6 Nov

South Africa: sport stars, students and social change

By Professor James Smith, Vice Principal International 

Liz Reilly (our director of major gifts) and myself have spent the last week and a bit in Johannesburg and Cape Town.

We were connecting with our inspiring alumni community, potential partners and trying not to be too starry-eyed with some inspirational sportsmen and women.

We attended the World Sports Values Summit in Cape Town, where we were joined by our Principal, Prof Grant Jarvie, Robert Lawrie, Dr Patricia Erskine and a group of student leaders – Jonny Ross-Tatum, Chloe Maclean and Michael Crawley.

I met a long-time hero, ex-South African football team captain Lucas Radebe (I was embarrassingly gushing).

I chaired a season on inspirational leadership which included Ian Thorpe (note to self: I probably didn’t have to write an impromptu name plate for him), Achat Hassiem (who survived a shark attack to win medals at the London Paralympics) and Chloe Maclean (who arrived direct from the European Karate Championships where she secured a silver medal). Chloe may well be the most inspiring of them all.

It was a momentous time to be talking higher education in South Africa. At my alma mater, the University of the Witwatersrand, in Johannesburg, students were protesting against above-inflation fee increases. This quickly spiralled into a national demonstration and debate about fee increases, the outsourcing of cleaning staff and decolonising the curriculum (and campuses). This underlined to me the vital role of universities as engines of transformation and social change in South Africa (and Africa more broadly) and the vitality of students’ political engagement.

We are aiming to develop new kinds of partnerships.

We spent an afternoon sitting in a tutorial of pan-African scholars at the African Leadership Academy. I had forgotten how nice it was to sit in a tutorial under a tree, shaded from the sun.

We also learnt about the amazing work of Harambee, a youth employment group that aims to place 10,000 high school leavers in work per annum.

We crammed a lot into a short period of time. We glimpsed the possibility of partnerships and we look forward to going back to build them and reconnect with our alumni.

Oh, we also performed our first honorary degree ceremony on the African continent. It was a busy few days….