50 Faces - 50 Years of WBS
50 Years of Memories at Wits Business School
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This page is a celebration of five decades of Wits Business School alumni in all their diversity. From an acclaimed novelist to a medical doctor, an investment banker to a social entrepreneur, we asked 50 WBS alumni about a defining moment in their careers.
What follows is a snapshot of the more than 10 000 alumni of WBS – 50 faces who symbolise the rich tapestry of human endeavour and triumph that mirrors WBS’s own 50 year history.
Letters of Introduction

Fifty years ago, the University of the Witwatersrand established the Wits Business School with the intention of becoming a leading African higher education institution for business administration. Since then, the business school has gone on to produce some of Africa’s greatest business leaders. It now has over 10 000 alumni around the world. Many of our leading lights have also gone on to be leaders of business schools throughout South Africa and the world. To commemorate its 50th birthday, we have chosen to feature 50 alumni from all walks of life who have studied at Wits Business School and who are doing extraordinary things in their careers. This is but a small offering of business school alumni but shows the rich diversity of leadership the business school has produced since it was established. Over the years, we have worked hard to ensure that the business school remains relevant to our country’s changing business environment as well as investigating how business works around the rest of Africa.

This means engaging with the local business community and providing a platform for dialogue and debate on the socioeconomic issues faced by emerging economies. We also pioneered African business case studies to better understand successes and challenges in doing business on the continent. Our current focus is on teaching and research excellence, and we lead the way in several areas of research, including digital business, energy leadership and African philanthropy. The business school’s 50th birthday has been a time not only to reflect on our heritage and past successes, but to look forward to a new and exciting future, preparing the business leaders of tomorrow to effectively manage the continent’s economic transformation. This role has become especially critical as we confront the complexity and uncertainty of the transformations that are being brought on by the digital economy. We need to manage these changes in a way that facilitates the goal of our constitution for an inclusive developmental future for all of our people. This is the next leg on our journey as we consolidate our position as a leading African business school.

 

Professor Adam Habib
Vice-Chancellor, University of the Witwatersrand

One measure of the success of a university is the career achievements of its alumni. On this measure, Wits Business School (WBS) can be enormously proud. The calibre and number of business leaders and entrepreneurs it has produced over its five decades is extraordinary. The global footprint of these alumni is indicative of a world-class education. Wits University was ranked 54th in the world on the Times Higher Education’s 2017 Alma Mater Index, based on the number of Global Fortune 500 companies that are led by Wits graduates. In 2017, Wits was ranked 36th in the world by the Center for World University Rankings for alumni employability based on the number of alumni Chief Executive Officers (CEOs).

While not all graduates are, or should be, CEOs, I can say with confidence that WBS graduates are national assets who make an enormous contribution to society. They are pioneers and innovators, independent thinkers and problem-solvers, often with an entrepreneurial spirit and resilient nature. The list of ‘Witsies’ contributing to business, industry and civil society in South Africa and across the globe is a long and enviable one. We are extremely proud to be able to celebrate the success and achievements of some of the WBS alumni. While this book profiles only 50 exceptional alumni, they are a reflection of the accomplishments of five decades of WBS graduates. We look forward to celebrating the achievements of future generations of WBS graduates!

 

Peter Maher
Director, Alumni Relations, University of the Witwatersrand

It was my pleasure and privilege to have joined the Wits Business School during this auspicious year in the school’s history. A milestone in any organisation gives cause not only for celebration but for retrospection, to take pride in past achievements and consider how far we have come. Indeed, it has been interesting to pore over archival pictures of the school in the 60s and 70s, grainy black and white images of Jacaranda Quad and students in class sporting sideburns along with suits and ties. What a contrast between then and now: from 14 all white, all male students embarking on their MBA in 1970, for instance, to the over 1 000 students from all walks of life who are registered with WBS at any one time today. This is testimony to the wonderful, increasingly rich diversity of the many thousands of people who have graduated from WBS over the years. But one must never rest on one’s laurels or get too caught up in nostalgia. This is also our chance to consider the next step on our journey and to ask ourselves: ‘what is our role as a tertiary education institution in an emerging African economy in the 2020s and beyond’?

