Find out more about applying for the Rhodes Scholarship

Find out more about applying for the Rhodes Scholarship


Leading Africa in the 21st Century: from the university into the world

Monday 27 March, 2017

by Jess Auerbach (South Africa-at-Large & St Antony's 2009)


Since leaving Oxford, I have had the privilege of teaching social science in various forms to young people from a host of different countries, and at a wide range of different types of institutions. From Stanford University, to the University of Katyavala Bwila in Angola, where entry is even more competitive, one thing stands out: my best students are always about the same, across the board.

Curious, passionate, driven, quick, capable; top students in their first year at any institution are a veritable army of could-be-Rhodes-Scholars, could-be-Presidents, could-be-all-our-dreams. They then get shaped by the structures around them, by definitions of success, by opportunities opened and foreclosed, by funding, pedagogy, family responsibilities, and the precise outline of the horizons placed within each person’s particular view. Something usually happens in the course of undergraduate training that makes most of those young people doubt their own ability to change the world, and by the end of it, the majority accept a place in society that continues the status quo. Those who were never identified as ‘leaders’ in the first place tend to fall off the university radar, and the contributions that their passage has made are remain largely invisible. But what if they didn’t?

This January, I joined the faculty at the African Leadership University (ALU) precisely because it is an institution completely committed to changing conceivable horizons, for Africans, and for the world. It is based on an ideology of inclusiveness and diversity, and on commitments to equitable access to quality education, cutting-edge pedagogy, and societal intervention towards a better world. Importantly, that is a world where the centrality of Africa – at least to Africans! – is never questioned, and the contributions that the continent has and continues to make to global discourse are taken seriously, analysed, and built upon.

Three weeks into my time at ALU, I referred to it as a University-yet-to-come. Now ten weeks in, I see it becoming, a little more every day, and actually managing to do things differently, from student governance to lesson plans, from libraries to pedagogy. A few nights ago, approximately 170 students from 29 countries (the 28 in my class speak 29 languages between them, for example) gathered to discuss how to move through the inevitable challenges of setting up an institution. The last time I’d been in such a passionate, committed, and international space was in Rhodes House, though ALU’s diversity unsurprisingly blows Oxford’s out the water. Furthermore, the students who ran the event were only two years out of high school, but they have already been given the agency to build, and change the institution, and to ensure that it meets the needs of this particular generation.

Of the many questions discussed that night, that which stood to me was how we are actually different from a conventional university – was that possible? Should it be? Many media outlets have referred to us as the "Harvard of Africa", but from here it certainly doesn’t look or feel like Harvard and most of the students don’t drink that particular kool aid. It isn’t Harvard, but it is something special, and it seems worthwhile to articulate what that is, and to invite the Rhodes community to engage with us on our own institutional terms.

ALU is different because it brings students, staff, and faculty from across the African continent (and increasingly the globe) together, creating a social and intellectual world that speaks directly to centuries of Pan-African thought and philosophy. Students arrive with unquestioned assumptions about Africa, and through living together, are forced to interrogate, nuance, and rebuild their views. What brings people into community is less a sense of what Africa is, than what it could become. It is an aspirational vision that serves to draw from each person tremendous inner focus. This focus changes academic and scholarly life in profound ways.

In being framed around the notion of Leadership, ALU allows students to get to know themselves. Though contemporary leadership discourse is often packed full of buzzwords, Myers-Briggs, and branded rhetoric, at the base is the recognition that true leadership requires a deep level of self awareness and self knowledge. These are worth cultivating regardless of whether or not one plans to stand at the front and shout, and regardless of whether one buys into a conventional definition of leadership that as Susan Cain has recently argued speaks mostly to money and power. In fact, for those students who are skeptical of the dominant narrative (and there are many), the self awareness and self knowledge enabled by leadership in the curriculum gives them space to articulate the value of their own particular missions, whatever they may be, and to calmly resist the pressures of societal messaging.

Whether introvert or extrovert, students answer the whys and to what ends of their actions and their learning, and faculty do the same of their teaching. In exploring who they are, what motivates them, how they work in groups and alone, how to manage their emotions, ambitions, and activities, students lay out a path for their lives that though likely to change, does give them a sense of direction. Just as the Rhodes Scholar community rallies around the idea of ‘fighting the world’s fight’, so too does ALU create space for thinking about issues greater than the individual from the first moment of the undergraduate experience. This is unusual, and it is potentially transformative.

ALU is based on the idea that in the contemporary world, good quality education should not be the privilege of a few, but the right of many (at least 3 million, according to Fred Swaniker, who founded it). This is imperative if we aim to avoid an Orwelian future, especially for young people born into non-OECD nation states. It is rare for a university to so consciously place value on personal growth, and it is interesting to be part of – however complex that process may be. Institutionally, it is very much ‘becoming,’ and that is where I reach out to the Rhodes community. The average age of people within the organisation is currently 26 - brilliant, passionate, but usually with little experience, and as we scale, we need deeper levels of know-how. Our visiting faculty program has recently been launched to bring in those skills, and I invite all members of the Rhodes community to come and join us. It is a place where the spark of idealism has not yet been lost, and where transformation (personal, societal) is still at the heart of everything that is now being done. In a time of such global cynicism, it offers an alternative vision, and I invite you to join us in the hard work ahead of bringing that vision into being.
If you have any questions or would like to be involved in some way, please feel free to contact me.

Jess Auerbach (South Africa-at-large & St Antony's 2009) has a background in refugee and forced migration studies . She recently completed her PhD in anthropology at Stanford and is now teaching at the African Leadership University, located in Mauritius.

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