SA's first black town planner, Dr Lulu Gwagwa, shares her five secrets to ‘having it all’
Dr Lulu Gwagwa, a trailblazer who became South Africa’s first black town planner in the 1980s and went on to fill roles at the highest levels of the public sector and in business.
Dr Gwanga is a published academic and committed philanthropist, CEO of Lereko Investments, Chair of Aurecon Africa and sits on the boards of Massmart, FirstRand and Sun International.
Although responsible for many roles in her dynamic career, Dr Gwagwa still finds time to study philosophy, pursue a passion for mentoring and a creative interest in photography while balancing this with being a loving mother and wife. Her story is one of struggle, determination to succeed, triumph and self-actualisation.
The life journey of Dr Gwanga offers lessons on how to be a successful, multi-dimensional woman, despite all odds.
1. Accept the inherent tensions of being a woman in business
In her early career, Dr Gwagwa faced the many challenges of being a young, black woman in a field dominated by older white men. As South Africa moved through an intense period of transformation and Dr Gwagwa moved into senior positions in government and business, it was her role as a mother that became the most challenging.
“The tension of being a woman in the corporate world is very real and it became particularly difficult for me mid-career when I had to balance being a mother with my role as CEO of the Independent Development Trust (IDT),” she said.
Any woman experiencing this duality can underestimate how difficult it can be: “On the one hand you might have a sick child to look after, and on the other, you are seeking to be a successful CEO and all that comes with that, so “having it all” does not always feel like a victory.
2. Embrace serendipity and be open to opportunity
Dr Gwagwa grew up dreaming of being a doctor, but when her grade 11 class was left without a maths teacher, her father convinced her to switch to geography. It’s a decision that changed her life.
Studying geography at the University of Fort Hare, Gwagwa expected to become a teacher. Yet fate had other plans. The University of Natal recruited for their town planning programme and she was singled out. “I didn’t even know what town planning was. I had no idea what I’d be studying when I started my first day there,” she said.
Circumstances mean we don’t always have the opportunity to plan our careers as we have in mind, but Dr Gwagwa embraced the opportunity that presented itself and ended up excelling at the highest levels of her profession.
3. Build allies, even in hostile environments
In 1995, Dr Gwagwa became Deputy Director General (DDG) of the Department of Public Works – a space historically reserved for white men over fifty. “I remember my very first meeting in that department. Everyone was sitting around casually drinking tea and chatting, clearly not realising that the DDG had already arrived. You could see the confusion when it dawned on them it was me; this disbelief at what was happening.” she recalled.
“As a woman in that situation, you almost feel as though you have to be aggressive to be taken seriously. People don’t understand why women in senior roles behave that way sometimes.” Yet, despite the initial hostility, Dr Gwagwa was able to win the respect of her team. “That’s probably an advantage of being a woman – you can always find ways to build relationships. You need allies whether you like it or not; you can’t just go in with a sledgehammer.”
4. Have integrity and be consistently excellent
Integrity has been a cornerstone of Dr Gwagwa’s professional life: “My father used to say to us, ‘I won’t always be around, but whatever you’re doing, ask yourself – if I showed up, would you want to run away.” In that small world, she’s built a reputation for excellence. “Nothing beats being excellent in what you do, but excellence only comes with hard work. And you have to be consistently excellent. People must know and trust what they are going to get from me as Lulu.”
Dr Gwagwa’s attitude shows why she has been able to perform to such high standards, over such a long time. She has never coasted on previous successes; each new position has been an opportunity to prove her worth once again. “I cannot over-emphasise the importance of integrity because integrity brings sustainability. I have seen many people leave a business under a cloud, not realising that South Africa is a small place.”
5. Nurture your passions and find purpose
Having it all means different things to different people. Therefore, it’s vital to define what success looks like for you to make sure you are being true to who you really are. Perhaps the greatest secret to Dr Gwagwa’s career success, has been her ability to explore all facets of her creative and intellectual self, finding meaning as a mentor and coach for black women.
“Exposure is everything for young people. There are so many who could become so much more but for a lack of information and opportunity.”
“If you go to the village where I grew up, you’ll hear people talking about being doctors, teachers and nurses because that’s what they’ve seen in their community. How can you aspire to a career in aeronautics if you’ve never heard of it? You only do what you think is possible,” she said.
Both in her philanthropy and in her business career, Gwagwa has worked consistently hard and with the passion to live by the words of Maya Angelou: ‘When you learn, teach. When you get, give.”
* Hear more from Dr Lulu Gwagwa on Thursday, 5 March, at ‘An Evening with Dr Lulu Gwagwa’ hosted by LifeCheq in Cape Town.
** Abu Addae is the CEO of LifeCheq.