How do we ensure we are meeting the needs of the next generation of leaders in Africa in line with exciting developments in digitisation and the evolving world of work? How do we play our part in developing leaders who think beyond the narrow confines of profit – ethical, environmentally aware individuals who want develop themselves and their careers in order to make an impact on the macro environment, to socio-economic development, job creation and a more equitable society? Added to this is the fact that we are living in an increasingly integrated world where disciplines such as business, engineering, health, social development and digitisation (among many others) necessarily collide. It is for this reason that WBS aspires to take the lead in interdisciplinary research and development. In short, Wits Business School is on the brink of an exciting future. We have all the ingredients for success: highly qualified faculty from all over the continent, a strong focus on research and forward-thinking, passionate people – people such as these 50 amazing ‘game changers’ who represent the quality and diversity of our graduates over the years.

 

Dr Sibusiso Sibisi
Director and Head of School, Wits Business School

Professor Leonard Harold Samuels

P rofessor Samuels’ initial efforts indicate that he also envisioned for WBS an extensive spread of academic and executive education programmes, where again his dreams have been realised. From the Master of Business Administration (MBA) degree to the International Executive Development Programme (IEDP); from a wide array of specialist Master of Management degrees to an even wider choice of skills development short courses; from an elevated doctoral programme to a popular foundational course for new managers, there has been no shortage of business study options for WBS students.

 

Professor Samuels’ vision surely also incorporated a growing number of faculty members at the school. Again, there has never been a shortage of highly qualified academics on campus, both local and international, who, along with business leaders, consultants and numerous other practitioners, enjoy taking centre stage in one of the school’s classrooms or lecture theatres. Professor Samuels would undoubtedly be proud of the fact that the school now employs more PhD graduates as lecturers and researchers than any other competitive business school in Africa.

Shortly after the purchase in 1964 and subsequent renovation of the gracious Parktown property, Outeniqua House, Professor Samuels set about constructing modern lecture theatres (modelled on the Harvard ‘horse-shoe’ style) and a two-storey library and administration block.

 

He clearly foresaw the need for the small army of administrative and support staff required to manage the school’s growing student numbers: librarians, programme directors and managers, faculty office staff , cleaners, caterers, clerical staff , higher education professionals, information technology staff , marketing officers, finance officers, business developers, to name just a few.

 

One suspects the well-travelled and open-minded Professor Samuels would have predicted a private-public symbiosis in organisational life, and the synergies this created for management educators. But it is doubtful that his vision would have extended to the early 1990s addition to the WBS campus of an entirely new school aimed at management education in the public sector, now called the Wits School of Governance. The two schools now sit side by side, sharing a library and auditorium, among other facilities. Prof Samuels would no doubt take pride in the regular public debates and panel discussions that take place in the famous Donald Gordon Auditorium, which have positioned WBS as a thought leader in public discourse.

It is probable that the forward-looking and smart Professor Samuels also factored into his plans South Africa’s eventual transformation from the racial tyranny of apartheid to a vibrant democracy, and that the school’s profile would in time transform colourfully.

 

The minority cohort of elite white management students has in time been numerically eclipsed by a majority of black management students. After all, Professor Samuels had the foresight to admit the first person of colour on WBS’s inaugural MBA, Mr Ebrahim Kharsany, who would go on to become a notable activist and help blaze a trail for thousands of other black South African management students, and to whom we shall shortly return.

 

Beyond his ambitious resolve, what else do we know about Professor Samuels? He was born in Benoni in 1916, and graduated in 1937 with a Bachelor of Commerce from the University of the Witwatersrand. His brilliance was quickly evident and recognised, being awarded the Alex Aiken Gold Medal for the most distinguished graduate of his year.

