There is a debate occurring within the halls and offices of business schools around the world, including South Africa: What is our role in society? How should we be moulding the future captains of industry?
Letsema’s Isaac Shongwe is grappling with this debate in his role as chairman of the Wits Business School advisory council. It is a position he has held for the last five years, after joining the Council in 2007. In that time, Isaac says he has learned much about how universities operate, their imposing bureaucracy and aligning what Wits Business School needs with how the university functions.
“Are business schools producing the right candidates? Business schools are seen to have perpetuated inequality in society because they produce people who have one aim: to make as much money as possible. Therefore, does a business school have a role in society?” Isaac asks. “The answer is yes, but have business schools figured it out?”
He believes the business school model must change, particularly those on the African continent.
“We have gone through a phase where the fastest growing economies in the world are on the African continent. Therefore, does the role of business schools in Africa need to be different? We have tried to position Wits Business School as a place that sculpts business leaders fit for developing the African continent and impacting it. What does that mean?”
For Isaac, it begins and ends with the values and qualities the School imbues in its candidates. For that to happen, African institutions of higher learning must take control of their own narrative, instead of letting foreign media and institutions tell their story for them.
“One of my biggest gripes is who writes the case studies about Africa? We tend to be lazy. Harvard’s Business School is coming out with a case study on Steinhoff. How many business schools are there in South Africa? Who tells whose story? Who comes up with the research?” Isaac asks. “There has been this dysfunction. We could not hold onto a leader at the Wits Business School for more than two, two and a half years.”
Universities are meant to be places built on a contestation of ideas, knowledge and reason, and should have the capabilities to contribute to solutions. This has motivated Isaac to remain on both the business school’s board, and that of the Wits Council, the university’s highest decision-making body, where he serves as deputy chair. In current vice-chancellor Adam Habib, who Isaac describes as a “maverick”, the board has a willing partner who does not shy away from slicing through the university’s red-tape to promote change.
Even though business schools are currently geared around teaching their students to make as much money as possible, Isaac is encouraged by the up-and-coming business school student, whose generation want to do good in society and make a difference through business.
This is the aspiration Isaac has always sought to make real through Letsema.
“Can Letsema be a case study of how business can be? It looks idealistic but have we succeeded from a business point of view or because of our values?” Isaac asks. “We’ve succeeded because of our values and that is what I’ve been trying to influence: changing the narrative to inculcate school graduates with the idea of ‘Business as a catalyst for social change’.”
For Isaac, the most empowering action anyone can take is educating others. Education is one of the pillars Letsema is built on and it is why Isaac is deeply involved in the sector.
“I’d like to see the Letsema family getting more involved because we are a knowledge-based company. We can impart knowledge onto other people. I’m a product of other people’s good generosity and we can all play a role in offering generosity to others. The world is in need of a better society for all, ” Isaac says.