Advancing public leadership in Africa

14 June 2019 | Story Ambre Nicolson. Photo Liam Cornell. Read time 7 min.
Professor Faizel Ismail will take over from Professor Alan Hirsch as director of the Nelson Mandela School of Public Governance in July.
Professor Faizel Ismail will take over from Professor Alan Hirsch as director of the Nelson Mandela School of Public Governance in July.

The work of the Nelson Mandela School of Public Governance (previously the Graduate School of Development Policy and Practice) at the University of Cape Town (UCT) is complex, spanning teaching, research and policy engagement. But its aim is simple: put theory into practice to make public service at the highest levels of leadership an aspiration for the most talented of the continent’s rising generation.

“The central work of the school is to provide strategic leadership skills for people who want to make a difference in the organisations they work in and in the society they live in,” explains Professor Alan Hirsch, director of the Mandela School at UCT. Prior to becoming director of the school in 2013, Hirsch worked in the South African presidency where he managed economic policy, represented the presidency at the G20 and was co-chair of the G20 Development Working Group.

According to Hirsch, both the teaching and research aspects of the Mandela School focus on practice. “Our aim is neither theoretical advancement nor teaching theory, and the research work we do is very much at the applied end of the spectrum.

 

“The central work of the school is to provide strategic leadership skills for people who want to make a difference in the organisations they work in and in the society they live in.”

“Our job is to turn knowledgeable public leaders – who may be trained as lawyers, economists or engineers – into what we call effective ‘public entrepreneurs,’” says Hirsch, who describes a public entrepreneur as someone who knows how to make good things happen in complex environments.”

Professor Brian Levy, academic director of the Mandela School agrees. “The ethos of this school is deeply tied to the approach we bring to development which is: let’s wrestle with complexity and let’s not get preoccupied with shoulds and judgements,” he says.

The Mandela School offers both a master’s degree in development policy and practice, and a post-graduate diploma in development policy and practice, which according to programme manager, Hannah Diaz, offers a suite of tailored short-course offerings that address a range of complex challenges in the public policy and development arena.

“Each course is designed in response to demand and shaped for a specific audience. Sometimes we are commissioned to design a course by a particular government department. Sometimes our chosen subject matter draws participants from more diverse backgrounds,” she explains.

All of the courses balance a focus on learning and practical application in participants’ contexts with contributions from leading thinkers and practitioners who expose participants to the latest research and innovative practice.

 

“Let’s wrestle with complexity and let’s not get preoccupied with shoulds and judgements.”

“We’ve been lucky enough to have the likes of Professor Ravi Kanbur and Professor Trevor Manuel give input on our courses; and to have the strategic advisor at the Ministry of Science and Technology and former national Director General Dr Lindiwe Msengana-Ndlela, and National Planning Commissioner and environmental activist Tasneem Essop facilitate, among others.

“Feedback from our participants always mentions how valuable this grounded input is,” explains Diaz.

Africans learning from each other

“At the outset, we called ourselves an African school and wanted to make this real,” explains Hirsch. He believes that Africans have a lot to learn from one another. “We believe that building pan-African networks is part of our job,” he says. Through the Building Bridges programme, led by Dr Marianne Camerer, more than 100 alumni from 10 African countries have already participated in our Emerging African Leaders Programme.

 

“Our natural market is east and southern Africa, but the school also draws master’s students from as far afield as Ghana, Nigeria and South Sudan.”

In its first seven years, the Mandela School has drawn participation from 30 African countries. “Our natural market is east and southern Africa, but the school also draws master’s students from as far afield as Ghana, Nigeria and South Sudan.” The school also runs a joint programme, LeAD Campus, with two predominantly French-speaking universities. “This means that we can draw people from Francophone Africa, something very rare in South Africa, but greatly appreciated,” he says.

The Mandela School is explicit about its aim to build strong continental networks of understanding and action. “We believe this is one of our contributions to the ambitious continental reform agenda,” says Hirsch. “Also, it makes the school an exciting place to work in, so we can draw top-quality teaching and programme management staff.”

Honouring Mandela through action

When the school re-launched as the Nelson Mandela School of Public Governance in July 2018, Hirsch described Mandela’s greatest legacy as the example he set of bold, self-sacrificing yet ethical and accountable leadership.

 

“Mandela’s leadership is a beacon for our times, all over Africa.”

“Mandela’s leadership is a beacon for our times, all over Africa,” says Hirsch. “When it comes to the school, our ability to invest in young leaders – as our diverse group of funders enables us to do – creates the kind of legacy I believe Mandela himself would have been delighted by: a living memorial, carried out by young, politically engaged people who are pushing the imagination of what our continent can and should look like.”

Read more about the Emerging African Leaders Programme.

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