Character • Comrade • Leader • Prisoner • Negotiator • Statesman (Apartheid Museum, Johannesburg)
An axiom of leadership studies is that leaders are made, not born. Numerous leadership theories also abound: servant leadership, authentic leadership, transformational leadership, strategic leadership, situational leadership, etc. Practitioners and scholars of leadership will often argue the merits and disadvantages of each ad nauseam.
I traveled to South Africa for two weeks to study, learn and practice culturally responsive and inclusive education. However, the lessons I learned from studying Nelson Mandela’s life and practice of leadership have been invaluable to me as a leadership scholar. While Mandela was born into leadership – he would be groomed to advise tribal royalty as his father before him - he was also very diligent and intentional about every leadership decision he made. He sacrificed much, nearly his life for a just cause: “During my lifetime, I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an idea which I hope to live for and to see realized. But if needs be, it is an idea for which I am prepared to die for.” He uttered these words during the Rivonia trial where he faced execution, instead sentenced to life in prison for treason and sabotage.
While I don’t have the time or space to mete out Mandela against every leadership theory, as I read his autobiography I saw traces of his leadership practice in each. He was in many ways a perfect leader, sacrificing much of his personal life for a cause greater than him.
The last page of my class notebook from South Africa has the following notes:
N.K. Jemison – read
Retire in Kommetjie
(check real estate prices – w/Kelly)
Lebone II – send kids
Back in San Diego, it’s easy for me to think I was romanticizing my experience in South Africa. I do know that this experience has been life-changing and I’m still trying to figure out how and why I am different. I’m trying to remember Dr. Jez’s exact words about a heart breaking so that it can fill in with more love. I am thinking this is how I am different. The history of South Africa is heartbreaking, much like living in America under Trump is. I am in no way comparing the two contexts, but the similarities between the U.S. and S.A. are telling. The counterbalance to the heartbreak that is South Africa is the majestic resilience of its people and its landscape.
At Harambe, there was a mural in the stairwell with the word RESILIENCE and to the side, in the faintest of a pastel blue hue, a smaller phrase was painted: PRESSURE MAKES DIAMONDS. South African land is teeming with diamonds and precious minerals. However, the people of South Africa are its greatest natural resource. Under the pressure of political oppression, historic leaders surfaced. Diamonds, if you will. South Africa is a true melting pot of cultures, identities and languages. As an American, the concept of a melting pot truly resonates with me. The class started with a social reflection essay and now is ending with a reflection on my social location. I identify as Mexican-American and that is the only Latin American culture/nation that is truly distinguishable by their “mestizaje” or the fact that it is a country born of a mixing of Spanish and indigenous blood and cultures.
Ultimately, I felt very much at home in South Africa and this caused a bit of dissonance because it is so different from anything that I know. This is where the transcendence piece fits in - it fills my heart with love that I can travel halfway across the globe and meet people with totally different customs and cultures and feel an instant sense of belonging and connection.
I am extremely thankful to Dr. Jez for opening up her South African world to us. Most specifically, her group of amazing friends. In Johannesburg, we met and had a chance to interact with Niki, Essie and Liemo. In Cape Town, we were introduced to Marcia and met the CPUT students.
Niki and Essie – without hesitation, this beautiful couple opened up their home to this motley crew of University of San Diego students for a traditional South African braai. They prepared a feast of meats, salads, and side dishes. Essie shared her bottles of Ugandan rum that she is only able to procure from her home country and she prepared delicious home cooked pap and baked beans. They also hung out with the group on two other nights. Who does this?
Liemo – instant friend. We also had the good fortune of spending time with Liemo, a South African transplant from Lesotho and Mozambique. Liemo has a wonderful personality and in the first interactions with her, you feel as if you have known her for years. Her openness and kindness again made the concept of Ubuntu completely tangible and concrete.
Mariyeni – instant colleague. We met Mariyeni at Wits and instantly connected as fellow grad students. I saw in Mariyeni a passion for her studies and a desire to connect with other similar minded individuals. She was approachable and kind and I would have loved to have spent more time getting to know her and her scholarly pursuits.
CPUT Students – instant bond. To sum it up: Yesssssss! No further explanation is needed.
Marcia, Marcia, Marcia – instant friends and a sense of openness that you could share anything and not be judged.
While it may seem like a recurring, repetitive theme, it is true. Marcia, like Liemo and the CPUT students were so open and kind and fun that it was very easy to connect and hang out with them. These people and their humanity made my South African experience so much more poignant and worthwhile.
