Published: Sept. 18, 2017 By

Last spring, two CU Boulder students traveled to Johannesburg and Pretoria, South Africa, where they spent three weeks studying the post-Apartheid systems of leadership, peacekeeping and sustainable political development.

Senior Connie Hernandez and sophomore Jack Schutz were paired with South African graduate student interns at the Africa Institute of South Africa (AISA) to conduct research and write policy briefs. A division of the Human Sciences Research Centre, AISA is a think tank that studies Africa issues and African diasporas.

The trip was led by Alphonse Keasley, associate vice chancellor in the Office of Diversity, Equity and Community Engagement, who conducts research for ongoing writing projects in collaboration with South African Professor Sylvester Bongani Maphosa. Since 2007, Keasley and Maphosa have co-edited two books, written numerous articles and conducted several presentations together. Maphosa is chief research specialist with AISA.

“I chose South Africa to focus on the way they were able to successfully bring about a change from colonialism to Apartheid to being where they are now culturally and achieving that without bloodshed,” Keasley said. 

“The students I take there come into their first-hand experience of capacity development, of understanding a particular subject about Africa. The capacity development works. Not only for the American students who go to South Africa but also for the African interns to learn from my CU students.”

Hernandez is studying sociology with a minor in leadership. Her project focused on context-based leadership used in South Africa.

“My view of leadership has changed since seeing leadership in that culture,” she said. “Their aspect of leadership is about giving other people what they need, so you can get what you need. It’s about gathering a community and not making a project just about what you need.”

Hernandez has traveled to Europe and Mexico, but the South Africa experience opened her eyes on a culture and a political history she knew very little about, dispelling several myths.

“It was not what I expected at all in the cities,” said Hernandez. “I imagined poverty and wild, empty fields, but South Africa is a lot more developed than I ever expected. I had just learned about Apartheid in class last year. Before that, I’d never even heard the word. There is so much more going on in South Africa and the people. I was shocked that it was so different from what I had imagined.”

The students each wrote a 2,000- to 3,000-word policy brief for the think tank and subsequently for use by the people of South Africa. Their drafts were submitted to a peer-review panel for consideration for publication.

Schutz, who is studying integrative physiology, looked at how traditional ways of leadership there have been historically cast aside in favor of Westernized ways of thinking as a result of colonialism. His project was to draft focus group questions to replicate a South African study conducted in the early 2000s to see how prevalent Ubuntu style leadership is in South Africa.

“African problems are unique to that culture,” he said. “If we can cultivate solutions to those issues that are grounded in more African ways of thinking, it will work better. The collectivist thinking they have can be summed up as Ubuntu, which means, ‘I am because we are.’ Their lives are centered around community, whereas the colonialist mindset is more along the lines of individualist culture. So, it becomes a clash where policies influenced by colonialism are disconnected from the people that they impact.”

When not working on their projects or collaborating with the AISA interns, Hernandez and Schutz explored the culture and history in South Africa. The students each wrote blog posts about their activities and experiences, which also kept their families informed.

Keasley has been taking students to South Africa since 2007. For the past few years, he has funded the students’ trips himself, because he understands the importance of exposing students to the culture and political system of post-Apartheid South Africa.

“I’m paying to have them travel with me,” he said. “It’s that important that students understand Africa is not a place to be pitied, but rather is a place in which working collaboratively with the people in a young democracy—which South Africa is—is a rewarding experience for all.

“The lessons that the students and I have learned in South Africa about reconciliation and peace building seem to have particular relevance for us in the U.S.,” Keasley said.  “My South African colleague would like to use our mutual exchange to support people in both the USA and on the African continent.”