Scholarship Story

Closing the Circle:

Mandela Rhodes Scholars in the New South Africa

By John Napier Tye

1.  The Tickle of History

In 2005, it had been eleven years since the end of apartheid and the election of Nelson Mandela as the first president of the new Republic of South Africa. The country was entering a crucial period of transition. The struggle against colonialism and apartheid had been won, and a new nation created, but Mandela and the other heroes of his generation were retiring from public life. South African society was only just beginning to create a post-apartheid identity for itself. Neighboring Zimbabwe, where post-colonial joy had been slowly and bitterly extinguished in a new tide of oppression, already served as a tragic warning of the risks of unethical leadership.

It was in this context, almost six years ago, that the first class of Scholars was selected by the Mandela Rhodes Foundation (MRF), a collaboration between Nelson Mandela and the Rhodes Trust. The Scholarships, which are open to Africans of any nationality, fund degrees at South African universities and are the MRF’s flagship effort to cultivate a new generation of ethical leaders for the African continent. Riaan Oppelt, a member of the inaugural class, recalled that first year:

How shall I put this in perspective? In 2005, we felt the slight, weird tickle of history: we were the first Mandela Rhodes Scholars, the first people to hold the legacy of the “union” between Old Cecil and our Madiba [a traditional honorary title for Mandela]. . . . Those who worked hard to establish the Mandela Rhodes Foundation prepared everything for us, but for a year, we needed to take that lead from them and carry it into 2006. We needed to show that we could be good human currency, that we had the potential to keep the vault well-packed. It got emotional.

We were immersed, and drenched, in the values of the MRF, values we already possessed that became magnified and strengthened. It couldn’t be anything but emotional, knowing your life was busy changing in front of your eyes, and somehow you were still stuck in that larger-than-life moment when you shook Madiba’s hand and you saw the room around you shake with it. Greatness touched you, and the schooling you received from the Foundation froze that greatness, made you aware of it, and never let you forget it. . . .

You saw the strangers around you, those who shared the Scholarship with you; you saw them change and you knew it was bizarre that the world could yield such people – such leaders, such people who will change the world, and you were one of them. It couldn’t be anything but emotional. You wanted to shout it out to everyone. If you were anything like me, you did.

Even in their infancy, the Scholarships have arguably become Africa’s most important and prestigious program for leadership development. The program has grown each year since its inception, both in endowment and number of Scholarships. In 2002, the Rhodes Trust pledged GBP £10m (USD $14.8m) to The Mandela Rhodes Foundation, which will be disbursed over a period of 15 years. The MRF has already received more than £6m ($8.9m) of this total, and has succeeded in raising further donations of its own to bring its preserved endowment as of June 2010 to more than SAR170 m ($22.4m).

Beginning with only eight Scholars in 2005, but increasing each year, the MRF has now funded 123 Scholarships in all. In 2010, a cohort of 29 Mandela Rhodes Scholars, spanning an array of national and racial backgrounds, began studying for degrees across the entire range of academic disciplines.  Besides South Africa, MR Scholars have come from Rwanda, Kenya, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Namibia, Congo DRC and several other African countries. MR Scholarships are for a maximum of two years, and Scholars study for either Honours or Master’s degrees. All MR Scholars hold at least an undergraduate degree when they enter the program.

Beyond the Scholarship itself, each Scholar has the option of being paired with a peer-mentor from earlier cohorts of MR Scholars to help plan goals, and all Scholars participates in the MRF’s leadership workshops throughout their first year in residence. For many Scholars, the highlight of the Mandela Rhodes experience is the series of three workshops, focused on the MRF’s core principles of ethical leadership, reconciliation, education and entrepreneurship. Scholars describe these gatherings as intense, thrilling, emotional experiences, where they forge new relationships and challenge one another to truly embody MRF values. They talk of the “Mandela Rhodes magic” that begins during their first introductions, when they explain to one another the role of reconciliation in their own lives.

“The retreats almost force you to bare your soul to a group of people, who become like your family,” says Marea Sing, a 2008 Scholar. “They opened up a safe space for us to share our dreams and the dreams we have for the society we live in. One older Scholar said that now, there was a whole group of people who knew her dreams and would hold her accountable to them, so that she could never forget about the person she wanted to be and the influence she wanted to make.”

