Robert Ndebele stands next to the Warwick Business School logo outside the School

Master plan: Town planner Robert Ndebele has been able to do a Full-time MBA thanks Chevening Scholarship

The thought of planning cities has always been something that intrigued Robert Ndebele.  

It is a passion that took him from a township in South Africa to a career in town planning, and then, as his horizons expanded, onto an MBA at Warwick Business School.  

“I was very good at technical drawing,” the Full-time MBA student says. “I used to come home from school and sketch things on my own, and I knew it was something that I wanted to explore further.”  

Growing up in the tight geometry of streets that make up the township of Thembisa on the outskirts of Johannesburg, things were never going to be easy.  

“It is a very underprivileged area that grew out of the apartheid years,” Robert says.  

“As a first-generation graduate, my journey to university was fraught with challenges and uncertainty. In 2006, after completing high school I had little knowledge of how to apply for university admission and no mentor to guide me.” 

As a result, he went into menial jobs after high school, and it was only about four years later that he had “a moment of clarity” and realised he needed to get “serious about pursuing higher education”.

However, like most other families in Thembisa, the Ndebeles had no money to send their son to university, and Robert had to set about applying for scholarships. 

After being awarded the Gauteng City Region Academy (GCRA) scholarship, he finally walked into the University of Johannesburg to begin an undergraduate degree in town and regional planning. 

He never looked back. Soon, he was starting his first town and regional planning job, developing master plans, regional plans, and district and neighbourhood plans for urban and rural communities across South Africa through a private company that did a lot of Government work.  

“I will forever be grateful to my university mentor, Dr Aurobindo Ogra, who was very instrumental in me getting my first job through his professional networks,” he says.  

“For almost eight years, I was involved in a lot of varied planning projects across different provinces in South Africa.” 

Ever the draughtsman, though, Robert was soon embarking on his next design, planning out a future for himself that would involve a better understanding of the international business scene.   

Now, just as he had applied for funding sources in order to reach university in the first place, he had to do it all again. 

The Chevening programme, in which fully funded scholarships are offered to outstanding overseas students wanting to study for a Master’s in the UK, seemed an attractive option; and he decided to apply for the scheme in parallel with his university applications.  

One of those applications was to Warwick Business School. At the same time, he noticed that the University of Warwick was one of Chevening’s key partner organisations. This was the tipping point.  

“After seeing this, my mind was pretty set,” says Robert. 

In the autumn of last year, he arrived at the Warwick campus to pursue an MBA.  

The MBA student experience on a university scholarship  

It has been a steep learning curve ever since, the town planner says, and it has come not only from the course but also from the differing perspectives of his fellow international students who hail from so many different corners of the world.  

As far as his academic studies are concerned, he has particularly enjoyed the LeadershipPlus module because it has given him the opportunity to reflect on his own leadership style. 

“If you meet me for the first time, you might think that I’m rather reserved, a little uptight even, but the personality profiling element of this module has taught me that I can reframe my personality traits to become a better leader,” Robert says.  

“I am a bit more comfortable with my reserved, calm manner now, because I know it is coupled with an openness to new ideas.   

“Besides, being calm can be useful in difficult business situations! It is a quality that I intend to employ when I get back home.” 

The Chevening Scholarship's eligibility criteria 

The whole emphasis of the Chevening Scholarship, which is funded by the UK Government's Foreign and Commonwealth Office and open to 140 countries, is to develop the leaders of tomorrow when the scholars return to their own home countries, and Robert would like to move into a more strategic role when he arrives back in South Africa.  

He is currently carrying out research on sustainability, taking different perspectives on the issue as part of the final dissertation he is writing for his MBA.  

In the planning space, this could mean a balancing act between guiding the development of a particular municipality in terms of infrastructure, housing, population and so on, and looking at all the environmental aspects of the project. 

This is set against the backdrop of South Africa as a nation trying to transition into renewable energies, which is an area Robert hopes to become more involved in.  

The Just Energy Transition Implementation Plan (JET IP) will be the policy space that he finds himself in as he returns to help design a more sustainable future for his country.   

“I’m hoping to play quite a significant role back home,” the Chevening scholar says. “As a person from a disadvantaged background, I want to play my part in addressing the challenges that my country faces.”