At just 26 years old, Dudu Mkhwanazi is unlike most young women who grew up in post-apartheid South Africa.
However, she’s just recently stepped into a position that sees her shouldering a responsibility currently being navigated by men and women twice her age – being a CEO.
Mkhwanazi is the brand new CEO of non-profit organisation, Project Isizwe, the award-winning non-profit organisation that’s behind the City of Tshwane’s Free TshwiFi service.
So, how does one get to the point where they’re at the helm of one of Africa’s most recognisable free-internet advocacy organisations before the age pf 30? Well, it started with politics, actually.
Mkhwanazi, who grew up in the east of Gauteng, studied Public Administration and Political Science at the North West University.
She then got the opportunity to head to France to do her Masters Degree in Public Plicy and Comparative Politics there, thanks to a scholarship she was awarded by the French Embassy in South Africa.
Upon her return home in 2014, Mkhwanazi began working for the DA’s Gauteng caucus at its provincial office and was promoted as an Operations Manager within the office shortly after last year’s local government elections, whcih saw the party taking over the Cities of Johannesburg and Tshwane.
Mkhwanazi joined Project Isizwe as a Key Accounts Manager and later on a spokesperson, it’s during her time in these positions that she got immersed in the NPO’s strides so far as well as its vision for the future and also got to meet its first CEO, Alan Knott-Craig Jr.
One would wonder how a young women with virtually no experience or qualifications in tech (which is something she’s actively working on changing through a few courses she’s registered for at Wits University) could end up heading such an innovation-driven company.
For Mkhwanazi, being at Project Isizwe and working in politics have one main common goal – and that’s advocacy and serving communities.
“My role at Isizwe has essentially always been advocacy. Isizwe has always been an NPO, it just happens to be in the IT sector and when Alan started Isizwe in 2013, no one was doing what he wanted in ICT. So for me, getting into this position is all about service, over and above just delivering free internet,” she says adding that the support of the Project Isizwe technical team has been of great help so far.
“Isizwe has had to restructure and go back to its original vision and my background is essentially part of this – it’s about people, humanity and reaching out to them. The fact that I’m young shows that I’m eager to learning new things.”
The response to her appointment, she says, has been nothing but warm.
Challenges involved in being at the helm
In the short time that she’s been CEO, Mkhwanazi has been exposed to some of the challenges that come with running an NPO for free internet access.
“Selling our vision to municipalities is not easy. The challenge is in getting government to spend money on programmes like Isizwe because their excuse is usually that it’s just too expensive. So our challenge has been putting our heads together and creating a sustainable long-term financial model, we believe free WiFi should be subsidised by government, just like water and electricity” she says.
Another challenge is in rural areas where there’s barely any sufficient infrastructure, so the connection tends to be a challenge, which is why we also have to look at solutions such as TV white spaces.
Leaving a lasting impact
By the time Mkhwanazi leaves her CEO position, which at this point isn’t measured yet, she hopes to have left a lasting impact on the NPO by furthering its vision to have connected 20 million Africans by 2020.
So far, Project Isizwe has connected 2.1 million unique users in Tshwane since 2013 and is hoping to reach even more people outside of Gauteng with its expansion into Khayelitsha in Cape Town and Nelson Mandela Bay in the Eastern Cape.
“I hope to have Isizwe having a presence in all municipalities in South Africa including rural areas and townships. When I get out of my car somewhere, I want to be able to connect to the internet for free. Being a young black woman froma previosuly disadvantaged background, I have an understanding of what the internet can do to improve people’s lives,” she says.
Mkhwanazi says she believes that all humans are here for a purpose and to serve, regardless of what channels we choose to do so, adding that politics first allowed her to do that and she now has the chance to continue to do so through Project Isizwe.