What we learned in South Africa – Transformation is energizing, but hard work.

My wife and I arrived in Johannesburg a few days early to get over jet lag. Taking it easy, we spent an afternoon at Arts on Main in Maboneng. On Sunday, the pulsing heart of this funky but gentrifying arts scene is a food market with dozens of booths featuring victuals from many of South Africa’s culinary traditions: African, Dutch, Portuguese, Indonesian, Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, and a whole lot of Fusion (anyone for Cape Malay Curry Popcorn?). The music was vibrant. The crowds were varied: young and old, singles and families with kids, and as diverse as the cuisine. It’s what one would hope and expect from a Rainbow Nation.

In our South African travels during the next weeks, we saw many similarly exhilarating examples of cultural transformation in action, but we also saw that much remains to be done.

People fill the food court at Arts on Main in Johannesburg

Transformation was a concern at every university we visited. Every program and policy including alumni relations is being viewed in that context.

However, in large parts of the world, including South Africa, the interest in alumni relations is new. Indeed, at some of the South African universities we visited, the alumni relations office is only a few years old. In part, this reflects societies where university budgets have been controlled by and in large part funded by the government, and outside fundraising (and the importance of alumni donors) was minimal. So a cultural change that expands the role of alumni relations involves additional forms of transformation. Nonetheless, despite significant budgetary constraints, we found South African alumni relations professionals and their alumni volunteers embracing new possibilities in exciting ways.

We found a cultural matrix that is certainly different from ours in America. However, we also found notions of community that are essential to building alumni loyalty: notions like “each one teach one” and ubuntu (“I am what I am because of who we all are”). Such a sense of personal obligation to serve undoubtedly drives some specific alumni volunteer programs, such as the Yale Day of Service. But more importantly, it undergirds all alumni relations endeavors.

And, just as the land of South Africa is blessed with an abundance of minerals and raw materials, we found that South African universities already had in place many of the raw materials needed to cultivate rich alumni programming.

We found South African universities supporting many extracurricular activities for students (unlike some universities in some other countries YaleGALE has visited). It’s not just that sport teams, choirs and the like enrich student life and teach important lessons in leadership and teamwork. They create events and competitions which breed pride in and loyalty to university. This is instilled not only among students, but also among alumni who follow and delight in these student activities.

We saw alumni relations efforts building university brands (whether sports, choral, or other) to grow that loyalty. Such efforts have the potential to do more than just garner alumni attention. They can also generate monetary support for individual student activities. Just as importantly, they can nurture mentoring and career enhancing networks among alumni who used to participate in those activities when they were students. And while hands-on alumni volunteer programs have not been commonplace in South Africa, there was an interest in the possibility of building alumni-student community through alumni volunteer mentoring.

We saw a legacy of tradition in the universities we visited. Some historical. Some, the impact of student protests on history. These have only begun to be leveraged to build an alumni identity which leads to loyalty and continuing support. We were struck by a reunion event at the University of the Western Cape (UWC) which re-enacted a protest march from the 1980s which had historically been met by police brutality, but in the re-enactment, police handed roses to the alumni. We heard the interest of alumni professionals in involving alumni volunteers in the programming that nurtures the feeling of community and identity among alumni.

People from Yale and NMMU at an evening dinner reception at the South End Museum, two men are shaking hands

We were inspired by the new universities, formed through mergers of institutions with varied cultural histories, and given new names as they sought to forge new identities as dynamic non-racial educational institutions – while embracing the alumni of their former constituent institutions. And we were inspired by older universities as they sought to build on the past as well as transcend it. We learned repeatedly of the power not only of the act of reconciliation but the symbolic remembrance and renewal of it.

Over the past 18 months university students in both South Africa and America have protested loudly over similar concerns, whether called “diversity” or “transformation”. They have pointed out issues that were identified generations ago, but have not been resolved (e.g. the Rhodes Must Fall movement). They have sought more inclusive access and lower fees (e.g. the Fees Must Fall movement), though university budgetary constraints make easy resolution difficult. Now, many universities have a greater interest in cultivating new funding sources, including from alumni. However, successful alumni fundraising requires a long term effort to build a culture of loyalty, obligation, and giving – where giving involves not just treasure but time and talent as well. And an ethos of giving back rather than a culture of entitlement

This difficulty is exacerbated when so many South African university graduates are the first in their family to attend university and have obligations to their extended families who made university possible – making the donation of time and treasure problematic. So we were pleased to learn of some South African alumni association events that were both low cost and easy to implement while still building camaraderie – and look to implement similar events in our activities. The soup and wine event (“Sop ‘n” Dop”) of the UWC Gauteng Chapter comes to mind.

Many people standing around talking on a patio at the Consul General's home

The concluding social event of the YaleGALE mission at the U.S. Consul General’s residence in Cape Town brought my impressions full circle. The assembled included young South African leaders of tomorrow: Fulbright, Humphrey, and Mandela-Rhodes Scholars, as well as alumni of the Mandela Washington Fellowship – the Young African Leaders Initiatives. Though the music was less raucous and the gathering more formally dressed than the crowd at Arts on Main, it had the same diversity and vibrancy, exhibiting the exceptionalism of this Rainbow Nation.

Ben Slotznick ’70, Dra ’73
Producer, YaleGALE in South Africa 2016