Workshops have been held Qunu, the rural area where Nelson Mandela was born, and Robben Island, where he was imprisoned for 27 years. Lawrence Mashimbye, a 2008 Scholar, recalled the event at Qunu. “That was a very symbolic place that inspired my heart and thoughts,” he says. “I could observe Madiba’s humble beginnings, and I learned that one has to stand for his values. I thought about my duty to unite my family, and to help resolve conflicts.”

Meeting other Scholars “changed my life,” says Marea Sing. “I studied economics, but I hated it! I was getting job offers, but they were all in investments – enriching the rich,” she says. “I knew it wouldn’t make me happy in the long run, but I didn’t know what other jobs were out there. When I met the other Scholars, one of them gave me a book on global poverty. I saw for the first time how my quantitative skills could directly benefit others.”

In 2007, Scholars created the Community of Mandela Rhodes Scholars, a permanent organization that allows them to stay connected after their Scholarships end. The Community holds a conference each year in September, which serves as a reunion for MRF alumni.

2. New Narratives

Mandela Rhodes Scholars have already begun to participate in a meaningful way in many aspects South African public life – in film, economic policy, journalism, law, public health, politics, human rights, and academic life. The Scholarships have arrived at an extraordinarily fertile time in the cultural and political life of South Africa– a time when the country is still debating what it is, and what it intends to become.

Mandela Rhodes Scholars are right in the middle of that debate. “As a nation, South Africais going through an identity crisis,” says Kershan Pancham, a 2009 Scholar. Last year, Kershan completed a short film titled “Homecoming” about the tensions inherent in Indian – South African identity after apartheid. Kershan’s film tells the story of a young Indian man who returns home to Durban when he learns that his mother has been diagnosed with a brain tumor. He is confounded by his mother’s rejection of western medical advice in favor of traditional treatments, and struggles with his Indian identity in his relationship with his white girlfriend.

Kershan explains that many families of Indian ancestry arrived in South Africa five or six generations ago, but still feel like outsiders in their own country. “Many Indians served with Mandela on Robben Island, and were part of the struggle,” says Kershan. “Since 1994, when everybody is seen as free and equal, everybody’s asking ‘Who am I now, if I’m not the oppressed or the oppressor?’And now they want a place in South African identity. In some ways it’s actually similar to the American experience.” Kershan’s film won the audience award at a student film festival in Cape Town, was selected for the Durban International Film Festival, and was bought by a South African cable network that will broadcast it nationwide in South Africa sometime in 2010.

Other Scholars seek to further develop the academic narrative of the larger continent from an African perspective. Rachel Nyaradzo Adams, a 2006 Scholar, finished her degree in Social Anthropology at the University of Cape Town in 2006. In 2008, she got her Master’s in African Studies at Oxford, where she studied on a Felix Scholarship. In England, she often found Western academic narratives about Africa incomplete or misguided. “Many of the African students were vexed, because they disagreed with pivotal arguments raised and conclusions made about why the continent failed in some parts and succeeded in others, and yet found themselves powerless to effectively challenge dominating thought patterns. And this was not because they did not have the intellectual capacity to do so,” says Rachel.

“I was saddened to realize that Western academics had far more authority to define our continent than did the many African academics that I held in high esteem,” she said. She believes that “the present generation of African Scholars needs to undertake the process of establishing knowledge institutions based on the continent’s understanding of itself. Self definition is critical, because it is self definition that will empower Africans to take ownership of their own development.”

Rachel now works in education, managing an entrepreneurial and leadership development program for the Allan Gray Orbis Foundation in Johannesburg. She continues to participate in national debates, writing with other Mandela Rhodes Scholars for a “Thought Leaders” blog on the website of the Mail & Guardian, the premier anti-apartheid newspaper in South Africa before 1994. Mandela Rhodes Scholars have written articles on dozens of subjects, and, at the time of this writing, the blog had over 63,000 views.

3. The Republic, After Mandela

Aalia Ismail, a 2007 Scholar, is Assistant Director in the Ministry for National Planning, in the office of the Presidency,Republic of South Africa. In that role, she is helping to draft a national plan for South Africa’s future. “It is an enormously exciting place to be because of the opportunity to un-do the wrongs of our apartheid past,” she says. “It is also a place of privilege because of the kind of information I have access to and people I sometimes meet. From the Mandela Rhodes Scholarship program, I bring ethical leadership to the highest office.”

Her most important current project is the National Spatial Development Perspective. “This is government’s effort to re-shape the apartheid landscape we are currently left with today,” she says. “It is unacceptable that 16 years into democracy, one still sees black, poor and marginalized people travel the longest distances and pay 40% of their meager salaries on that transport from the de facto homelands into the historically white and wealthy areas, to mind their homes, only to return home to repeat the cycle the next day.”

