‘Life’s roadblocks are opportunities’

11 April 2019 | Story Helen Swingler. Photos Brenton Geach. Read time 7 min.
Joyful graduates lift their scrolls in thanks to family, friends, guardians and lecturers at the close of UCT’s first graduation ceremony last night. More than 5 000 students will be capped between now and 18 April.

Life’s roadblocks are not setbacks but crucial learning opportunities, guest speaker Judy Sikuza told Humanities graduands at the first ceremony of the University of Cape Town’s (UCT) bumper 14-strong graduation season in Sarah Baartman Hall last night.

Some 5 124 students will be capped from now until 18 April, with 14 000 people expected on campus. During this time 70 doctoral degrees and 383 master’s degrees will be conferred.

The programme will feature two special highlights on Saturday: the award of an honorary Doctor of Engineering to Professor David Roger Jones Owen, responsible for building the field of computational mechanics from nascence to maturity; and the presentation of the Social Responsiveness Award to the South African Tuberculosis Vaccine Initiative (SATVI), which is located in the UCT Faculty of Health Sciences.

Guest speakers will include Nkazi Sokhulu, co-founder of FNB Life and founder of digital insurer Yalu; Sam Paddock, co-founder of GetSmarter; Mavo Solomon, who gave up a successful engineering career to teach maths and science to rural learners; and Thabo Makgoba, Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town.

New narrative

Speaking at the first of five Faculty of Humanities graduations, Sikuza, deputy executive director of The Mandela Rhodes Foundation, said academic success at school and studies at an Ivy League institution had not prepared her for joblessness.

VC Prof Mamokgethi Phakeng addresses the graduation ceremony
VC Prof Mamokgethi Phakeng addresses the graduation ceremony as DVC for Transformation Prof Loretta Feris (right) looks on.

The first in her family to matriculate and armed with an MA from Columbia University as a Fulbright Scholar, she found herself camping on a friend’s couch months after she had graduated. Application after application was rejected.

A humbling lesson was that she too was not exempt from the hard blows of life, despite all her achievements.


“I knew it was up to me to write a new narrative for my lineage, to honour everything they had sacrificed that gave me the potential to break the intergenerational cycle of poverty.”

“I knew it was up to me to write a new narrative for my lineage, to honour everything they had sacrificed that gave me the potential to break the intergenerational cycle of poverty,” Sikuza said.

Guest speaker Judy Sikuza
Guest speaker at the opening ceremony of UCT’s 14-strong autumn graduation Judy Sikuza encourages graduands to treat roadblocks in their lives as crucial learning opportunities. Sikuza is deputy executive director of The Mandela Rhodes Foundation.

Points of leverage

She credits a combination of her skills, qualifications, stock of life lessons and ability to connect with people for eventually opening a door at one of Johannesburg’s top banks.

“Obviously at the time I felt very, very depressed after graduation. But hard as it was, I learnt to see life and the lessons that these roadblocks bring as instruments that sharpen you...”

In the workplace she realised that delivering top-notch work and effecting change were as much a result of learning about the people and context she was working in as they were an outcome of learning to build trust and credibility. Emotional intelligence was key.

“I needed to channel my emotions constructively and understand the points of leverage in the system where change could be made.”

Yet corporate success left her hungry for something different: social change. Sikuza resigned from her “cushy corporate job” without any idea of what she would do next.

“But I knew that I had to let go of what was no longer serving me to allow the next chapter to emerge.”

Fear nearly hamstrung her.

Adding to her anxiety was a mortgage bond on a house she’d recently bought for her mother and the threat of destitution if she defaulted.


“But I knew that I had to let go of what was no longer serving me to allow the next chapter to emerge.”

“But my desire to make a social impact was bigger than my fear of staying…”

By the time she left, Sikuza had a few consulting projects lined up, ultimately leading her to The Mandela Rhodes Foundation.

There were many special moments at the opening graduation of UCT’s bumper 14-ceremony season. Last night, 10 April, was the turn of humanities graduands in the first of five humanities ceremonies.

Had she not made the move, she said she would have missed out on the enriching experience of developing Africa’s next generation of leaders, travelling the world engaging with and learning from distinguished experts, and deepening her leadership capacities.

“As South African poet Koleka Putuma instructs: ‘You owe your dreams your courage’.”

Choose your partners well

Sikuza also urged the graduands to choose their friends and partners well – “these are the people that really shape you” – and to treasure moments with family and community.

“Make sure you choose friends who inspire you. Keep friends who challenge and stretch you… those who remind you of the dream. Let go of people with negative vibes; they’re going to pull you down.


“Most importantly, please guys, enjoy life, even if it means dancing in the rain with a weave on!”

“Most importantly, please guys, enjoy life, even if it means dancing in the rain with a weave on!”

Above all, they should be their authentic selves, even in the face of their insecurities and flaws. Using the Japanese art process of kintsugi as a metaphor, Sikuza said the technique of mending broken pottery with lacquer mixed with powdered gold, silver or platinum allows the object to become more precious and interesting as the new metals shine through.

“As a philosophy, kintsugi celebrates fragmentation and repairing, and sees beauty in the history of an object. It embraces imperfection.”

VC Prof Mamokgethi caps a Humanities graduate
VC Prof Mamokgethi caps a Humanities graduate. With her on the podium are Prof Ed Rybicki, director of the University Research Committee (URC) Biopharming Research Unit (left) and admissions director Carl Herman.

There were times she held back and didn’t show up because of deep-seated fears and anxieties, she revealed.

“But I realised the more I do the inner work – that I am fundamentally worthy – the more I am able to celebrate the different facets of who I am.”

Sikuza left the graduands with a quote from author Paulo Coelho, saying: “Perhaps the journey isn’t so much about becoming anything. Perhaps it’s about un-becoming everything that isn’t really you, so you can be who you were always meant to be in the first place.”

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Graduation April 2019

The University of Cape Town honoured over 5 000 students during 14 graduation ceremonies that took place from Wednesday, 10 April until Thursday, 18 April 2019. During the 14 ceremonies – attended by about 14 000 people – 70 doctoral degrees and 383 master’s degrees were conferred. An honorary doctorate in engineering was be awarded to Professor David Roger Jones Owen on Saturday, 13 April 2019. Among the speakers at the various ceremonies were Judy Sikuza, deputy executive director of the Mandela Rhodes Foundation; Nkazi Sokhulu, co-founder and CEO of Yalu Financial Services; Sam Paddock, co-founder of GetSmarter and GetWine; UCT engineering alumnus Mavo Solomon; and Anglican Archbishop Thabo Makgoba.




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