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Archive for April, 2013

Statue of Hector Pieterson in the Mopanya shopping mall

Statue of Hector Pieterson in the Mopanya shopping mall

During my last trip to South Africa I was lucky enough to be able to visit Soweto for an afternoon, in the company of a local resident who was born and bred in the township, and who has just begun their Henley MBA. After so many trips to Johannesburg, it was certainly good to see such an important aspect of the history and identity of the region and the scene of so many important moments in recent South African history.

Much of the sprawl that makes up Jo’burg and its many satellite districts and townships are built on the gently rolling slopes and subtly varied hues of the Witwatersrand hills. This reveals, as you drive, vistas of urban spread which also keeps a feeling of space and openness. It might not have the manicured lawns and razor-wire walls of the more expensive districts of other parts of the city, but in its own way Soweto is no different.

The name comes originally from its designation as the South Western Township, and is actually a collection of districts of varying age, size and – above all – character. Today Soweto is home to about 2 million people, and the first impression is of a lively, open and welcoming place; as I found. Before arriving there, my guide took me to the City. There’s a contrast here to the hectic and heightened tension of the grid-pattern of the downtown, or City, of Johannesburg, where the Victorian architecture of finance, commerce and state function tower imperiously above (but do not encompass) the messy, dirty and noisy street markets and tiny shops down below. Few South Africans spend much time in the City, which is where immigrant populations from all over the region come to trade or to beg, or to seek a better life perhaps.

On to Soweto itself, with a stop to see “Soccer City”, or the FNB stadium. This was the venue for the World Cup and – as I learned – was designed to resemble a vessel for drinking (beer?). Thankfully, being empty, there was no sound of vuvuzelas being blown (how we loved listening to those…!). The first stop was to take a look at the Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital, which is the third largest in the world, largest in Africa, and an important centre for medical training and research.

Soweto is a place where people are comfortable with making do with what is available and making life more pleasant by being out and about and in communication with each other. Do I know this for sure? Well, no, of course not, but this was my impression as we walked around this area, through a market and taxi rank and past the houses where necessity and basic entrepreneurial spirit blossoms into simple businesses offering everything from haircuts to mechanics, all in the front yard. Statistically, Soweto probably appears to have high unemployment, but this may be deceptive since a whole sub-market of cash services supplies the township with just about everything it needs. And there were some signs of new building and of improvements to facilities and services.

Signs, too, of locals making use of the landscape as we passed a Soweto landmark – the old cooling towers of the derelict Orlando power station, now painted and set up for bungee jumps.

Bungee bridge, at the Orlando cooling towers. I did not have a go...

Bungee bridge, at the Orlando cooling towers. I did not have a go…

We went to visit Maponya Mall, a shopping centre opened in 2007 and the first actually based in Soweto. The “sawubona unlungu” was the friendly greeting called out to me as we left by the guard on the gate. It means, literally, “I see you, white person!”, but translates more to “greetings, white person”… yes, I was the only white person in the mall! On the way out, I stopped to admire the statue commemorating the shooting in 1976 of school child Hector Pieterson, who was shot and killed by South African police when he was 13. In that year, I was also 13. The image is an iconic one, the moment captured in a photograph, Hector’s sister running alongside as bystander Mbuyisa Makhubo carries him. As iconic as the little girl in Vietnam fleeing naked and terrified from the napalm bombing of her village. And just as powerful. Now we all have cameras and capture millions of images every day, we sometimes need to remember how powerful and rare these images used to be. Hector’s name dominates many parts of Soweto and is remembered in museum and school-building. Only one or two names outshine his, I suspect, and they are Tutu and Mandela, and every visitor to Soweto ends up in Vilakazi Street, where Mandela’s house stands (as a museum now) and Tutu’s residence still is (he apparently complains about the noise from the adjacent restaurants, bars and souvenir shops. Two Nobel Peace Prize winners in one street? Sowetans don’t let you forget this is the only place in the world where this is so!

Inside the Mandela house, 8115 Vilakazi Street.

Inside the Mandela house, 8115 Vilakazi Street.

While there, you may also be told to go and taste goat’s head, or sheep’s head. Apparently a local delicacy. I declined. But, I would be more than happy to go back and be persuaded again.

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Henley building in Jo'burgIt’s now  the end of a very busy Henley MBA “Starter Season”, a hectic period of a couple of months repeated twice a year, where the school inducts new members to the programme in their respective intakes around the world. Starters are different to other workshops because people come with all their hopes and uncertainties about what to expect and a certain kind of ignorance not just of whether they have chosen the right school, or will like and respect their classmates, but also whether they are “up to the task”. The organisation has to be slick, the sessions have to be the right mix of challenge and adventure mixed with support and reassurance. These are not green-behind-the-ears whippersnappers, either; most have had considerable management experience and have attended as many training and development events as they have had hot, expense-account dinners.

Many of these events are in the UK because with Henley a sense of place is part of the sense of purpose and it is good to inculcate and communicate the “Henley Experience” (how tricky it is to define that!), but we also like to bottle that experience for parts of the world that make coming to the UK too impractical. That’s what brings me, willingly, back to South Africa.

Over the last three weeks or so, the admin teams in Johannesburg and at Henley, alongside myself and Marc Day as tutors, have successfully (we trust!) inducted 200 new managers onto the Henley MBA in two intakes (with a third due to start here in late June, which really says something about being in the right place at the right time with the right product and the right “shout” in marketing and PR). Marc and I divided each group of 100 in two smaller groups and worked in parallel over the three days of each Starter. It’s a very efficient way of working from the point of view of the participants as it provides more time for getting to know each other and is easier to facilitate discussions, but it doesn’t half take it out of the tutor and their voice! For that reason, I think both Marc and I were more than happy to accept an unsolicited invitation from our hotel to attend a Macallan whisky tasting session in the bar one evening (see pic).

Arms twisted, Marc and I agree to taste some single malts...

Arms twisted, Marc and I agree to taste some single malts…

Marc is a real expert in Scotch whiskies, and so was able to verify afterwards that the (rather attractive) Macallan brand ambassador really knew her stuff during her information-packed presentation of the three products we got to try.

Back to the main point, which is, I suppose, an expression of amazement that we pulled it off! Since the beginning of the year, nearly 350 people have started with the MBA and there is another starter season in September/October that will probably take that number to nearly 600. The trick, though, is not to worry that this is too many or too few, but to see how each individual can feel personally engaged and enthused about putting the time and effort into themselves over the coming years, as well as setting up an emotional bond with their School that will result in them feeling they owe something to the world around them to give back later on.

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