Dudu Mkhwanazi

JOHANNESBURG - Few people know what they want to do with their lives at an early age. And even fewer go on to pursue their dreams relentlessly. One of the rare to do so is Duduzile Mkhwanazi, who decided that she wanted to lead a new literacy revolution when she was only 5-years old.

Mkhwanazi, the chief executive of Project Isizwe says her mission is to change people’s lives and empower those who are outside the access mainstream. 

Project Isizwe is a non-profit organisation (NPO) behind Africa’s most successful, large-scale Free WiFi network. Its mission fits in well with Mkhwanazi's own stated commitment towards making access to WiFi to be free for as many people as possible.

“Project Isizwe is lobbying for ubiquitous, government subsidised internet access within a walking distance of every South African,” Mkhwanazi says.

“Internet access is a tool to empower those in low socioeconomic ranks. When the government heeds the call to make internet access a basic human right akin to water and electricity in South Africa, it will be more than a progressive pioneering policy, it will be a selfless act to bridge digital, economic and social divides.”

Also read: Internet access should be a basic human right

Mkhwanazi, who was born and raised in Katlehong, in Johannesburg’s south east, says she saw the need for empowerment at an early age when her peers struggled with literacy while she could read.

She says her parents made sure that there were always enough books for their children, buying them books that stretched from storytelling to astronomy.

“My grandmother has fond memories of me learning hard to read from an early age, she swears that I used to wait for the news to plays and read the headlines on the weather, from the young age I always love reading.”.

This inculcated a culture of reading in the 26-year, tuning her into what she calls an activist for Free WiFi. “I believe in being part of an organisation that not only sets out to change people’s lives but also rewrites the history as far as empowerment is concerned.”

Being an activist is what Mkhwanazi knows well. During her days at the Northwest University, she had to juggle her role as a student activist and a part-time position as a research assistant.

She also calls herself an academic at heart because she spends lot of her time studying - a belief that is not misplaced given that she already holds a Masters Degree in Public Policy Analysis from University Montpellier, France, and still wants to accomplish her PHD before studying towards an MBA.

Mkhwanazi says is deeply committed to enabling social justice and empowering South Africans through free access to the internet.

"While the middle class are fighting for #datamustfall, what about low-income communities,” she says. “We believe internet access is important to all."

She says while her job as a chief executive is busy, she loves the idea of offering a service to South Africans who would otherwise be condemned to illiteracy. 

She admits that funding is one of the biggest hurdles for Project Isizwe but charges that in the next coming years, she would like to advance the struggle for free WiFi to all the corners of the continent.

“It doesn’t feel like work, its feel more like service. We need to try and get people access to this digital device”.

But one challenge that she is still batting to master is to balance her professional life with her responsibilities as a young mother - she has a 17 month daughter - and a wife to be.

When things get hectic, she takes time to go to the Market Theatre with her fiancé.

“It is exciting to be a South African. Our challenge is to make sure that we get young women into the tech work.”