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Rapson: Colleges can be economic engines for good in South Africa


This commentary is adapted from remarks made by Kresge President and CEO Rip Rapson during the 2023 Siyaphumelela Conference held June 28-30 in South Africa.

Everything that can be said about the extraordinary progress the universities in South Africa that participate in the Siyaphumelela Initiative has likely been said far more eloquently than I can. The highly distinctive yet deeply effective bodies of work of each institution. The emergence of strategies of collaboration and shared learning were unimaginable when Kresge’s Education Program introduced Siyaphumelela eight years ago. The uptake of data-informed practices that build on practices in other countries and those original to South Africa. And so much more.

There is breathtaking, inspiring and profoundly promising work underway in South Africa to improve student success in higher education. I recently had the opportunity to travel to see this firsthand. It was my first trip to South Africa in five years since COVID-19 attempted to undo so much progress in higher education success. Here are a few of my observations from this trip.

The Decline of a Great City

Being removed from Johannesburg for those five years has necessitated watching from afar a series of events that call into question what makes cities vibrant beacons of opportunity and cauldrons of innovation.

Images crystallize in my mind of a once-great, prosperous, and commanding city seeming to collapse of its own weight. A city pockmarked with huge swaths of blighted land. One seemingly incapable of stemming violent, destabilizing, terrifying crime. A city brought to its knees by public and private corruption. Where streetlights don’t work, whose potholes weren’t paved, whose sidewalks heaved, and whose buildings stood abandoned.

Dreadful. Depressing. And all too real.

Let me assure you that that city in my mind’s eye is not Johannesburg but my own hometown: Detroit. That dystopian portrait was exactly what was painted 15 years ago.

Let's stay in touch Sign up for our newsletters SubscribeIndeed, one of America’s leading publications posed on its cover: “Will the last person to leave Detroit please turn out the lights?” The question wasn’t without basis. A decade ago, Detroit filed for the largest municipal bankruptcy in American history. It was joined by the bankruptcies of our pillar automotive industries – Chrysler (now Stellantis), General Motors, Ford (for all practical purposes), and hundreds of large and small businesses up and down the automotive supply chain.

Some would use similar brushstrokes to depict the situation in Johannesburg today. I was thoroughly frustrated to read an article in London’s Financial Times two weeks ago that did exactly that.

My intention is not to reinforce that kind of sensational negativism. It is instead to convey that I believe that we in Detroit know just how difficult things can be – whether measured on the scale of political dysfunction, economic disinvestment, neglected infrastructure, or unmet social needs.

And yet, a decade later, Detroit has reestablished its financial equilibrium, recalibrated its political machinery, and reimagined its economic and social future.

By many measures, Detroit is succeeding. Its downtown residential and commercial activity is booming. Its neighborhoods are stabilizing, anchored by well-maintained parks and recreation centers, improved early childhood centers and schools, and newly vibrant commercial corridors. Its private sector has renewed confidence in the viability of market investment. Its automotive sector is poised to catapult into the electronic vehicle era. Its public sector has cleansed the corrosion of corruption and has become a model of competent, results-oriented governance.

Detroit refused to turn off the lights, choosing instead to illuminate a very different future.

Indeed, in an astounding turnabout, Time magazine declared Detroit one of the world’s great places for 2022.

But all that good news doesn’t mean that Detroit has cracked the code once and for all.

The noted urbanist Richard Florida, author of The Rise of the Creative Class, said to me recently that as extraordinary as Detroit’s revitalization has been, multiple drivers of long-term vitality remain underdeveloped: low wages and unemployment in the neighborhoods, underperforming elementary and second education, low rates of wealth formation among people of color, enduring racial health disparities, and others.

Florida then went on to note that education is a particular piece of unfinished business – not just in Detroit, but in many of America’s cities. He argued that our educational institutions have not only to innovate but also align more fully and effectively. Between high schools and postsecondary institutions. Between community colleges and universities. Among higher education, industry, government, and communities.

The South Africa Experience

That brings me back to South Africa, Siyaphumelela, and the power of the work that has been on display there.

South African higher education leaders – unquestionably and regrettably – are in a very tough spot dealing with load-shedding, degradation of infrastructure and political malaise. As I spoke with people over meals and in the hallways in Johannesburg, it was hard not to take in the expressions of deep pessimism at best and hardening cynicism at worst.

