South Africa – Views and Perspectives

South Africa was both everything and nothing that I could have imagined.  Students arrived in Johannesburg (or Joburg, as I quickly learned it is referred to by the locals), many with jetlag but running on excitement for the experience ahead of us.  The first order of business was to enjoy wonderful African cuisine and build stronger connections with our classmates from other programs.  We tasted authentic dishes and even had our faces painted!  The following morning, we heard from a representative from Nedbank.  Her presentation gave us an overview of the economic and political landscape of South Africa, including an in-depth discussion about the education system and policies.  She emphasized the importance of political support in improving the education systems but how corruption plays a role in the inability to make positive changes.  This was the first of many conversations about the issues in the education sector.  However, her presentation still could not prepare us for the reality that we would see when exploring the country.  

Each part of the journey opened my eyes to a different perspective.  We could drive just a few hundred feet and be exposed to a completely different way of life.  During our first full day in Joburg, we had the opportunity to visit Soweto.  This is the South Western Township which was once home to Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu.  There was such a stark contrast between the extravagant homes in one neighborhood to the “makeshift dwellings” with no electricity or running water in another area.  Even more surprising to me was the number of individuals living in these makeshift dwellings who owned BMW vehicles, which our guide indicated were commonly referred to in the townships as the “Black Man’s Wish” – a symbol of hard work and status.  We also visited the Hector Pietersen Museum.  This experience was the most shocking for me for many reasons.  I felt embarrassed that I didn’t know who Hector Pietersen was prior to this trip and that I was missing knowledge on an entire important historical event.  For those of you who share this same gap in historical knowledge, Hector Pietersen became the iconic symbol of youth resistance to apartheid.  He was killed at just 13 years old during the 1976 Student Uprising, during which students were protesting the continued use of Afrikaans in schools.  It was both enlightening and horrifying to learn about these events.  

Later that evening was much more lighthearted.  We visited GIBS, a leading business school in South Africa.  We networked with current MBA students, and the students shared their unique backgrounds and business school experiences.  It was also interesting to compare the Global Studies program that GIBS offers with our own at UMD and discuss with these students why they may choose upcoming global experiences. 

The next day of company visits was by far my favorite!  In the morning, we toured the new Vodacom headquarters, and it was fascinating to see the new technology.  However, in the afternoon, we visited Harambee, a Youth Employment Accelerator.  We had the opportunity to do mock interviews and provide feedback to unemployed young men and women in an effort to prepare them for upcoming interviews with potential employers.  Working as an educator for the entirety of my career, I may be partial, but this was an incredibly rewarding experience.  

This night we were off to Cape Town, which I can honestly say tops my list of the most beautiful places I have ever visited.  The first morning in Cape Town, we took the cable car to the top of Table Mountain for what I thought were the best views I had ever seen… There is a saying that, when the clouds are over the mountain, it’s like a “Tablecloth”, but we were so fortunate to visit the mountain on a super clear day.   After this visit to Table Mountain, the views only continued and got even better!  A group of us hired a guide to tour the western cape, where we saw the African Penguins at Boulder’s Beach and the waves crashing against the Cape of Good Hope.  We tried our best not to get swept away by the strong winds!  During this drive, we passed a group of individuals on a photo shoot.  We learned that this particular stretch of the western cape was the most popular for photo shoots, due to the beautiful views.  This was also the first that we learned about “Production Season”.  Although we found it interesting that everywhere we went in South Africa, we saw so many beautiful people, we just thought that was part of the culture.  While there are certainly beautiful people living in the country on the norm, this time of year there tends to be an influx of models – potentially swaying that norm to a bit more than the average.  Apparently, South Africa is an ideal location for photo shoots and commercials, not simply due to the natural beauty, but also due to the location and the ease with which a diverse group of photographers and models can meet.  

The following day, we had a scheduled cultural experience, which included a walk around the small town of Stellenbosch and an essential lesson on South African wines.  We explored the vineyard, learned about the different grapes, and definitely found a few new favorites… I have already had to explain to my friends at home that “Pinotage” is not a made-up wine! 

While there was certainly a lot of enjoyment on this trip, it was not all fun and games… after the weekend of “cultural experiences”, we started the week off by hearing from Dr. Denis Worrall, the former South African Ambassador and visiting Maersk, the world’s largest shipping company.  Then, it was off to work with our project clients.  While we had met with them remotely prior to the trip, it was great to finally put faces to names and to get more in-depth knowledge about their companies and what they hoped to gain from working with us.  We gathered as much information as possible to finalize our recommendations to them at the end of the week.  

The last of our company visits were to Coronation and Brandseye.  We learned about Coronation’s strong company culture which makes them a leading South African fund management company.  At Brandseye, we met with analysts who told us about how they use social media data to predict outcomes.  For example, they were the only company to use data to accurately predict a Donald Trump victory in the presidential election.  

The next day, we had time to work on our consulting projects in the hotel – and, I will say that focusing on schoolwork on a beautiful South African summer day was definitely difficult.  However, it was rewarded by a beautiful hike at the end of the day.  One thing I had learned prior to the trip was that South Africans truly enjoy building relationships in business, and this was demonstrated when our client offered to take us on this hike and out to dinner.  In case the views of Table Mountain weren’t good enough from the cable car, we enjoyed this wonderful (and exhausting) hike up Kloof Korner, which allowed us to see the African Sunset.  After this trip, I can truly appreciate the exceptionality in the sunsets from the different parts of the world.  

Our hard work was also rewarded by a successful presentation to our client the following morning.  Our client seemed pleased with the funding recommendations, pitch deck, and competitive analysis that we provided.  We looked forward to maintaining this relationship to see their company’s future growth.  

We ended our group time together in the same way that we had started, with a traditional African dinner, but this time combined with live music.  We reflected on our experiences and shared our favorite places and moments.  It was exciting to see the growth in individuals, as well as the depth in the connections that had been developed throughout our time in South Africa.  

Finally – let me say – SUMMER… all of these amazing experiences were exponentially greater because of the time of year in which we were there.  While we definitely learned first-hand the meaning of Toto’s “God Bless the Rains Down in Africa”, and these lyrics will have a bit more significance when belting them out at every opportunity for karaoke, we also felt the warmth as we explored the country.  We had the sun shining on us on most days and saw the natural beauty of it setting at the end of each day.  

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