“Our country is sliding steadily backwards on virtually all international ratings of effective governance. The future of your own, and every other generation, will mostly be determined by strong and visionary leadership,” said Benjamin Francois van Niekerk, accomplished businessman, former member of Unisa’s Council, and Africa’s top philanthropist. He was addressing Unisa graduates last night after the university conferred on him the degree of Doctor of Business Leadership (honoris causa).
Van Niekerk told students that the way they lead selflessly and lead their small team or division of their company will contribute to South Africa’s leadership culture and a common good.
The example of leadership he shared was that of King Moshoeshoe who established the Basotho nation and was influenced by his tutor, Chief Mohlomi. “Some 200 years ago, King Moshoeshoe practised contra-intuitive leadership. This is about the wisdom and moral fibre to go against the popular expectation in promoting the ultimate good of those you lead. It’s having the courage to go against the tide for the common good of all. It’s understanding that always putting the interest of the collective before your own advantage will always be best for you in the end as well. It is very similar to the leadership example of former President Nelson Mandela,” he explained.
South Africa’s future determined by graduates
Van Niekerk firmly believes that South Africa’s history was shaped by the pronounced diversity of our people, and by the legacy of individual leaders. He also believes that the country’s future will be determined by the leadership choices made by the generation graduating. “Together we must recognise and confront the issues that are relevant in dealing with our own future, and our obligation towards generations to come. The real potential of our land can only be realised through principled leadership.”
With a humbled heart, Van Niekerk said that he is extremely grateful to Unisa for bestowing the honorary degree of Doctor of Business Leadership on him. “Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the renowned theologian and activist against Nazi injustice, said: ‘In life, we hardly realise that we receive more than we give and it is only with gratitude that life becomes rich.’ I have gratitude. Thank you to Prof Makhanya and the Unisa Council for this tribute from my alma mater—albeit that I am today receiving more than I ever gave or deserve. You’ve honoured me with quite a grand affair and a lifetime memory,” he said.
Van Niekerk is an alumnus of the University of Stellenbosch, where he obtained his BA in Economics. He obtained his Master’s in Business Leadership from Unisa’s Graduate School of Business Leadership (SBL), from which he also received the Barker Gold Medal. He also served his alma mater, Unisa, in his capacity as a member of the Unisa Council for a number of years.
Entrepreneur with an expansive vision
He is an accomplished businessman and entrepreneur with an expansive vision. This is demonstrated by the diverse businesses he has founded and their global footprint, which extends to other African countries and the European Union. Some of the companies are listed on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange and the Luxembourg Euro Multilateral Trading Facility.
One of the noteworthy companies co-founded by van Niekerk is the Atterbury Property Group, which has established itself as the leading property developer in South Africa. He served as Chairman of Atterbury Investment Holdings from its inception in 1994 to 2012.
He is not only a successful businessman but he is also a person who gives back generously to society. His vision of philanthropy has been recognised as being ahead of that of his peers. He is acknowledged for his prolonged contribution to the benefit of the entire South African and continental society. His giving is underpinned by his beliefs in the equitable distribution of wealth among all stakeholder groups contributing to the success of businesses, i.e. entrepreneurs, investors, employees, customers, and society. In this spirit, Van Niekerk gave a meaningful shareholding of the Mertech Group to employees, registered an independent community trust, and established the Mergon Foundation.
In recognition of his philanthropic work, Van Niekerk received the South Africa Inyathelo Philanthropy Award in 2010, the Philanthropist of the Year Award for 2013 from the UK-based African Achievers International Organisation, and has been recognised in many press reports such as Forbes magazine, which recently listed him as Africa’s top philanthropist for having contributed $170 million, an amount well above that of his peers.
To read the full commendatio, click here.
*By Kirosha Naicker