From student protests against Apartheid to business triumphs, university chancellorships and avocado farming – the fascinating journey of Dr Reuel Khoza

Dr Reuel Khoza

Take a little walk to your fridge or your fruit bowl. Take a look to see if there is an avocado inside (you will know before you look). If you are in the UK, and the label says ‘produce of South Africa’, then there is a good chance it will have come through the packing house of Dr Reuel Khoza.

Reuel (MA Marketing Management, 1979) has many strings to his bow, both entrepreneurial and creative. The new Chancellor of the University of Kwa-Zulu Natal; the co-owner and operator of seven lodges and a boutique hotel with his wife Mumsy and their daughters; a current and past chairman of illustrious national and multi-national companies based in South Africa; Fellow and President of the Institute of Directors in Southern Africa; Visiting Professor at Rhodes Business School, University of Free State Business School and Wits Business School; the author of six books; and a classical and choral music lyricist and executive producer of more than 150 songs composed by S J Khosa, a music prodigy with more than 800 compositions to his name.

Scholastically, Reuel completed an EngD in Business Engineering with a focus on leadership at Warwick University, and has been honoured with LLD Honoris Causa by both Warwick and Rhodes Universities as well as a D Econ by University of Free State.

If that were not enough for a man who declares with a smile that he would ‘like to be fully utilised by the time I make my transition to eternity’, then there are avocados.

On top of his numerous other enterprises, Reuel is a gentleman farmer par excellence, and his pack house packs and exports avocados from his own farm as well as for neighbouring growers – the venture is the second largest exporter of the fruit from South Africa to Europe. On a visit to Scotland for his daughter’s graduation at Stirling University, he discovered just how far his produce travels.

There is a sense of pride as Reuel says: “We checked into our hotel, unpacked and settled in, and then we took a stroll down the street – lo and behold, they were selling avocados from my farm in South Africa!”

It has been a long journey for a young boy who balanced his primary school studies with looking after his grandfather’s cattle while growing up in the Bushbuckridge area of what is now Mpumalanga province. The path from there to Lancaster was not a straightforward one.

After completing his Undergraduate studies (BA and BA Honours in Psychology) at the University of the North, now the University of Limpopo, Reuel wanted to take up a scholarship opportunity in America. However, he was active in student politics, and the oppressive environment in Apartheid South Africa meant the government refused him a passport – ‘let alone a visa,’ he recalls. Reuel also lost his teaching job at the University, and went to work for the next four years as a brand manager with Unilever.

“The authorities of the time did not take kindly to my questioning the manner in which they chose to treat other human beings. I was turfed out, but I have no regrets about being fired – that was a blessing in disguise, as it led me to where I am today” Reuel adds.

“The Royal Dutch Shell scholarship people came and told me about their scholarship and asked if I wanted to apply to go to Lancaster. I applied and it was incumbent on them to fight the government for me to come to the UK. I felt very fortunate that they did that for me.”

Reuel Khoza during his time as a student at Lancaster University

Reuel arrived in Lancaster in 1978 for an experience that was to change the path of his life and career. It was a totally new learning environment from South Africa – ‘You were treated as a fully-fledged human-being, not just a student.’ – and a different climate as well – ‘When the sun came out, everybody rejoiced!’.

“It was an eye-opener for me,” says Reuel, who benefited greatly from learning under Head of Marketing Peter Spillard, who spent time with students as individuals in formal and informal settings.

“The exposure broadens your horizons in more ways than one: the overseas exposure; the exposure to a different kind of education; being in a different country and imbibing a different culture.

“It was a singularly great opportunity for me. It imbues you with a measure of confidence that you would not have had if you had continued studying at home.”

Upon his return home, Reuel’s Lancaster experience put him in a strong position for career success, though the political situation in South Africa meant his race would still count against him.

“You have to make sure that you don’t come across as brash because you have been studying in England,” he says. “You have to show confidence and that you are a person who can make a difference, without unduly ruffling feathers.

“I was the first South African – Black or white – to have a Masters degree in Marketing or Marketing Management. I came back better equipped, and Royal Dutch Shell insisted that I worked for them, which I did by way of saying thank you. Two-and-a-half years later, I decided to go entrepreneurial (March 1982), and I have never looked back.”

Reuel Khoza (back, far right) with staff and students during his time at Lancaster University

For 16 years, Reuel ran a management consultancy firm, and his abilities saw him serve on the boards of companies such as IBM, Standard Bank Group and Liberty Life Group – ‘because of, among other things, what Lancaster had imbued in me with regards to marketing, of being able to articulate that which you want to put across, and having the confidence to actually have a point-of-view’ – and ‘word got around that there was this young man who could be a net contributor to any board’.

Since leaving consultancy behind, Reuel has played major roles at many corporations and is currently chairman of Assupol Holdings Ltd, Discovery Bank, and past chairman of the Public Investment Corporation Ltd, Nedbank Group Limited, GlaxoSmithKline and Eskom Holdings Ltd, among others.

He has also recently been appointed Chancellor of the University of Kwa-Zulu Natal, following previous spells in the same role at the Universities of Limpopo and Medunsa. He hopes to inspire students and stand as an exemplar through his own actions and career.

It is a career that took a significant turn during his 12 months in Lancaster – to where he returned with three generations of family for his daughter Munene’s graduation with an MA in Language and Linguistics in 2014 – a place which holds a special place in his heart.

With a final smile, he says: “I take great pride in having spent at least a little time at Lancaster, and I really used that exposure as a fulcrum for furthering my career.”

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