From humble beginnings …

2010-07-29 00:00

REFLECTING on an interview with Willowfountain-born IT entrepreneur Mdu Zakwe, several questions flooded my mind.

How did the son of a domestic worker attract three major international bursary suitors upon completion of his matric year?

How did a young man who faced the temporary closure of his high school due to political violence go on to become a chartered accountant?

And how did a man who lacked a father growing up, reach such dizzy heights in the corporate world, having recently made a major deal with a German company?

The questions reflect the daunting obstacles that Zakwe (33) has had to face throughout his life.

Zakwe was thrust into the limelight following a recent business deal with German-based IT management consultancy Noventum. The deal between the German firm and Zakwe ISAS resulted in the establishment of “Noventum Zakwe Consulting”.

Having achieved a great deal prior to this development, Zakwe reflected on his humble beginnings at Willowfountain Primary School and Mehlokazulu High School in Imbali.

His father was absent throughout his childhood, and over time, Zakwe says he became a “sponge” that soaked up lessons from older people, particularly older men whom he viewed as father figures.

These included older figures at home, such as uncles, as well as people at university and in the workplace.

Although he was surrounded by young people who did not want to study, his [late] disciplinarian grandmother’s influence helped shape the young man who was always tasked with doing the household chores.

A passion for mathematics and problem solving was at the heart of his immense drive to succeed academically.

His mother worked primarily as a domestic worker — and later as a cleaner and in maintenance at the Natal Playhouse in Durban.

Zakwe says that his mother’s honest, heart-wrenching admission that she would not be able to fund his studies served as an even more powerful catalyst for his success.

“She told me: ‘I don’t have money to take you to university. I’m a domestic worker.’ I realised then that the only way for me to make it was with a bursary.”

However, his matric year could not have been more challenging. As political violence in Imbali intensified, the authorites at his high school decided to close the school for a month in order to safeguard the pupils. Fortunately, he received weekend lessons at Pietermaritzburg Girls’ High School — with assistance from the British Council Programme.

With the help of his guidance teacher, Zakwe decided that — given his love for mathematics, finance and accounting — becoming a chartered accountant (CA) would be the best career choice for him.

His hard work during matric paid off and three bursary suitors vied for his attention: Anglo American, Unilever and the British Council. He eventually settled on Unilever.

“With its headquarters in Durban, my mother felt it was the best option as it was the closest to home.”

Zakwe went on to complete a B.Com accounting degree and an honours degree with business information systems (as an additional major) at the University of Natal, which was renamed the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN), before qualifying as a CA a few years later.

An MBA from UKZN’s Graduate School of Business (GSB) focusing on IT and e-commerce followed and Zakwe is now in the process of completing his PhD dissertation, focusing on “virtual identity and the electronic wallet”. His aim is to improve service delivery through the implementation of automated processes through IT that embrace virtual identity management.

His career thus far is littered with successful stints in KZN and Gauteng in a variety of different fields, including working as an equity sales trader.

After serving his articles at KPMG, he completed obligatory service at the fast-moving consumer goods giant Unilever. He then moved to Johannesburg, working for First Rand’s FNB Corporate in Strategic IT Projects.

A stint trading shares, on a shift from 6 am to 6 pm, at a global stock-broking firm followed.

Zakwe then worked for multinational mining giant Anglogold Ashanti, where he was tasked with implementing International Financial Reporting Standards (IFRS) across the globe.

He then became a partner and director at a small-medium sized black-owned audit firm where he headed up the technical accounting and IT audit division, before KPMG recruited him as a partner to head up its IT advisory services in KZN.

Although he has tasted success as a stockbroker and CA, Zakwe’s real passion is IT, and in particular the growth of IT auditors in South Africa.

“There is a shortage of IT auditors in the country. My aim is more than to simply own a business, but to grow the pool of IT auditors and to address IT governance issues. Maturity in IT governance reduces the risk of data being compromised at any time, in government and the private sector. This can mitigate pervasive and fundamental issues around the protection of intellectual property.”

He also finds the time to spend some weekends with young people from Pietermaritzburg and Durban, helping them with entrepreneurial skills.

So the answers to my questions were simple enough.

“Determination was the key. And many people sacrificed for me, including my family and my wife. There are a lot of disturbances in life that can take you away from your focus, so you have to be disciplined. It takes courage and guts sometimes to be different.

“I am also a passionate person by nature,” says Zakwe, who feels both pride and humility when reflecting on his achievements.

He succeeded because of a few good old-fashioned ingredients that so many people nowadays lack: the support of family, friends and others who believed in him, passion, determination and discipline.


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