 

He then served in the Union of South Africa Defence Forces from 1939 to 1945, being an advisor to the South African government on economic affairs during the Second World War. In 1945 he was released from service at the request of Field-Marshal Jan Smuts to act as economist to the Distribution Costs Commission of South Africa.

WBS Historical Photo 2
WBS Historic Lecture

Samuels was subsequently appointed Senior Lecturer, and later Professor in the Department of Economics and Economic History at Wits University. During this time he served as a guest lecturer at Harvard University and an advisor to De Beers and Anglo American Corporation. In the mid-1960s, Samuels made the establishment of a business school his career mission, aiming to create a world class business facility for Wits and for South Africa.

 

It was ‘mission accomplished’ in 1968 when WBS opened its doors for the first intake of students for an ‘Executive Development Programme for Senior Managers’ in partnership with Stanford University. Professor Samuels’ penchant for smoking Cuban cigars unfortunately contributed to his untimely death in 1971, at the age of 55, disallowing him the opportunity of witnessing the school’s first graduates and the fruits of his labour, including the other hero in this story, Mr Ebrahim Kharsany.

 

An ambitious young graduate, Kharsany noticed a newspaper advert for WBS’s first MBA programme in 1970, and thought, ‘Let me try.’ Much to his surprise, he was accepted, received the apartheid government’s permission to study at Wits, and sold life insurance to assist in paying his fees. Kharsany remembers using two buses to get from Pageview to Parktown, with five seats at the back of the top floor of the double-decker reserved for Indians. The programme started with him and another 27 students, but pressures of full-time work saw the class size reduced to 14 by the second year, the same number who graduated. Visiting academics from Harvard, Stanford, Manchester and other overseas universities constituted the majority of faculty on the programme.

Ebrahim Kharsany was the only student of colour, and only Muslim, on the course, the other students being Christian and Jewish. All were men. It was a clash of cultures, with Ebrahim, whom his classmates called ‘Mickey,’ coming from an impoverished environment whereas all the other students were relatively well off. Though relations between the students were cordial, heated political debates characterised the class sessions. Ribald jokes were told about Egyptian President Nasser Hussein and Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir, though in good cheer. Later in life, Brian Bloom, one of Ebrahim’s fellow classmates, remembered that “The only guy who was deeply conscious of the political situation was Mickey Kharsany. We pulled his chain a lot and he took it well. He also taught me some valuable lessons. I remember some of his arguments and looking back he added a lot of value to my thinking in later life.”

 

On occasional site visits to companies, Ebrahim was asked to dine separately from the other students, whereupon the entire class declined lunch in support of their classmate. He was making history. Upon graduation, a colour photograph of Ebrahim was published on the front page of the Rand Daily Mail. We are honoured to include Mr Kharsany in the ‘fifty faces’ that follow.

 

In many ways the stories of Professor Samuels and Mr Kharsany symbolise this country’s history of transformation, but they are but two members of a rich and eclectic cast of characters, both teachers and learners, in the story of WBS. What follows is a sample of the many thousands of WBS graduates from all walks of life who continue to make a positive impact on the business and social landscape in South Africa and around the world.

E Kharsany - MBA Class Photo 1970
MBA Class 1970-71

E.E. Kharsany pictured top row, second from the left.

Acknowledgements

Writing, research and project management: Peter Christie
Design: Hothouse South Africa
Thanks to Professor Adam Habib, Dr Sibusiso Sibisi, Peter Maher, Lebo Lethunya, Rutendo Nxumalo, Peter Bezuidenhout, Jane Balnaves and Alison Gaylard for their input.
Special thanks to Barry Bloch, nephew of the late Professor Leonard Samuels and to Ebrahim Kharsany for their inputs.
Thanks also to Debbie Yazbek for contributing to the photography, and to Elizabeth Marima at Wits Archives for her willing assistance.
And finally, thank you to each of the 50 wonderful alumni profiled in this book for generously giving their time.