Change is a team sport
Bringing about change means utilizing all available support: family, organisations, individuals who cross your path. You cannot do it alone.
When Setlogane Manchidi, now head of CSI at a major financial institution with an MCom in business management, first got on a bus to UCT from Johannesburg’s Park Station, his whole family was there to see him off. Economist Isaah Mhlanga had an uncle who provided a space for him to study when he was a teenager. GIBS academic Dr Dots Ndletyana, had a grandmother who contrived to get them out of the black township so they could get better schooling. Architect and conductor Ofentse Pitse’s mum found the money, somehow, to get her into Pro Arte school in Pretoria.
No one achieves remarkable change alone. “Change is a team sport,” says change expert Dr Frank Magwegwe. Often it is the family that provides the first elements of the social support we need to build a different future, even if they may not have the wherewithal to pay for tertiary study.
If you listen to the stories of our guests on our podcasts, though, you hear two other common themes. One refers to organisations. The other is a roll call of individuals who made a difference at a crucial moment.
The organisations include Promaths, which provides extra tuition for senior learners in those subjects. They started in Dobsonville, Soweto, in 2005 – just in time to help Isaah Mhlanga achieve his six distinctions in matric. StudyTrust was founded by Rev. Jan Hofmeyr in 1974 to support Black children at school. Twenty years later they gave Setlogane Manchidi a bursary, allowing him to get on that bus to UCT. In the nineties, South African Airways gave bursaries to black female students. A village girl from KZN, Ntsiki Biyela, became a winemaker.
These days, of course, the state provides bursaries through the National Student Financial Aid Scheme. That is an enormous extension of social support.
The support organisations exist. The individual has to find out and to reach out. When Ntsiki Biyela was lost and desperate, floundering in a fog of unintelligible Afrikaans tuition at Stellenbosch University, she went to the student counselling office. They supported her personally and gave her the reassurance that she would not be kicked out if she failed. Free from that paralysing fear, she could focus. She passed. Dots Ndletyana, facing horrific personal loss in the midst of academic success, fell apart. She was on the edge of suicide when her sister (another link in the support chain) took her to Akeso mental health hospital. They saved her life. “I decided I want to live.”
Frank describes gratitude as a crucial component of that elusive quality called resilience. Time and again in our conversations the names blazed out from the flow of the story. Setlogane: Mrs Sussman sent stamps and envelopes and paper for his bursary applications; Mrs Jacobs at the UCT finance office found a way to place him in a residence. Isaah: Mr Mabitsela at Promaths connected him to Setlogane Manchidi at Investec, who took him to see Steven Kosseff, who approved a bursary even though the applications had closed. Dots: Gwyneth Tuchten and Jane Castle at Wits, “two angels who thought I was fabulous”, lifted her work and enabled her to get a Fulbright Scholarship to the US. Jonathan Jansen: his Latin teacher, Mr Galant, told him he had potential. It was the first time anyone had said something like that. “After that, I never came second in anything.” Ntsiki: Philip Constandius at Delheim insisted she join an all-white, all-male conference of winemakers, because “if you are not going to change it, how is it going to change?” When she started her own label, those connections made it possible.
Ntsiki’s story provides another insight into the functioning of social support. “I consciously built bridges,” she says. The winemakers were white, male, and mostly Afrikaans. Their peers at the university had nearly crushed her ambitions to qualify, insisting on using only a language she did not understand. She could have responded by putting up a wall against anyone from that background, but she didn’t. They were in the field she wanted to enter. They loved wine-making. She wanted to learn. She approached them as individuals, building bridges, building a network.
Social support works in both directions. You have to be open to give and to take, to reach out, to be vulnerable. Next time, you will be the one providing strength and support, making change possible.
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