EMBA Trip to South Africa: Goodness with Contradictions

With 18 months of rigorous studies under their belt, the Executive MBA Class of 2013 traveled to South Africa last month as one of the capstone requirements of their 20-month experience. “The global immersion aspect of our program is always enlightening and often life-changing for our students. There are many cultural, social, and even economic aspects of global business that just cannot be learned in the classroom” says Assistant Dean Deborah Hewitt. With stops in Cape Town, Durban, and Johannesburg, not only did the students learn about the mechanics of doing business in South Africa, but the essence of goodness in a country riddled with contradictions. — Terry Hinders

Rebecca Polan
I was prepared for the realities of South Africa in the same way that eager tourists the world around are ever prepared for a grand adventure- with optimism and naiveté. I boarded our flight in Dulles confident that I was ready for the experiences that waited for me on the other side of the world.   I am not completely clueless. I recently read South African author J.M. Coetzee’s “Disgrace” so I “knew about” posh city University life (it sounded much like city life in anywhere USA) and, by contrast, impoverished rural brutality. In college I read Marinovich and Silva’s “The Bang Bang Club” so I “knew about” apartheid and its harsh, violent end.  I have seen documentaries about poverty in South Africa and read news articles about unrest amongst the mine workers.

I now realize that I “knew about” these experiences the same way a 1st year medical student “knows about” conducting surgery before they have ever even held a scalpel.

Need, frivolity, privilege… all take on a completely different meaning in South Africa. During our tour of the diamond mine it suddenly dawned on me that I had repeatedly heard our different hosts mention a variety of literacy projects, life skills initiatives, and other socially geared projects that seemed out of line with what one might expect to hear from businesses in the US. I learned that the idea of “social investment” is very ingrained in the South African corporate culture. To some extent it is government mandated as companies have to commit to various degrees of community investment before they receive work permits, etc. However, many places seem to have adopted Professor Solms attitude of practicality. The education system is extremely poor, almost literally geared to maintain a steady state of oppression amongst the impoverished. But as jobs have become more and more urbanized the basic levels of education required of workers has steadily increased and the responsibility for filling in the gap has fallen on corporate shoulders.

The United States is supposed to be one of the greatest countries in the world, yet it was in South Africa that I found a culture that understands that companies cannot operate in isolation of their communities. Solving one’s problems is one’s own responsibility in the United States. People are expected to “pull themselves up by their bootstraps.” We believe that if you work hard good things will come. In South Africa the need is so great that there is no way the majority of people can ever self-educate themselves out of their extreme poverty.

South Africa exceeded all of my expectation and my time there changed the way I think about the world. It also taught me a valuable life lesson about approaching seemingly insurmountable challenges (ie. one small step at a time).

Trey Braswell
First lesson to international business: learn the culture and learn the rules.

“If you want to go fast, go alone.  If you want to go far, go together.” – African Proverb

There are several official languages in South Africa, but everywhere you go it’s pretty much guaranteed that the people can speak English.  Malcolm, our Cape Town tour guide, had lots of fun facts and some that were not so fun, but true.  South Africa is a country of over 50 million people, and at least 24% of them are unemployed.  On top of that there is huge problem with illegal migrant workers.  As bad as South Africa may be as far as unemployment and economy is concerned, it’s still not as bad as some of their northern neighbors.  South African laborers don’t make that much money, but the migrants are willing to work for even less.  Malcolm mentioned that South Africans loved tourists, because every eight or nine tourists who visited created one full-time job.

I have a heart for missions, whether it’s in eastern NC or in ZA.   So I wanted to get off the tour bus and see real life in South Africa, and see brothers and sisters who were dedicated to being a part of something greater… When the bus dropped me off near Pietermaritzburg I hopped in the car with Richard Dladla, a mutual friend of a missionary from my church, and set off on a journey of being the only white person around for the next 10 hours.  First stop was at the Zhaka agricultural institute, the farm where the Christian boy’s agricultural school is as well as the facility for community outreach where they teach black South Africans in the community how to farm.  Farming is one of the better options for many of the boys in this area, and it teaches them great life lessons.  There at Zhaka agricultural institute, the boys are boarding, working on a cattle farm, a row crop farm, taking care of an organic vegetable garden, and learning the Good News about Jesus Christ.  As part of Apartheid reparations, the government is buying land from the whites and basically giving it to the blacks. This gives the blacks an opportunity to make a living on the land.  This past year Richard was able to lease a whole new farm hoping to expand the opportunities for the school and possibly even to have a girl’s Christian agricultural school on this separate farm.

My evening finished with dinner at Richard’s house in Pietermaritzburg.  Friend Themba stood up and shared from his heart the joy that they felt that we were breaking bread together.  They said many years ago they’d have never dreamt of sharing a meal with a white man in their own home. There was joy.  I was humbled to be brought from a half a world away to be a part of healing in a nation that has been torn by so much oppression from the enemy.

Shannon Walls
I remember thinking as we pulled into the hotel that there must be a mistake.  The lobby was grand and there was a nice young lady that greeted us as we came in with drinks of exotic juices.  We were definitely not in Kansas anymore.  Arriving before the rest of the group,  a few of us took in a Great White Shark diving adventure paired up with a Cape of Good Hope tour.  This was a phenomenal experience that I doubt will ever be matched in my life time for the combination of beauty and terror.

One of our first visits in Cape Town was to the Solms-Delta Winery.  Mark Solms, the owner, told the group of his story of self- discovery,  coupled with the excavation and discovery that he helped to bring about for his staff was truly inspiring.  His brutal and painful honesty had many of us listening and hanging on every word, anxious for how the story would end.  Like a great story teller he set the stage wonderfully, got us emotionally involved in some of the characters and then led us right to the edge of a cliff before finally revealing that there is some shred of human compassion left in this world.  His admitted “enlightened self-interest”  I think left some uncomfortable until the conclusion of the story.  I left the winery thinking that I had just seen the best thing I would see in South Africa; no way it could get any better than this.  Then we learned about Amy Biehl and everything changed.