The third day with our CPUT counterparts started with a jam session on campus. As Christian M. and a few other USD students worked diligently on making jewelry, the General played music. We were sitting together, being together. This reminded me of Dr. Jez’s framework for the Changemaker Symposium. She asked us to think about a number of things: How you are changing? How you are working together? While our Changemaker Symposium in Cape Town was canceled, we were again experiencing an internal parallel changemaking process. It was remarkable that in a few days we could be that comfortable with each other, just being, without any expectations and minimal conversations.
I had encountered the term Ubuntu before, mostly from white people in U.S. universities and previous to this trip I honestly thought it was gimmicky and hollow. But on this day and on many days in South Africa I truly felt the strength and fullness of Ubuntu:
Ubuntu (Zulu pronunciation: [ùɓúntʼù]) is a Nguni Bantu term meaning "humanity". It is often translated as "I am because we are," and also "humanity towards others", but is often used in a more philosophical sense to mean "the belief in a universal bond of sharing that connects all humanity".
At Ned Doman High School in Athlone, we were split into two larger groups of eight university students and a larger cohort of grade 12 learners. We played music while the CRSTP forms were being filled out by the learners. Towards the end our session, Thabo led the learners in a few chants: “If you don’t know who you are, then you won’t know what you want!” and “If you want what I have, then you have to do what I do!” In the back of the classroom, a male learner sat ashen-face, hunched and wrapped in a blanket with his cane and hat perched on a nearby desk. This indicated that he had recently come the bush after participating in the Xhosa male circumcision ritual. Having discussed this topic at length with CPUT students, I was unphased.
Our first foray conducting the Culturally Responsive Student Transition Projects (CRSTP) with Grade 12 learners took place at ID Mkhize school in Gugulethu township in the outskirts of Cape Town. We had split up in groups of four. My group consisted of Kelly, Christian and Romeo.
That morning at the university, I had started writing down words and phrases in Xhosa and even practiced them with my CPUT friends. I decided to introduce the CRSTP with a brief greeting in Xhosa. I said my first and last name, asked them how they were “Unjani?” and when I heard them say “wena” (and you?), I quickly replied “ndi shap shap”. As we progressed through the form with the learners, we relied heavily on Romeo to provide a translation into Xhosa so that the learners could better understand what was expected of them.
As the hour dragged by, we realized how hot it was and wondered how the learners could actually do any learning in that climate. We were dismayed to find out that the air conditioning units were stolen in the days before the start of the school year. After our sessions with the learners, we spent a few hours outside in playful conversation with CPUT students. We were engaging in parallel processes of inclusivity and engaging in culturally responsive interactions with each other as we customized the form the previous day, co-led the CRSTP workshops and our bonding sessions afterwards.
“I see you with my heart.” ~ Zulu saying quoted in My Traitor’s Heart
By the time we met our undergrad counterparts from Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT) in Cape Town, we had interacted with primary school students, educators and some locals. We had a sense of the people of South Africa but we had not yet encountered university students with a passion for inclusive education and culturally responsive teaching. We were divided into two groups and asked to create a name for our groups, which resulted in Cape Diego & Cunny Beings. We were then tasked with tailoring the CRSTP form for high school kids in this region.
The CRSTP was quickly renamed to “Ungubani” – a catch all phrase that could potentially eliminate stigma for immigrant learners. With input from CPUT students, we removed the question “What languages do you speak?” and instead asked “How many languages do you speak?” In this manner, speaking multiple languages remained a strength and not a source of shame. This session was also our first introduction to the General’s (Abongile’s) Yessssss exclamation. It was remarkable how quickly all 16 of us bonded. Again, despite the differences of circumstances, culture and continents, we saw each other with our heart and our passion for inclusivity permeated our interactions for the next several days.
Lebone II – College of the Royal Bafokeng was established by the Bafokeng nation, the richest tribe in Africa. Deeds to these platinum-rich lands were held by Lutheran ministers and after the end of apartheid, the Bafoken tribe decided to invest in education. In the spirit of Mandela’s quote: “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world,” the Bafokeng royal family understood the importance of quality education and the school was created to transform, elevate and invest in the community. The school boasted a sprawling campus equipped with state of the art facilities and innovative mission and vision. Again, the possibility of this school given our recent visit to Esikhisini and the challenges we heard first-hand from educators at the Changemaking Symposium filled the group with a sense of displacement.