As a response to the horrors of apartheid,South Africa adopted arguably the most progressive Constitution on earth during Mandela’s term as president. Especially notable is the Constitution’s guarantee of various socioeconomic rights that do not exist in American constitutional law, like the rights to housing, health care, food and water. The challenge with such rights is how to enforce them in a meaningful way if the government simply does not have the resources to provide them.

Some Mandela Rhodes Scholars are engaged in fleshing out just what these rights mean in such a context. Chris McConnachie, a 2008 Scholar, serves as a law clerk at South Africa’s Constitutional Court. He will soon be attending Oxford on a Rhodes Scholarship, where he will study the emerging theory of socioeconomic legal rights. “Our Constitution is a far-sighted project to build a society that respects human dignity and equality, but we’re only just beginning to explore how to put that into practice,” says Chris.

Chris noted that a famous case, Irene Grootboom v. Republic of South Africa, was hailed as a victory for socioeconomic rights in 2000, when the Constitutional Court ruled that the government had not met its duty to provide adequate housing for residents of Cape Town’s Wallacedene informal settlement. However, the Court ruled that Ms. Grootboom had no immediate right to housing on demand, and that her right to housing was subject to the government’s ability to develop housing over time. When Ms. Grootboom ultimately died in 2008 at age 49, still homeless and penniless, her story became an illustration of just how difficult it will be to realize the promise of the new Constitution.

4. Sobering Views

Unfortunately, sub-Saharan Africais struggling with several major public health crises, including the highest rates of malaria and HIV in the world. Mandela Rhodes Scholars have played a part in addressing these challenges. Lawrence Mashimbye, a 2008 Scholar, investigated tuberculosis treatments among HIV-infected people for his master’s thesis in epidemiology. He now works analyzing public health data for Health and Development Africa, a nonprofit consulting organization in Johannesburg, where he helped to conduct the National Communication Survey on HIV/AIDS, evaluating the impact of AIDS education programs in South Africa.

Aalyia Feroz-Ali Sadruddin, a 2009 Scholar from Kenya, wrote her master’s thesis on ways to translate between Western and traditional conceptions of disease. “I remember growing up in western Kenya,” says Aalyia. “My father is a cardiologist, and he would argue with his good friend, our gardener, about what caused malaria. Our gardener would say ‘Malaria is in us; we’ve always had malaria; it’s a part of us. My grandma just knows when I’m sick, and I just know when I’m sick.’ He thought malaria was caused by evil spirits. When Western doctors pass out mosquito nets but ignore traditional conceptions of disease, people use them for fishing nets. They aren’t comfortable sleeping in them – they think the nets obstruct their ancestors from watching over them. So there’s no way to treat these problems without addressing these traditional perceptions. People need a sense of ownership over the solutions.”

Today, Aalyia works for Lifeline Energy (formerly Freeplay Foundation), a U.K.-based nonprofit that provides lights and radios, powered by solar panels or pedal-crank generators, to vulnerable populations lacking electricity in Rwanda, Kenya, Tanzania, Zambia, Malawi and South Africa. Kerosene use, common throughout much of Africa because of lack of access to electricity, harms health through respiratory tract infections, eye infections, chronic obstructive lung disorder, and risk of fire, among other effects. Aalyia’s current research looks at the impact of kerosene use on women and children, and assesses the effectiveness of Lifeline’s sustainable energy solutions.

Mandela Rhodes Scholars are working in difficult conditions with some of South Africa’s’s most disempowered people. Hanru Niemand, a 2005 Scholar, works as a clinical psychologist in South Africa’s Department of Correctional Services. Hanru writes that “I see murderers, rapists, paedophiles, and drug addicts on a daily basis. One develops an interesting sense of humour – I can tell you!” His work has offered him a sobering view of South African society. “It is sometimes difficult not to be pessimistic about South Africa. As I work with inmates, I realise how disintegrated, torn apart and totally disorganised some parts of South African society are. Still, I can’t help but feel that this job is a good thing to do, and that this is what God has called me to do at this moment in my life.” Besides his work with inmates, Hanru is a professional musician who has recorded two albums, and also finds time to write a Ph.D. in philosophy exploring the assumptions underlying South Africa’s national discourse on multiculturalism.

