“Listen naively”


I was torn. My mother had passed away a little over a month before I was scheduled to attend the study tour in South Africa, and I was not sure if I wanted to traipse off to another continent amid my grief. After much internal deliberations, I eventually decided to capitalize on this opportunity, especially after one of my older sisters offered me some practical advice. However, this still did not fully appease my guilt. While on the trip, there were moments of doubt and self-condemnation, especially when I was in alone in my hotel room.

The journey to South Africa began at the start of the year when a presentation by the Executive MBA Program Manager at Rotterdam School of Management highlighted the country’s immense potential for sustainable business opportunities. I knew immediately that I wanted to be part of this experience.

On June 30th, I departed out of Toronto’s Pearson Airport, never reaching my hotel in Johannesburg until July 2. I was exhausted, but excited at the prospect of going on my first safari to Pilanesberg National Park two hours after I arrived at the Crowne Plaza hotel.

The safari, organized by UNC’s OneMBA17 student Ryan Cartwright, was amazing. Out in the wild in an open vehicle, we meandered through the mountains at Pilanesberg Park, viewing the animals in their natural habitat. A herd of elephants, a zebra, antelopes, and a giraffe are a few of the species we came across while on the trip.

   

En-route to Pilanesberg, we stopped at a traditional African roadside curio and craft market where we participated in good-natured ‘haggling’ with the local sellers over stunningly crafted souvenir items, before settling on an agreed price.

          

Monday July 3, the contingent that was based in Johannesburg (half of the Executive MBA18 class was in Cape Town) piled into buses and headed to Gordon Institute of Business Science – an affiliation of the University of Pretoria.

It was evident from our first classroom session with Abdullah Hassen Verachia – CEO, Program Director, and Speaker about the high caliber of speakers and professors we would be privileged to gain insights from during the week.

One such insight was the 40 times 5 dilemma facing South Africa’s poor and middle class:

1. 40% disposable income spent on transportation to get to work
2. They travel an average distance to work that is 40km or more
3. On average, they spend 40% disposable income on groceries per family
4. The majority live in 40 square meter homes; and
5. 40% are employed

Later that day we revisited history under the capable guidance of Professor Anthony Prangley. As we traced South Africa’s history from its turbulent past to the struggles it still faces today, one thing was clear – the country still feels the effects of the apartheid movement, especially the those at the bottom of the pyramid. Our visits to The Constitutional Court, and the former women’s prison where Winnie Mandela and other notable political prisoners were held was surreal. Hearing the stories about the brutality they faced and the hardship of their prison experience was sometimes too much to absorb.

Constitution Hill represents the hub of South Africa’s bitter past.

The Constitutional Court – written in all 11 languages of the country.

After such an emotionally draining day, we headed back to GIBS – Gordon Institute of Business Science, for a much-needed de-stressor: dinner followed by karaoke!

On Tuesday, we had the remarkable Professor Tashmia Ismail who tackled the issue of innovation at the base of the pyramid. She showed us a video that provoked a very strong reaction from me. The video depicted a group of men from a poor village in the Congo, who after work would dress in brand name Western clothing to indicate that they were not defined by their circumstances. She said that it represented hope.
I wondered aloud if there were no traditional, Congo garb that could project the same image.
It was at that time that she uttered the words, “Listen naively – suspend judgement.” Despite those words, I was still not convinced about the cultural appropriateness of the video she presented.

After a highly charged and informative session, we grouped into smaller batches and proceeded on various company visits. Along with several others, I was assigned to Royal HaskoningDHV. This was an enlightening experience. It was there that I learned about BBBEE – Broad Based Black Economic Empowerment – a system put in place to close the gap between whites and non-whites that was created by apartheid. The government closely monitors this system, and depending on the what the company’s score is, they will not be able to get government projects etc. Level 4 is the minimum requirement for a company to attain.
(One interesting fact about the BBBEE, is that all immigrants are classified as “whites” quota of management.)

The midway point of the trip – Wednesday, we visited the township of Alexandra. Rich in history, this visit elicited a plethora of emotions from me. I laughed, I cried. I was distressed, I was hopeful. But I learned a lot. The townships are where the poor live, and while the conditions are far from ideal, the people seems so joyful. Another thing that stuck me, is how innovative they are. Sometimes only possessing very limited resources, financial and otherwise, they still manage to carve out thriving businesses. This is one of the greatest learning moments for me from this trip – for a long time I was waiting on the ‘right’ conditions, resources, and time, but from this experience, I now know that I should create the moments and things will fall into place.

An overview of the Township, Alexandra (lovingly referred to as ‘Alex’)

Our tour guide to Alexandra was amazing, and give us the true experience. Our first stop was at a small orphanage – “Joy for One.” It was spotless and bright, but the circumstances of some of the residents were dark and dismal. This too was an emotional visit for me.

Next up, we stopped Kasi Boutique. The owner, Lesego in April of this year created opportunity for local designers from Alexandra by selling their clothing in his fashion store. We also visited the house Nelson Mandela lived while he was in Alexandra, and the heart of the township where the protesting students were killed during apartheid.

We ended this fascinating day at a ‘shebeen’ where we danced (the adventurous ones) to African music, and generally get to know a little more about our tour guides, and other participants on the trip.

One of the most profound experience on this entire trip, was my visit on Thursday to the African Leadership Academy. Children from all levels of society were selected to attend this prestigious institution. Some came from refugee camps, some are the children of diplomats – all studying and living together. This is where I saw HOPE for Africa’s future. I came away feeling a little jealous (I wish I exposed to such teaching as a child!), and a little unaccomplished, but very hopeful.

The day was also highlighted by presentations from Dr. Charlene Lew and Professor Binedell.

On Friday, the Global OneMBA Team # 1 presented our business case on creating sustainable business opportunities that capitalize on the available resources in South Africa. Our team came in 2nd.

  

As I packed my suitcase to leave the Crowne Hotel on Saturday July 8th, I could not help but reflect on what an incredible tour it was. It was the perfect mix of academic, history, social impact, and fun. This has been by far my most fulfilling residency.
But, it did not end when I checked out of the hotel. Since my flight was late at night, I decided to join the group that was visiting the Apartheid Museum. I am glad I did. It made my time in South Africa complete.

Footnote: My mom was ill for a while. She passed away on May 26, 2017. But I did get to spend quality time with her before her passing. She was aware that I had planned to be in South Africa, and was very proud that I am part of the OneMBA Program.

*If you wish to donate to the “Joy for One” orphanage, I am happy to send you their bank details.

“Listen naively”

Abina Gilbert


Canadian.
I am inspired by life and the sheer beauty of …living.


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