Magda Wierzycka: My Journey From Polish Refugee To Business Powerhouse In Africa

Magda Wierzycka, the controversial CEO of Sygnia, gave a fascinating insight into her journey from Polish refugee to polarising public figure, at two packed Heavy Chef sessions held in Johannesburg and Cape Town. Magda is reviled by certain parties in government, resented by many of her peers in the financial services industry and loved by harangued South African citizens who feel helpless in the face of growing corporate corruption and greed.

Wierzycka's consummate oratorial style gripped over 300 people at both venues, and provoked a standing ovation in Cape Town. Whether you love or hate Magda's entrepreneurial chutzpah, you'll be amazed by Magda's bravery in the face of adversity, and repulsed by the behind-the-scenes shenanigans of African high-level leadership. 

Johannesburg Session: 45 minutes

Magda's arrival into Africa from a crisis-torn Poland, learning to speak English, acquiring her Actuarial Science degree, the maverick leadership at Alexander Forbes, joining Coronation, her friendship with Mzi Khumalo, selling African Harvest, sexual harassment in corporate South Africa, wrangling with the Cadiz crew, starting Sygnia. 

Magda's Johannesburg talk was held at Primedia Broadcasting in Sandton. 

Cape Town Session: 1 hr 20 minutes

Includes insights into the political furores, KPMG, SASSA/Net1 and Allan Gray. 

Magda's Cape Town talk was held at Workshop 17, at the V&A Waterfront. 

Magda spoke about how she arrived in South Africa from Poland at age 13. Before arriving, she spent a year in a refugee camp in Austria. Both Magda’s parents were medical doctors. Magda’s parents were refugees from the communist regime in Poland which was collapsing economically due to political sanctions. She spent primary school in Poland, and then high school at Pretoria High School for Girls. Magda had to learn English and Afrikaans as she did not speak either. Magda then studied actuarial science at UCT as it was the only degree that offered a full bursary. She began her career in 1993 as a product development and investment actuary at Southern Life. 



This was followed by two years as an investment consultant at Alexander Forbes. In 1997 she joined Coronation as a director and Head of Institutional Business. She left in 2003 to assume the position of Chief Executive Officer of the African Harvest Group, where she joined good friend Mzi Khumalo. After negotiating the sales of African Harvest Fund Managers to Cadiz in 2006, Magda led the management acquisition of the remainder of the group, which resulted in the formation of Sygnia, a specialist fin-tech company based in South Africa. 

She grew its assets from R2 billion to R162 billion in ten years, leading Sygnia to become the second largest multi-management company on South Africa. Sygnia listed on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange on 14 October 2015 (the share offer was 20x oversubscribed). Magda has headed Sygnia as its Chief Executive Officer since 2006. In addition to her corporate responsibilities, Magda has served a council member of the Actuarial Society of South Africa. Magda is also currently is a board member of the Advisory Board of the Centre for Africa at Harvard University in the US. Magda is currently the top female on the Sunday Times rich-list and is a symbol for women in business everywhere.

During her Cape Town talk, she touched on taking on the South African government, Guptaleaks, Guptabots, KPMG and how she is going to keep on fighting for her adopted country, South Africa.