Lionel Faull, a Kenyan and 2008 Scholar who is now a journalist with the Mail & Guardian, also had his eyes opened by his experience studying in South Africa:

From what I’ve seen,South Africa’s largest problem is inequality. It has the highest Gini coefficient [a measure of income inequality] in the world. When you have such a large amount of extremely wealthy and poor people living side by side, and it’s widening, it requires excellent leadership to dig out of that hole. In our politics, I’m seeing an erosion of the tolerance from the Mandela era, in which people from different backgrounds would sit down together and try to reach consensus. Today more people would rather kill or trash something.

The longer things go on the more it moves in that direction, I do think it will require visionary leadership going forward to make sure that this country doesn’t tear apart at the seams. It is a deeply divided country with a terrible history of division and hatred and inequality and injustice. I’m from Kenya, and Kenya is also deeply unequal. Where South Africa has race as the tiger on its back, Kenya has tribalism, which is essentially the same thing.

But Kenya is at far more of a crisis point.South Africa has come so far in 15 years, and it is an amazing success story. There are principled leaders in all fields, who can still do things and make sure this country is headed in the right direction. I’ve seen these people; they’re my age; they’re taking over from the next generation already. The Mandela Rhodes Scholarships are creating a pool of principled and networked leaders in all fields, and it will make a difference.

5. The Historic Circle

At the founding of the Mandela Rhodes Foundation in 2003, Nelson Mandela gave a short speech:

We have agreed to and support this joint initiative believing that the bringing together of these two names represents a symbolic moment in the closing of the historic circle … We know with confidence that the work of The Mandela Rhodes Foundation will substantively contribute to a better life for the people of South Africa and further abroad on the African continent … It speaks of a growing sense of global responsibility that in this second century of its operation the Rhodes Trust finds it appropriate to redirect some of its attention and resources back to the origins of (its) wealth.

The Mandela Rhodes Foundation now hopes to close another historic circle – to spread Mandela’s spirit of reconciliation across every country on the continent.

Pie-Pacifique Kabalira-Uwase is a 2006 Scholar, and a refugee from Rwanda. After his brother was killed in post-genocidal political violence in 1998, his mother insisted that he leave Rwanda. After travel by car, lorry, boat and airplane through Tanzania and Mozambique, and being turned away from Swaziland, Pie-Pacifique ended up in South Africa – alone, with no money or home, and seriously ill. After recovering physically, he learned English, worked his way through university as an auto attendant, and then heard about the Mandela Rhodes Scholarships. “I felt called to put my hand up and stand for the Scholarship,” Pie-Pacifique recalls.

Just writing the application was an excellent process in which I was finally able to tell my story. Thinking about my life, its heaviness and lightness in many aspects, in the context of Mandela’s legacy was quite a healing opportunity for me. I said at the interview that even if I didn’t get the Scholarship, I had already gotten so much out of the application process. I know this might sound weird, but I feel privileged and strangely blessed to have experienced what I have experienced. The Mandela Rhodes process has helped me to understand and appreciate my life, even if I didn’t like it, even if I would never wish it for someone else.

Rwanda and South Africa can serve as lessons to the world. To build what it has now,South Africa went through peaceful discomfort. It was scary but peaceful. Rwanda has had really brutal violence. In my country, there are two completely conflicting versions of events. Right now you can’t have conversations about Hutus and Tutsis. But human beings must be able to tell their own stories. If I could build a platform in which everyone’s story is told and understood, I would die a very happy man.

I will return to Rwanda someday. I cannot tell you when or how I will go back, but my thinking and aspirations have grown far beyond any particular country in Africa, my birth country or my host country. I believe in what the Foundation stands for, and the legacy of Mandela, which will live on, even after he is gone. Irrespective of the mess and the bad things that we see – the political violence – young people understand what Mandela has started, and will carry it forward. In my lifetime, Africa will claim its place in the world.

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The MRF maintains a close co-operative relationship with the Rhodes Trust in Oxford, South Africa, and around the world. In South Africa this year, MRF Scholarships Manager Theresa Laaka-Daniels will be sharing a platform with Rhodes Scholarships Western Cape Secretary Francois Bonnici, to help raise awareness among potential candidates about both Scholarships. Several Rhodes Scholars sit on the Mandela Rhodes Scholarships selection committee each year, and there have been Rhodes Scholar visiting volunteers since the inception of the MRF. The most recent was Amanda Lee, who not only spearheaded the revamping of the MRF’s website, but participated fully in both leadership workshops of the Mandela Rhodes Scholars ‘Class of 2010.’