Tapping into South Africa's human potential

19 September 2014
Proud Faculty of Commerce graduates, after being capped and hooded during the June 2014 ceremony.
Proud Faculty of Commerce graduates, after being capped and hooded during the June 2014 ceremony.

Considered an economic hub of Africa, South Africa is a country of many contrasts and home to a diversity of talent. How is the Faculty of Commerce tapping into this human potential to build capacity and develop leadership skills in the Western Cape and further afield?

When it comes to building capacity locally and continentally, the Faculty of Commerce's aim is clear: to help equip people at all levels of society and across all economic sectors to be responsible leaders and active citizens. How the faculty is going about this, however, is as diverse as the departments, projects and people who call it home.

Investing in future experts

In 2012 Professor David Taylor met with some of the biggest players in South Africa's financial services sector. He asked them a question: would they support the establishment of a world-class academic institute that would provide in-depth industry research and a steady stream of graduates to help deepen expertise and transform the fields of quantitative finance, risk management, insurance and banking? The answer was a resounding yes, with FirstRand, Barclays Africa Group and Liberty all putting their money where their mouths were to the collective tune of R30-million.

On 29 January 2014, UCT launched the result: the African Institute of Financial Markets and Risk Management (AIFMRM). Speaking at the launch, Dean of Commerce Professor Don Ross called AIFMRM a first in Africa. "No similar academic institute, aimed at creating a sustainable pipeline of African university graduates with sophisticated knowledge in banking, insurance, risk management and quantitative finance, exists on the continent."

Taylor, who previously led Wits' programme for Advanced Mathematics in Finance, is the director of both AIFMRM and its research arm, known as ACQuFRR (African Collaboration for Quantitative Finance and Risk Research). According to Taylor, the institute will be focusing on three key areas: research, teaching and expanded industry interaction. "With the establishment of our postgraduate qualifications we will be turning out 40 highly trained experts in financial risk management each year, and we will be doing so with a specific transformative agenda. Too often students leave the field after their four-year undergraduate studies due to a poor understanding of what a career in risk management really means. We want that to change."

Given the institute's express aim of transforming the demographic profile of these industries, the Western Cape government has also lent its support to the initiative. "Currently, finance and business services contribute 32.4% to the province's gross domestic product," says former Department of Economic Development and Tourism Minister Alan Winde. "This institute will play a key role in growing the Western Cape's pool of black professionals in the finance and business industry."

Tackling Africa's key challenges, together

When Dr Marianne Camerer accepted the position of programme director of Building Bridges, a new, policy-focused research and outreach initiative of the Graduate School of Development Policy and Practice (GSDPP), one of the things she was most excited about was its focus on developing leadership skills. As an independent governance expert, co-founder of the international anti-corruption NGO Global Integrity, former applied ethics lecturer and Yale World Fellow, Camerer sees the relationship between an ethical commitment to public service and the development of strategic leadership skills as key. Promoting strategic leadership for Africa's public sector is the focus of the GSDPP through its various programmes.

"In many cases, Building Bridges will be working with high-level decision-makers, but we will also be providing a learning space for young leaders from several African countries to critically engage with the most important issues facing the continent," explains Camerer, "one of these being regional integration."

Building Bridges aims to "bring together influential Africans to deepen understanding around key challenges plaguing the continent and seek solutions to these issues, which often evoke competing narratives and widespread disagreement on their causes and impact." Or, as Camerer puts it: "We are hoping to create a safe space where changemakers from around the continent can collaborate on finding innovative solutions."

With African economic integration the focus of the 2014 to 2015 Building Bridges programme, a series of events will be structured around this theme. These include an expert symposium in November 2014 for leading African thinkers on the political economy of integration, a high-level meeting of political stakeholders, a young leaders programme, and knowledge-sharing events for politicians, policymakers, parliamentarians, business leaders and members of the media.

Supporting social innovation

It is perhaps not surprising that when Dr Francois Bonnici describes the work that the Bertha Centre is doing around leadership development, he starts out with a question. After all, as an academic centre dedicated to research, teaching, dialogue and support of social innovations, the Bertha Centre's mandate includes the injunction to "change and challenge rules, policies, technologies, structures, beliefs and institutions."

