatives at WSU back up Professor Midgley's vision:

  • A Directorate for Research and Innovation: It looks for partners and funding, and develops policies to ensure their researchers not only enjoy their work and get published, but also solve problems. Professor Wilson Akpan, WSU's Senior Director for Research and Innovation, said: "In the 21st century, we need to find solutions that deal with the challenges we face as a society." They needed to move ''from problem-posing to solution finding, and that is what we are investing our resources in";
  • A Centre for Entrepreneurship and Rapid Incubator (CfERI), headed by Manager and Researcher, Dr Thobekani Lose (right). Still being established on the Mbatha Campus with plans to expand to the other campuses, it is a partnership with the Small Enterprise Development Agency (SEDA,) and adopts the general systems theory of its three year incubation programme. Dr Lose said business incubation is new in South Africa but is a proven way to minimise the risk of small businesss failing, and helps create a culture for entrepreneurship.
  • "We are trying to change the student mindset of job seekers into job creators," said Dr Lose. The centre doesn't turn people into entrepreneurs "but it gives you the opportunity; it gives you the necessary skills and the conducive environment so that you can try."

Dr Thobekani Lose
Ms Sibukele Gumbo
  • The National Electronic Media Institute of South Africa (NEMISA) eSkills CoLab serves the province but is based at WSU. Reporting to the Department of Communications and Digital Technologies, its mandate is to do digital skills training, such as basic mobile literacy. Director Sibukele Gumbo (left) said their programmes are relevant to entrepreneurs because they need information and communication technologies (ICT) to market their businesses from wherever they are based. "It doesn't matter what rural community you are in, you then become visible to the world," said Gumbo.
  • NEMISA has recently partnered with the leading international platform for online courses, Coursera, to offer free courses in data science, coding, app development, artificial intelligence, and digital marketing to 50 000 unemployed South African youth. Students, whether fulltime or part-time, qualify for this offer. Register here; and

  • Community Engagement and Internationalisation: Mr Mzolisi Payi, the director responsible for this at WSU, assured students they had the university's support to become entrepreneurs, both in principle and in terms of enabling structures, irrespective of their academic programme.

Campus organisation aims to inspire students to improve the world by being entrepreneurs

Enactus is an international gathering of students, academics and business leaders committed to using entrepreneurial activity to transform lives and shape a better, more sustainable world. Enactus Walter Sisulu has a branch on each campus and its Facebook page is full of the slogan: "We work to develop ourselves while uplifting our communities."

Ms Nomfundo Thathi

WSU student, Ms Nomfundo Thathi (left), who represented Enactus in the university's presentation, outlined their three projects:

  • Project Greenfields - promotes organic farming by equipping agricultural businesses with organic compost, seedlings and mini greenhouses to improve their yield;
  • Groom Youth – to develop youth-owned business and equip them with the skills they need to expand and so help address social problems in their communities; and
  • No Waste – still in research phase, it aims to minimise the waste entering the sea and rivers.

Thathi explained the value of becoming involved with Enactus: "...We network with different student business leaders across the globe. We get bursaries, internships and job opportunities." She said Enactus also offered the opportunity to connect with like-minded students from all disciplines, and offered leadership development.

WSU alumnus is an award-winning entrepreneur

Ms Sandiswa Mgolozeli (right), 26, runs a PR and marketing agency that maintains an international footprint. She is also involved with an interior design company to scope projects and manufacture furniture.

She is a proud WSU alumnus, saying that's where her roots are, having graduated with a BTech in in public relations management in 2018. She was also an intern in the university's marketing, communications and advancement office.

She is proof of Professor Midgley's claim of WSU having produced successful graduates. Mgolozeli won last year's Community Business Empowerment category of the Community Heroes Awards, an initiative of the Ghana-based NGO African Centre for Peace Building and Awake Africa magazine.

Mgolozeli is the 2019-2020 Buffalo City Municipality Female Entrepreneur of the Year.

Dr Thobekani Lose

Amanda Ntisana carries her powerlock tape measure wherever she goes

Ms Amanda Ntisana is a second-year quantity surveying and construction management student at WSU who, when not hard at work at her studies, is a carpenter and cabinetmaker.

She started off her entrepreneurship career by selling chips and sandwiches in offices when she was very young. She then progressed to selling shirts and ties. She said it built her confidence, and taught her how to deal with people, whether they were nice to her or not.

"Entrepreneurship builds you up as a person. Attitude is key," she said. As much as one needs money to start a business, success also hinges on how you behave. "If you have a good attitude, you are bound to become a good entrepreneur," she said. Holding up her large industrial tape measure, she laughed, and said it is always in her handbag in case a client calls. "They might want a nice sliding wardrobe with a mirror!" she said.

She said the journey to entrepreneurship is not easy, but it's not meant to be; you should learn from your mistakes. It has helped her learn about herself, and be less stubborn, and it is these qualities that have led her to being sponsored for a workshop to learn about growing her business to become a fully-fledged manufacturer of wardrobes.

"You have to learn time management because you have to get good grades, and at the same time push your business towards what you want it to become. It's not easy but it's very possible. Look at me. Anything is possible. You just have to carry on. My mom always asks me what keeps me going. My answer is 'I have no other option but to succeed'."

WSU was among the 20 public universities and four technical and vocational education and training (TVET) colleges that took part in the virtual #SEW2020l event, which aims to raise awareness of entrepreneurship as a career.

Written by Gillian Anstey, a freelance writer commissioned by Universities South Africa.

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