To Jupiter and back – saluting the achievers who fuel our dreams

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“I didn’t get to Jupiter, but NASA named a small planet after me. It’s called ‘Siyaxuza’,” scientist and entrepreneur Siyabulela Xuza told the audience at the Absa Jewish Achiever Awards breakfast at the Houghton Hotel in Johannesburg on 6 September.
by JULIE LEIBOWITZ | Sep 12, 2019

It was the culmination of an extraordinary journey for this young man from Umtata in the rural Eastern Cape, whose international fame and recognition started with a far-fetched aspiration at the age of 15 to create the rocket fuel needed to go to Jupiter.

“How do you make rocket fuel in Umtata?” Xuza asked. “With chutzpah [cheek], by accepting failure, but having the tenacity to continue.”

Xuza is the founder and managing director of Galactic Energy Ventures, which is making inroads into Africa’s $50 billion (R738 billion) clean energy market. He pioneered the creation of a scalable fuel cell which people use to power their appliances in places where energy is scarce. The company has a factory to make these batteries in Xuza’s hometown in the Eastern Cape, and has created about 3 000 jobs.

But aside from all the fame and fortune – including being compared in a speech by Michelle Obama to her husband, former United States President Barack Obama – Xuza is surprisingly “down to earth”. His message is that great things are possible if the Jewish and African community work together.

“It doesn’t matter where your story begins. The Jewish community is a prime example. It represents the ability to triumph over adversity.” He left the audience with the question: “What’s your Jupiter? How will you help others to achieve it?”

Xuza’s story illustrates the theme of this year’s Absa Jewish Achiever Awards, namely: Rise.

The awards “celebrates what’s possible, and inspires others”, said Howard Sackstein, the chairperson of both the SA Jewish Report and the awards. He emphasised that the occasion wouldn’t exist without its sponsors – particularly Absa – which has partnered the awards for 16 of its 20 years.

Oscar Siziba, Absa’s Managing Executive, Relationship Banking Coverage: Gauteng and Limpopo, said the theme was close to the bank’s heart. “Absa has a global responsibility and many opportunities in Africa. All our businesses in Africa have our full support. We want to continue to be a diverse nation,” he said.

It’s a sponsorship that Absa views more like a “lifetime relationship”, he said.

“The Jewish community has built amazing institutions. It’s the strength of our financial and legal institutions that will allow us to rise. It’s important to acknowledge excellence, and strive for continuous improvement.”

“Human history is defined by ‘us’, and ‘them’,” said Sackstein, referring to the recent xenophobic attacks in Gauteng. From something as basic as our DNA, he said, it’s clear that much more unites than divides us. “We need to rise to ensure hate has no place. Our mission is to expand the definition of ‘us’ and shrink the definition of ‘them’.”

With this in mind, Sackstein called for better leadership in the country. “Now is the time to rise, for voices to be heard, the time to build a better society,” he said.

Jeff Gable, Absa’s chief economist, said that the confidence of the private sector was key to growth in South Africa. In a tough environment with rising debt, unemployment, lower demand, and social tension, investment by business was the only way out of the malaise.

Like Sackstein, he emphasised that a “clear political policy framework” is necessary to bring this about. Nevertheless, he pointed to the progress already made in combatting corruption and “shining light into dark corners”, mentioning leadership changes at the Hawks, National Prosecuting Authority, and the boards of 50 companies, among others.

“We are setting ourselves up for a more positive future. There is the expectation that we will do better in the next three years.”

“If ever we needed possibility, it’s now,” said Benjamin Zander, world-famous conductor, leadership expert, and co-author of the bestselling book The Art of Possibility. Zander was awarded the SAA Voyager Special and Extraordinary Award.

“The art of possibility isn’t the same as positive thinking,” Zander said. It requires rigorous discipline to rise above known circumstances.

Talking about the power of “love, interactivity, and connection” in bringing this about, he said, “I came to South Africa because I don’t believe wealth, fame, and power are valuable destinations for human beings. The only thing that counts is how many shining eyes are around you. I’m 80 years old. This [the awards] is a mid-life achievement for me.”

Sackstein said that the awards supported the continued publication of the SA Jewish Report, which is read by about 55 000 people a week – more than The Star. The 64 finalists are the apex of a process that this year included 600 nominations, 25 judges, more than 40 000 video viewings, and 5 000 public votes.

“You have been singled out for recognition,” he said to the nominees and finalists. “Now is your time to rise.”

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