On a mission to broaden perspectives, build relations, like Madiba did – Judy Sikuza, WEF 2024 Young Global leader

Nelson Mandela embodied a spirit of reconciliation and was intent on broadening perspectives, which led to a peaceful transition in South Africa from apartheid to a democratic state. Judy Sikuza, the CEO of the Mandela Rhodes Foundation, wants to amplify this spirit as one of the World Economic Forum Young Global Leaders. Sikuza is one of three South African leaders selected to drive positive change in the world for the next three years. In an interview with Biznews, Sikuza expressed her desire to use this opportunity to explore how we could collaborate more effectively globally on a variety of issues, including AI and climate change. She also commented on the controversy around the use of Cecil John Rhodes’ name, stating that Mandela saw it as an opportunity to practically express the legacy of reconciliation and reparations, and to redistribute some of the wealth to build the next generation.

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Extended transcript of the interview

Linda van Tilburg (00:04.928)

I’m delighted to have Judy Sikuza, the CEO of the Mandela Rhodes Foundation with us today. She has recently been recognized as a Young Global Leader of the class of 2024 by the World Economic Forum. Hi Judy and welcome to BizNews.

Judy Sikuza (00:23.342)

Hi, Linda, thank you for having me.

Linda van Tilburg (00:25.728)

Well, congratulations on your selection as a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum. So what does it mean to you to be a WEF Young Global Leader?

Judy Sikuza (00:35.662)

Thank you so much. Well, it’s a great honour for me because what the platform is trying to do is bring together young people under the age of 40 who are instrumentally trying to think about how to transform the different sectors. So, all of us are senior executives, 80 of us from around the world and what’s exciting for me about the platform is it allows us as peers to exchange ideas, to talk about lessons learned in leadership.

But I think most importantly, to figure out how we exchange ideas in ways in which we might collaborate more effectively globally. Given the divided society that we have today, platforms like this are incredible in allowing us as young people to build those relationships and be able to find ways to work together and solve problems in a more sort of diverse and multicultural way.

Linda van Tilburg (01:33.92)

So what would the year look like for you? I assume you’ll go to Davos.

Judy Sikuza (01:38.446)

Well, it’s a three-year program, which is exciting. I’ve just recently come back from Geneva where we had our first gathering as the cohort just to allow us to begin to meet and start forming those relationships. I also appreciated how they provided us with an overview of some of the broader geopolitical challenges that we are facing in society today.

Judy Sikuza (02:05.678)

Climate change is a big one, artificial intelligence, what is that going to mean in society, and what kind of leadership skills are then required to really drive change and make sure that with all these different challenges, we are not leaving behind the most marginalised.

Linda van Tilburg (02:22.592)

Your field of specialisation is education. So how would you like to take that forward in this program or enhance what your skills are?

Judy Sikuza (02:32.014)

What inspires me about the Mandela Rhodes Foundation is that Mr. Mandela said to us that, ultimately, education is about the inner transformation of people. How do you give people the skills and the perspectives to really understand society, understand the different realities that exist and understand themselves, build that sense of confidence, and build that sense of purpose to be able to make meaningful change? So, I think for me, I’m excited about the platform because I think it’s going to sharpen those skills and myself as a leader. But also I think it will help me as I try to lead the foundation and the broader work we’re trying to do to say how do we amplify the platforms where people are more educated about the issues that exist. Often people actually aren’t aware of what climate change actually means. What does artificial intelligence actually mean? What are the real geopolitical challenges and how do we as individuals take our responsibility in contributing positively to those issues?

Linda van Tilburg (03:43.36)

Well, of course, the Mandela Rhodes Foundation is really well known. You were a scholar. So, what does it mean to be a scholar of the foundation?

Judy Sikuza (03:55.214)

Yes, exactly 17 years ago I was on the journey and it was very transformative because I was in a room with other young people. We’re on average aged 21 at the time from across the continent. I think it began to open my mind about the African continent at large. I think sadly, as you know, sometimes South Africans are quite narrow-minded about the rest of the continent. So, I like that the program allowed for broadening perspectives and building relationships with peers. I think one of the strengths of our program is that we bring students from different fields and different sectors. So, imagine now you’ve got a scientist, a lawyer, a journalist, and an artist in the room together from different countries and that’s where what we call the Mandela Rhodes magic happens because they’re able to learn about each other’s countries and each other’s fields. That enriches you in your leadership journey.

Linda van Tilburg (04:52.576)

So, the emphasis is across Africa to teach this new generation, not only South Africa.

Judy Sikuza (04:59.63)

Exactly. So we’re currently in 36 African countries and the goal that Madiba had was that we would actually have Mandela Rhodes Scholars from all 55 countries. So that’s a big part of our strategy over the next few years to expand the opportunity to students from across the continent.

