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Posts Tagged ‘South Africa’

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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With great sadness, over the weekend we received the news that the former director of the Henley office in South Africa, Fran Connaway, has died of pancreatic cancer. Fran had been ill for some years, and to those who knew her it is perhaps little surprise that she had defied the prognosis of a few months to live that was given to her by the doctors at the beginning. Fran being Fran, she found a way not just to exceed that prediction but benefit from various sorts of ground-breaking treatments that, while they may not have restored her to a very active lifestyle, at least made sure that no-one should forget that she was still around.

Fran was a founder member of the group that set up shop for Henley in South Africa (long before I joined the College), and was its heart as well as much of its character up until her illness. I first met her at Henley a day after I had been appointed to my job in 2005, about a month or so before I was officially to begin, at a clan gathering of the somewhat eclectic bunch of international partners and subsidiaries that the school then maintained. It was clear that she was a force of nature, a whirlwind of opinions (often forcefully put), ideas and a collector of ribald anecdotes.  She also had an encyclopedic knowledge of who was who and what was what in the education and business sector in South Africa, and I think she saw the wonderful potential in the place as being worth the constant hassles and worries.  Above all, she was dedicated to the success of the students; and woe-betide anyone who stood between them and their learning! She was particularly fond of taking aim at bureaucracy and nincompoops.

I’d say that Fran was utterly loyal to those she thought competent or like-minded, and completely dismissive of those she felt were in it for their own ego or simply just not up to the job; with Fran there were no half-measures. She didn’t suffer fools gladly, and was often right not to, but she had a big, big heart. She also loved to gossip, and always wanted to know the latest from the UK, and she made going down to Johannesburg a pleasure not a chore. I still recall on my first visit out there that she insisted on driving me (she drove like a southern-European in a hurry, and tended to talk non-stop while doing so, with ideas and opinions bursting out to the surface all the time) to a craft market to pick out some small souvenirs and gifts for my family.

It won’t be possible to replace her, but the good news is that the school she set the foundation for is now really blossoming into a major player in the market under the leadership of Jon Foster-Pedley and Frempong Acheampong, and the continued guidance of Vivien Spong, who was also Fran’s “right-hand” for many years.

 

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It’s always a pleasure to come and run workshops here in South Africa, in Johannesburg. This must be my seventh or eighth time here in about six years and I always marvel at the sense of space and the promise (despite the problems) that the region has. This particular visit is slightly different in that the time of year means coming from dark, autumnal Britain to hot and summer-like climate, where the trees are all in bloom and the skies are big and (for the most part, since Jo’burg has spectacular thunderstorms) blue.

Another difference is that the workshop I’ve been running is not at the start of the MBA (fresh faces, eager and nervous minds) but a group coming to the end of their Stage 1 work. Still a big group, it’s a pleasure to work with people who have stretched themselves and, in many cases, had unexpected results in the first year.

Also different is the fact that, really for the first time, Henley in South Africa is not located in someone else’s building, with shared resources and problems. Newly located next to one of the recently up-graded motorway routes between Jo’Burg and Pretoria, the setting is good for business and the fact that all the classroom space is only for Henley’s use, and is well constructed and full of natural light, makes the whole feeling so much more… well, more Henley, really. Sure, there’s no river, but what a difference it makes to have a place of your own to call home.

Yet another novelty for me this trip was the chance to go and make a short presentation (which I turned into a workshop) for the managers of a company called AVUSA (publishing and media). The “chance” was mediated slightly by the fact that the timing meant getting off an 11 hour overnight flight and driving straight to the company, but luckily everyone was quite understanding. The people there were, in fact, great, and very open to the idea of Reflection (what else would be my topic?). At the end, they presented me with a lovely biography of Mandela. On the way to their company, my driver took me through the district in Jo’Burg where Madiba has his residence – and it is a really lovely area (their version of Hampstead, perhaps?).

I always like to compare progress between visits. A shallow and restricted comparison, I understand, since I do not see much of the country when I’m here, but since I am always able to compare the same thing, I can report that there is continued development here – the infrastructure is more in place, the systems more reliable and the sense of unease (at least in some areas) and fear of crime has improved somewhat. Where people were openly planning to leave SA a few years ago, the debate has become much more of a dilemma and the tide sometimes turns the other way. One thing’s for sure, at some point I will want to explore more of the openness and potential of this country as a visitor.  Some things don’t change, of course. The South Africans are sports crazy, and the performance of the cricket team against Australia was woven into the PD workshop yesterday.

There’s a big topic of debate in education at the moment around the status of the MBA. The education ministry is considering a proposal to rate the MBA down from “level 9” (which would designate the MBA as a master’s degree requiring an honours degree for entry – and an honours degree here in SA means having completed a fourth year of university, which of course many managers won’t have done) to “level 8”. There would be pros and cons for Business Schools of this, mostly to do with programme financing in public universities, but the business schools are lobbying for the current situation to continue. At least, I think that’s what they’re doing – it’s complicated…!

Now I must get back to the PhD…

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I’m on my annual pilgrimage to South Africa for the MBA Starter Workshop, so I’m getting my fill of “what’s changed since last time” impressions.

The first thing I noticed as the plane came in on approach to land was that the road congestion had gone. Normally, one observes queues of traffic on the various highways and junctions, but there seemed to be little held up. It wasn’t until I was actually out of the airport and on the way to the hotel that I remembered it was Sunday! Oh well. They have completed the new rail link from the airport to Sandton City, and the road widening works on the city’s arterial routes looked just about complete as well. My driver reminded me that this work was prioritised for the World Cup last year, often at the expense of other, less publicly visible public works – such as the development of more decent housing in Alexandra Township, an 8 square km sprawl of shacks and home to nearly half a million people.

The TV in South Africa is quite different from the mainstream UK. For a start, there are a lot of sports channels, where there is meticulous dissection of cricket, rugby, soccer, swimming and just about any sport you care to think of. This morning they were previewing the Rugby World Cup in New Zealand, mainly by reliving the glory year of 1995 when South Africa won it (that winning team have legendary status similar to the 1966 England world cup team). Interesting to note that Mandela’s charisma and humility formed a big part of the tournament and win making such a difference.

Anyway, on this morning’s transfer from hotel to Henley office, the traffic jams had returned with a vengeance. So tomorrow we kick-off the new intake, likely to number around 115 people! It’s going to be an interesting challenge, for them and for us.

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We all know how important first impressions are – so much is communicated, even if it is never surfaced. It’s funny how, after a period of absence, re-acquaintance with a place or a person can re-form that first impression and allow you to contrast it (albeit from memory) to your second or, in this case, third impression.

So here I am once more in Johannesburg, bleary eyed after a day spent awake after a night spent awake on a plane. But through the bleariness I can see that in the last 12 months plenty has changed in many ways since March 2008.  The airport is well on its way to 2010 readiness (big clue: the World Cup) and the route of the planned fast-link railway to the commercial centre of Sandton is under full construction. There is actually construction everywhere, and somehow the roads seem less , though still just as congested. But even these choked highways are being widened, and there is  a sense of greater order than my last visit.  I’ll see whether this feeling is substantiated or countered over the coming week or so.

Tomorrow we launch the third MBA intake with the new curriculum here in South Africa, and we are expecting somewhere between 70 and 80 managers to turn up. It’s going to be quite a challenge to deliver a memorable day one!

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