Growing African leaders

Louise McAuliffe

Louise McAuliffe

A school with lofty ambitions has recently opened in Johannesburg. Its goal is to educate future African leaders.

The African Leadership Academy began its two-year academic programme with the first intake of 97 students in September 2008.

"The greatest need we have in Africa is better leadership if we are to achieve our full potential," says African Leadership Academy's chief executive officer Fred Swaniker.

Swaniker says he became a co-founder of the academy because he realised that leaders were not going to appear just out of nowhere. His CV states that he holds an MBA degree from Stanford University Graduate School of Business and a BA degree in economics from Macalester College in the US.

"We have to grow them," says Swaniker. "That is where the idea came about of establishing an institution with the explicit objective of developing our next generation of future leaders."

Students study an A-Levels curriculum, with subjects including African history, literature, geography and languages to develop an appreciation of Africa's culture and customs.

Corporate sponsors have come on board and most of the students from all over Africa study through scholarships. Others are boarders at the school in Honeydew, western Johannesburg.

"Currently 95 percent of our student body is here on some form of scholarship. Most have full scholarships, which are funded by individuals, various corporations and financial institutions.

"We have a team of people based in different parts of Africa who go out and scout for 'talent'.

"They go to villages and schools where they make presentations, exposing people to their search for exceptional youngsters.

"We received a lot of applications through mailing that we did to the headmasters of 1600 schools in Africa. We asked them to nominate their top four students - those that they believe have the potential to change Africa.

"We also received applications through our partnerships with various organisations and non-governmental organisations who work with youth in townships and refugee camps.

"For the first intake we received 1700 applications from 36 countries - only 97 were successful," says Swaniker.

The academy has already received 2500 applications from 40 countries for their September 2009 intake. However, it can only accommodate 100.

Representing 29 nationalities, the current student body is made up of 53 male and 44 female students. The youngest student admitted is 15 and the oldest 20 years.

"By and large the students have adjusted remarkably well. Even though they are from different backgrounds, they just get along so beautifully.

"They have become very close and support each other," says Swaniker.

"Not having met people from other countries, they are exploring each other's ideas, values and cultures.

"As with most boarding school facilities, students do miss home. Some of the students went home over our December break. Those who couldn't travel were hosted by local families [of South African students] over the festive period."

Born, raised and schooled in Soweto, Daniel Skumbuzo Khumalo (18) was "scouted" to attend the academy through his involvement with the Johannesburg Student Council.

Khumalo, who professes not to be an academic superstar, says: "What got me into the academy was just being me."

"I filled in the application forms and was requested to attend the final selection. We were interviewed and wrote aptitude tests. Luckily my application was successful.

"What I enjoy most about attending ALA is that it is such a diverse environment. We interact with students from all over the world. We share ideas, debate, and it has been challenging to live with and discover each others' cultures.

"I am hoping that from here I can attend the University of Cape Town or a university outside of southern Africa.

"This is my stepping stone to help the people on the continent of Africa. I pledge to share my skills and knowledge with everyone to help Africa move forward.

"I want to change people's perceptions of Africa. It is not the dark continent that people perceive it to be. I believe that I will be instrumental in realising some of Africa's hope and dreams."

"I don't want to see things happen, I want to make things happen," Khumalo said.

"At ALA we have made a conscious decision not to increase our admittance levels. We want to keep the classes small," said Swaniker.

"The current student-teacher ratio is 5 to 1. Every student gets a mentor. We want to tailor-make this education experience to individual students' needs."

Swaniker explains their philosophy like this: "If we select the right people and invest tremendously in them, the impact that those people can have in transforming society is much greater in the long-term than if we invested the same resources in a much broader group of people."

"In pursuit of instilling a robust system of values in the students, Graça Machel, Desmond Tutu and the Gates Foundation, to mention a few, have formed part of the weekly guest list at the academy.

"We try to bring speakers onto the campus with inspirational stories. People who can serve as role models or mentors. Bearing in mind the calibre of who we have already had, we are trying to maintain this level but they do not necessary have to be a well-known name."

Wednesdays are dedicated to community projects where students get involved with issues of personal interest in areas surrounding the campus.

"We want to develop their sense for action. Going out into communities and getting involved, they discover the needs and put together a team to meet and satisfy that need," explained Swaniker.

Eighteen-year-old Winnie Imbuchi from Kenya is involved with a project at Emthonjeni Community Centre's aftercare centre.

"We are teaching drawing, sketching and painting art skills to the children with the aim of getting these young people to start their own businesses selling the products that they make," says Imbuchi.

Another group of students involved with the Emthonjeni aftercare facility are trying to teach English and mathematics to the younger children who speak isiZulu, isiNdebele, Sepedi, Sesotho and Setswana.

Speaking about this project, 17-year-old Rumbidzai Gonoa from Zimbabwe excitedly says: "We want to incorporate learning English with having fun.

"We are trying to find innovative ways to make this pre-school educational experience fun, memorable and interesting through use of colourful posters. We have been teaching numbers and singing the alphabet while playing in the sandpit.

"We play games such as 'Simon says jump 10 times'. While jumping, the children count one, two, three . and they do not realise that they are learning because they are having so much fun."

Students are also establishing a library for residents in the Zandspruit area, and are working on setting up vegetable gardens in Cosmo City. - Sowetan Online