Linda van Tilburg (05:18.56)

Given the current social climate in South Africa, some might argue we’re more divided than ever. So, how do we bridge these divisions for a new young generation?

Judy Sikuza (05:30.222)

Yes, that’s a big part of it, it is dialogue, right? Because, if we’re so divided, we’re not spending time with people who are different from us. You sort of go home, you go to your neighbourhood and you spend time with the same people. But I think what the Mandela Rhodes Foundation is trying to do is be that platform that says let’s bring a young person who might come from Khayelitsha or a young person who might come from Bishop’s Court and a young person who might come from Kinshasa and how do they share their experiences and begin to help educate each other about the realities from that place. That’s when you can collaborate and co-create the kind of society that you want to build. So I think, bringing people together, sharing stories, really listening, finding a sense of mutual understanding that builds empathy and over time, you’re able to see society beyond just your world but appreciate the lived realities of many people.

Linda van Tilburg (06:33.536)

There’s also a noticeable trend of talented African students who leave the continent for further studies abroad – how do we encourage that talent to come back and build Africa?

Judy Sikuza (06:44.214)

That is a question that usually comes up for us as Mandela Rhodes scholars. So, some of them, probably about five per cent, do go and study overseas. But what’s good is that people, most of them are coming back because we select young people who are committed to doing work for the African continent. I also say sometimes, I don’t mind if there’s a handful of Mandela Rhodes scholars in these global spaces, because there are also decisions that are being made about Africa on the global platform. I have no problem knowing that there is someone who is a Mandela Rhodes scholar who has ethical leadership, the perspective that Mandela encouraged in those rooms so that when people are making decisions about Africa, we’re also actually challenging the worldviews that people have. So, I think it’s important that a majority of our students are staying on the continent, which is good.

But I also don’t have a problem with the handful that are on these global platforms because they’re making an impact. And I visited two of them when I was in Geneva, one of them working in the UN, one of them working at the World Economic Forum and I was just so inspired to see how these young men have grown to become confident leaders and they’re globally contributing their skills.

Linda van Tilburg (08:07.52)

Well, this question you are probably always asked, the Mandela Rhodes Foundation carries the name of two influential, but such different figures. Why do you keep that name?

Judy Sikuza (08:23.982)

Absolutely and it’s actually one of my favourite questions because it’s the reason that we exist. So, when Mr Mandela was asked by the Rhodes Trust in 2003, it was within a global context where the Rhodes Trust was turning 100 years old and they wanted to return some of the wealth from where it was originally made. When Mr. Mandela thought about this potential partnership, he saw it as an opportunity to bring a practical expression to his legacy of reconciliation and reparations. How do we not only say, let’s come together, but let’s put some figures to this to say, let’s bring back some of this wealth so that we’re able to build the next generation? But, we don’t do it frivolously. We, through our program, actually have a whole module on reconciliation and reparations, and our students get to discuss some of the realities of the past, the colonial history and the implications of those, the inequalities that have been created by that. But we also discuss some of the challenges of post-colonial liberation leaders, which Mandela represents. So, we’re able to use these two figures of Mandela and Rhodes, who symbolise colonial history on the continent and then the post-colonial liberation movements and reflect on the impact of both of these systems and how our young Mandela Rhodes scholars learn from some of the mistakes and make sure that we’re able to work together and use the diversity to take us forward in a positive way.

Linda van Tilburg (10:00.608)

Well, tell us a little bit about who you are. We’ve discussed beforehand that you were young when Nelson Mandela was released. So, who are you? What drives you? I see you’ve climbed Kilimanjaro.

Judy Sikuza (10:13.422)

Yes, I grew up in the Eastern Cape in South Africa, a small town called Butterworth and I think from a young age, I was always quite a curious person. I loved engaging with people, especially people who were different. I’d always asked questions about why you do this. What drives you? So, I ended up doing psychology to my mother’s dismay because economics and accounting were my top subjects and she thought I should have gone into business.

But I don’t know, there was something in me that felt like I wanted to understand how humans operate and then how could I help us operate from our highest selves. So, I think I’m driven by creating a purpose-driven life and that I can help our students also get clear on that purpose because I think when we operate from purpose, we operate from a place of wholeness. You’re able to then know that everything that you do is driven by something that feels bigger than yourself and that it can make a positive contribution. So, yes, I think that’s a little bit of what drives me on a day-to-day basis.

Linda van Tilburg (11:20.8)

We hope you enjoy the three years and thank you so much for speaking to us Judy Sikuza.

Judy Sikuza (11:25.774)

Thank you so much, Linda. I appreciate it.

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