"What is leadership?" asks Bonnici, "Is it the top-down approach traditionally favoured; or, as we believe, is it something that should also come from the bottom up, and from the inside out?" As an example, Bonnici points to the work that the Bertha Centre, based at the Graduate School of Business (GSB), is doing in healthcare. "One of the ways that we are building capacity is by looking beyond technology or new drugs to empowering and supporting the people on the frontline of healthcare, like nurses and hospital cleaners. These are people who are often on the margins but who have an essential role to play in helping solve the massive challenges facing our healthcare system."

The Inclusive Healthcare Innovation initiative (iHI), as a joint venture between the Faculty of Health Sciences and the Bertha Centre, is also inherently interdisciplinary. Along with a summit held in January of this year, which brought together local and international experts drawn from all aspects of healthcare, iHI also provides a platform for research and thought leadership related to healthcare innovation, action-learning, workshops, internships and a fellowship.

Developing entrepreneurship

"Do you know," asks Dr Mike Herrington, "that in sub-Saharan Africa, 50-65% of youth are unemployed?" In the case of Nigeria, with a population of 180 million, and assuming that half the population are youth, then this amounts to more jobless people than the entire population of South Africa. As co-author of the GEM (Global Entrepreneurship Monitor) report for South Africa and founder of the UCT Centre for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, Herrington is well placed to explain the implications of such a fact. “Studies such as GEM in South Africa allow us to get an accurate picture of early-stage entrepreneurial development in this country, and allow us to compare the results to other countries around the continent. This information is invaluable in terms of planning for governments, business and the NGO sector."

Entrepreneurship is also at the heart of DUNE (UCT's Development Unit for New Enterprise). The unit, headed up by Stuart Hendry, is developing a master's in technology-based entrepreneurship in collaboration with donor MerSETA (Manufacturing Engineering and Related Services SETA). Hendry is currently organising an international colloquium on technology-based entrepreneurship (to take place during mid-October), which will see six of the world's top professors of entrepreneurship (all of them successful entrepreneurs in their own right) travel to Cape Town to work with local experts to help develop the master's curriculum.

Entrepreneurship is a theme which runs across departments and disciplines. In the case of tourism, head of the Tourism Research Unit (TRU) and senior lecturer Richard George also points to the need for tourism students to be well versed in entrepreneurial skills. "In a sector such as tourism, which is dominated by small and medium enterprises, it is essential that students are taught about enterprise development," he says. "The TRU undertakes industry-specific research so that we can better understand what capacity-building requirements exist in the industry."

Staying connected

While specialised research units, institutes and academies are essential to its ability to remain innovative, the Faculty of Commerce is also committed to building capacity on the broader scale of its undergraduate studies.

According to Head of Actuarial Science Dave Strugnell, maintaining close relationships with professional bodies is essential if students are to graduate with skills that are relevant to their particular field. "In the case of professional disciplines such as actuarial science, it's essential; ASSA (Actuarial Society of South Africa) determines the educational requirements of actuaries, which inform our curriculum, and the overwhelming majority of our graduates will become members of ASSA, to whose code of conduct they will subscribe in their practice."

Goolam Modack, deputy head of the College of Accounting, agrees. "Our vision is to be a centre of excellence in professional accounting education. This is closely connected to building and maintaining relationships with professional associations that include a wide range of local and international accounting bodies such as SAICA [the South African Institute of Chartered Accountants], SAIPA [South African Institute of Professional Accountants] and others.

"Our liaison with the profession is necessary to ensure that our graduates have the necessary skills to meet the changing demands of both the public and private spheres. An example of this is our introduction of a Postgraduate Diploma in Public Sector Accounting in 2015, aimed at helping to address the accounting skills shortage in the public sector."

Strong professional ties also encourage collaboration through public-private partnerships, as is the case with the Enterprise Systems Education for Africa (ESEFA) project, which aims to develop an enterprise systems education platform, curriculum and community for sub-Saharan Africa. Launched in September 2013, this is a partnership between the Department of Information Systems, the Otto von Guericke University Magdeburg in Germany, and leading software firm SAP (Systems Applications Products) with its SAP University Alliances programme.

In July the first ESEFA train-the-lecturer workshop took place at UCT, with lecturers from universities in South Africa, Tanzania, Kenya and Zambia attending. Karin Reissenauer, ESEFA project manager in the Department of Information Systems, says, “Being a part of the ESEFA initiative is incredibly rewarding, as there is such enthusiasm from the academics and the students to participate in this programme. As Nelson Mandela so aptly said, 'Education is the most powerful weapon we can use to change the world'."

Story by Ambre Nicolson. Photos by Je'nine May.

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