It’s not just the story of Amy’s life and her tragic death that touched me so much.  I don’t think it was the unimaginable compassion her parents showed in fighting for the acquittal of her murderers either that affected me.  It was the mission that got to me.  But I still really didn’t have a clue because I hadn’t yet seen with my own eyes the brutal reality of the townships.  However, something compelled me to want to see them and to want to do more.  I felt our donation from a small group of us would help the foundation and I could say that I had done my part and I would feel better about myself.  I couldn’t have been more wrong!  Even now as I write this I wonder if they knew that if we saw it that they would snag at least one of us, I wonder if they knew that one of us wouldn’t be able to walk away.

The driver said that 4 million people live in the townships surrounding Cape Town. Yet the impact, the real impact wasn’t until I got to the school and watched the kids perform.  I had to put my sunglasses on because I didn’t want my classmates or the children to see me crying.  They were so happy to be performing for us that they didn’t care about the lack of shoes on their feet or the holes in their clothes.  I thought to myself that it was just a few days ago that my wife and I were discussing how we would ever afford college for my four sons while these kids were worrying about how they would afford their next meal.  Something changed inside me that day, I can’t explain it yet but I think that it’s a good thing.

The rest of the trip whizzed by without much trouble or excitement, although the safari was a definite highlight.  But I could never really get the images of those kids, that school and the townships out of my mind.  I find myself thinking about it all the time and my drive to help grows a little each day.  In the days since our return I have come to the realization that I cannot live the rest of my life without doing something about the things that I saw.  I am currently working on forming a non-profit organization called “Grads Give”.  This name has a dual meaning in that I intend to solicit donations from High School seniors who are getting ready to graduate and may soon have no use for their musical instruments that they played in their High School band.  I then will coordinate the distribution of collected instruments to organizations like the Amy Biehl Foundation.

Kenny Anderson
Witnessing one of GOD’s greatest works (Table Mountain) was followed by witnessing the result of one of “man’s” most evil character flaws, oppression.  My Friday afternoon in Cape Town was spent on a three hour guided tour of a township with two representatives of the Amy Biehl foundation.  None of the things I had done to research South Africa prepared me for this tour of the township.  I researched South Africa, as instructed, before the class trip.  Therefore, I knew the population was approximately 51.77 million with 17.95 million in labor force and a 25.2% unemployment rate.  I knew their GDP is ranked as the 25th largest in the world with a real growth of approximately 3.2%.

My head was full of these types of statistical figures that I naïvely believed provided a picture of life in South Africa.  The personal experience in the township made all these figures seem irrelevant and an unjust understatement of the plight of the South African people.  According to our tour guide the unemployment rate in the township we visited was closer to 60%.  This is more than double the national average of 25%.  Seeing the “shacks”, makeshift tin structures no larger than 20’ x 6’ which served as homes for families as large as 5, literally made me physically ill.  To know that people, human beings, called these shacks home was sickening.  Our tour guide explained that the shacks were hot in the summer, cold in the winter and wet when it rained.  The lack of running water and in most cases electricity compounded the harsh inhumane living conditions.  According to our guide this township had a population of nearly 500,000 people and only three schools.

To put this in perspective, Williamsburg and James City County has a combined population of 84,134 and has 15 public schools.The country’s overt disregard for educating the underclass was painfully evident.  South Africa does see the need and value of investing in education.  It invests in education at one of the highest rates in the world at 7% of gross domestic product and 20% of total state expenditure.Sadly, the citizens of the townships have systematically been deprived of becoming equal recipients of this investment.   Lacking adequate quantity of schools coupled with the explanation given at the Consulate in reference to the schools’ quality completes the bleak outlook of the available of education for the children and adolescents of the townships.  At the Consulate Inga Heath reported that 60% of the sixth grade teachers could not pass the sixth grade competency exam.  Additionally she presented that even when children have access to education 70% do not make it to 12th grade and only 30% of those that make it to 12th grade are able to successfully pass the proficiency exam.

During the tour of the township we were given the opportunity to visit one of the Amy Biehl Foundation’s afterschool programs.  This was without question the most moving experience of the entire trip. These children, residents of the township, were genuinely happy.  To see the smiles on these children’s faces made me sad.  I was sad because these children “Just didn’t know”.  They “did not know” that they were most likely going to live their entire life in extreme poverty.  They “did not know” that their government has purposefully and unjustly depriving them of equal opportunity and access to resources.  They “did not know” that just down the street people lived in huge homes and ate R900 lunches in restaurants overlooking the water.  They “did not know” that living in a shack without running water and electricity is not really living.  I felt sad for these children and their ignorance of what life and living really is all about.

You cannot ignore the economic disparity between the racial groups as a result of generations of apartheid and white-minority rule.  However, the people I met in South Africa have shown me where true happiness and joy SHOULD come from.  It is not the stuff (cars, houses, clothes, or even running water) I have been blessed to acquire.  It is not the success I have achieved both academically and professionally.  It is the love, comfort, security and sense of belonging you gain from being with the people you love.  That is why the children of the township were so happy.  That is why our tour guide never left the township.  That is why everyone I met, without minimizing the harmful effects of apartheid, were thankful for the things they have achieved and hopeful for the future of South Africa.

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Terry Hinders

Terry Rice Hinders, M.Ed., serves the Mason School of Business Executive MBA as the Program Coordinator.

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