During the tour we all wondered what students benefitted from this school. We learned that 75% of the students were black. We asked about the leadership of the school and learned that the Headmaster was Colored. We also learned that the board was “quite diverse”. The school still faced some of the same translanguaging challenges faced in other parts of South Africa. The community has students who come from Botswana, Zimbabwe and other neighboring countries. As we toured the school and interacted with faculty and staff, we were able to catch a glimpse of the school’s culture in action. The school counselor demonstrated how takes “misbehaving” learners to a viewpoint and points to the mines and asks them “what are you doing up here to make sure their effort down there (mines) is worthwhile?”
During our safari excursion in Pilanesberg we saw lions, monkeys, hippos, rhinos, impalas, springbok, leopards (or rather the ear twitch of), wildebeests, wart hogs, elephants, giraffes and zebras. And not in that particular order. When I look back at the photos of those two safari drives, what strikes me is the utter joy in our countenances. The landscape was overwhelmingly beautiful and lush, the wild animal sightings were plentiful and varied and the weather was pleasant. We were lucky and grateful. We were also cognizant of the fact that these safari drives were not readily available or attainable to many South African nationals.
Ironically, we stayed at Kedar Heritage Lodge, a place that reveled in its’ colonial past and war regalia. Walking into the lodge was like stepping back into time. The restaurant had views of a mural that depicted 1800’s war scenes between the Brits and Boers. The land the hotel is situated on once belonged to President Paul Kruger. It was precisely this reminder of the colonial era coupled with our sense that black Africans could not easily afford to see these wild animals that was unsettling. Dr. Jez cautioned us about the challenge of a single story. For better or worse, colonial wars between Brits and Boers and African tribes are woven into the tapestry of South African history.
At the commencement of the Changemaker Symposium at the University of Witwatersrand “Wits”, Professor Makalela offered up that we go to the moon, not because it is easy to do so, but rather because it is not easy to do so. This set the stage for the challenges we would be hearing about in our small group sessions. I was in a group with Carlos, Penny (Esikhisini), Makkie (Esikhisini) and Makgabo (Limpopo). Our group meshed well – we breezed through our first session and even planned an intro to our presentation. We would all attempt both traditional Zulu and Mexican dances. We also quickly realized that both cultures manipulated maize through stone and integrated that into our opening skit.
However, when I was confronted with the problems faced by the primary schools at Limpopo and Pretoria, I was instantly engulfed with a sense of insolvability. I was introduced to the term “child-headed households”. I learned that some students only attend school because it is the only meal they receive during the day. I learned about grannie-headed households and the overwhelming lack of parental and community involvement in these already under-resourced schools. My first instinct was to resort to try to raise funds for these schools, however my gut told me to seek out Dr. Jez to recalibrate our solution. We came upon the idea of implementing reading clubs and reading buddies at these schools to improve student learning and motivation. If it is difficult to engage parents, then capturing children’s attention through reading and stories seemed a better approach than throwing US dollars.
With an image of a unicycle, Dr. Makalela likened changemakers to disruptors of ways of knowing and being. Many challenges, barriers and obstacles to inclusive education were presented during the symposium but these were met with new ideas, potential solutions, and funds of knowledge. More than that, having two sets of individuals from different continents and cultures sit together and try to tackle these lightened our collective loads.
Wicked problems are defined by Elizabeth Walton as problems that are “complex, dynamic, multi-faceted and intractable”. (2017, p. 85) Unemployment rates in South Africa are staggering. At Harambe, a non-profit with headquarters in Johannesburg that is dedicated to solving youth unemployment through partnerships, we learned that 63% of South Africans are under the age of 35 and that half of all matriculants are unemployed. We also learned that there is a mismatch between demand and supply. There are vacant jobs yet half of South African youths are unemployed.
Harambe has stepped in to fill a critical need to prepare youth for employment. Lebo Nke, our tour guide, explained that employers often say “Give me the will and I will teach the skill!”. Harambe provides bridging workshops that coaches emerging adults to enter professional settings. We had the good fortune of witnessing Harambe “clients” presenting vision boards and reflecting on their own strengths. Harambe is an example of an innovative, holistic approach to a wicked problem. The statistics of youth unemployment seem intractable. Add in the layers of systemic racism, corruption and oppression and we have a classic wicked problem described by Walton in the text Inclusive Education in African Contexts.
Phasha, N., Mahlo, D., & Dei, G. J. S. (Eds.). (2017). Inclusive Education in African Contexts: A Critical Reader. Springer.