A life-affirming experience in South Africa

During the application process and first few days of the Executive MBA at Henley, the “South Africa Trip” was billed as the highlight of the programme by alumni and faculty alike. I was eager to find out why.

Our NGO

Our group of 6 was paired with an NGO working to treat, heal and educate victims of gender-based violence (GBV) across South Africa. Now in its 25th year and with over 60 employees/volunteers, the organisation was seeking help in refining its 2019-2022 strategy.

The context

The extent of the GBV crisis was astonishing: 1,000 women die at the hands of their partner each year in South Africa, an increase of 11% since 2016. Only recently was the link between GBV and South Africa’s HIV epidemic and gang violence fully understood. Deep-rooted cultural beliefs and patriarchal tribal systems mean GBV is still seen by the South African government as a “civil issue”, and not one worthy of state intervention. Hence NGOs often provide the only lifeline to victims.

Here are 4 thoughts from the trip

Doing it for real is better: the MBA involves working on either case studies of random organisations or assignments based on one’s own organisation. The sense of energy and focus the whole cohort received from applying their efforts to a real, worthy cause was profound. A striking aspect of the week was the familiarity, for all the groups, of the issues faced within the organisations we were assigned to, despite their alien context: transparency of strategy, leadership, planning etc. These were not only things we had spent most of the MBA to date on, but most of our working lives trying to optimize in our own organisations…

Ask “How do you feel?”: it was always this question which elicited the most insightful responses from the charity’s dignified and passionate employees working on the frontline of the GBV fight. This question, we learned, is asked all too infrequently in the NGO sector, as the full horrors of what is experienced on a daily basis, are understandably suppressed in the name of service.

Emotions trump facts: there is no shortage of facts around crime, health or poverty in South Africa. We heard a lot of facts. But it was the sobbing, the shouting, the gesticulating, the laughing and the hugging that will stay with me: the demonstration of the charity’s employees’ passion for their communities and their work. It was only through channelling these emotions that we were able to land a clear message about the organisation to its new director (she knew all the facts already).

A celebration of diversity: Our week in Cape Town proved how powerful the coming together of different races, ages, backgrounds and beliefs can be when people are united in a common goal. On the final day, I observed with goose bumps a room of 50 people, representing 27 different nationalities, listening intently to passionate presentations from each group in the cohort to their respective organisations, containing recommendations designed to help each organisation fulfil their virtuous mission more effectively.

  

What to do next?

Following our return to the UK and to the ridiculous superficiality that characterises most of our lives, I know I am not alone in having on my mind those people we met in the townships. Will a slideshow and a “project report” really change their lives? Surely we can do more.

 

The “South Africa Trip” was a chance for us to work with organisations in real need of a steering hand, and I would like to think they all got one. However, I am pretty sure there was far more wisdom imparted in our direction, from the charities themselves and the people within them. Not necessarily in the areas of business acumen or professional development, but in the things that really make the world go around: humility, gratefulness, community, service, passion, humour, respect and authenticity.

It was a truly life-affirming experience, and now I see why it was billed so highly!

Graham Hutchings (EM17).

December 2018.

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