That malaise starkly contrasts my previous trips to South Africa, when there was a profound optimism about the possibilities of a still extraordinarily young democracy. It was tempered by realism to be sure. But it was palpable, and it was inspiring.

So, a couple of observations, for what they’re worth.

First, I hope South African higher education leaders know they are far, far from being alone – in their alienation from elected officials, in their loss of faith in the bedrock institutions of democracy, in their sense of erosion of a sense of shared purpose and the common good.

On each of those fronts, the United States’ ship of state at the moment is shameful – we are utterly consumed by partisan division, ever more intractably separated by race and economic class, incomprehensibly incapable of housing our homeless, feeding our hungry, educating our most disadvantaged, inexcusably dragging our feet in the face of rising oceans, overheating cities and cascading waves of fires and violent storms.

Not that that is any real consolation, I know. But shadows are falling well beyond South Africa’s borders.

Second, Detroit’s experience tells me that turnarounds of the most unimaginable kind are possible. A reversal of fortune may well start just when the situation appears most bleak. Perhaps because that bleakness resets the preconditions of resolve, of reimagination, and of renewal.

And third – perhaps combining one and two – South Africa has been through worse. During the entire history of Apartheid, to be sure. But also, in the mid-70s. And in the decade between 1985 and 1995, when the country appeared to be at risk of collapsing into civil war. Out of those horrific conditions rose the inspirational Rainbow Democracy. Today, the country has so very much more on which, and with which, to build.

The Birth of Siyaphumelela

One of those building blocks is what I started this story celebrating: Siyaphumelela and its work to increase the success of postsecondary students.

About 10 years ago, Kresge Trustee Phil Clay and I sat down over dinner in Cape Town with a dozen vice chancellors. We wanted to explore whether we might enter a new body of work together following our very successful investments in promoting advancement training at a handful of universities. The vice chancellors were unanimous in urging us to take on student success.

A statue of Nelson Mandela on the balcony of Cape Town's city hall.
A statue of Nelson Mandela on the balcony of Cape Town’s city hall, where Mandela delivered one of his iconic speeches in 1990.

The vice chancellors made the case that while universities had opened up after the end of apartheid, their success rates were unacceptably low. Phil and I listened very carefully, asked many questions, and came away persuaded. We brought the proposition back to Kresge Education Program Managing Director Bill Moss, who went to work building a response. And Siyaphumelela was born.

For Kresge, this new initiative had the enormous advantage of running parallel to student success efforts in the States. A group of reformers at American community colleges, led by Achieving the Dream, had been experimenting with student-focused, data-driven approaches to address our own troubling graduation and throughput rates.

Working with SAIDE, and the first five Kresge grantees – Wits, Nelson Mandela University, University of the Free State, Durban University of Technology, and the University of Pretoria – Siyaphumelela borrowed from cutting-edge approaches in the U.S., while designing innovative, bold, and effective approaches tailored to the unique needs and capacities of South Africa’s students and institutions.

I heard during my visit that there is no paucity of challenges yet to overcome. But the progress is real, expanding by the year. I heard example after example. The leaders there are hurtling forward at a speed inconceivable five years ago. The promise of this work is coming into ever-sharper focus.

Kresge’s Future Engagement

Kresge will continue to support Siyaphumelela and its basic structures over the next three years.

We will ask all the grantees to use common tools, share data, and support national approaches. And we will expand the number of universities by issuing a call for proposals later this year, encouraging current, past, and future grantees to apply for support. We will more actively explore whether we can strengthen ways that universities can support their cities beyond producing more degrees.

Let me use the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg as a hypothetical, realizing that any number of universities could be substituted. On one hand, Wits drives the economic, social, and political environment of Johannesburg, the Gauteng Province, and the country as a whole by producing graduates in every conceivable field.

On the other hand, Wits is also an employer, an investor in land, a purchaser of goods and services, a generator of community activities, an engine of socially-applied research… and it could even be a provider of renewable energy beyond its own needs.

All of these functions are, and can increasingly become, ingredients for advancing community development and stability, increasing safety, nurturing stronger pipelines from high schools to university, and supporting the economic futures of people and businesses in the Braamfontein community.

We propose working with a handful of universities to explore how this might play out. We’d also propose drawing on our Siyaphumelela playbook by encouraging South African universities to compare notes both with one another and with analogous efforts in the U.S.

I was – I must admit – somewhat uncertain about what I might find in South Africa on this visit. Five years is a long time between trips. And a great deal has been injected into the civic calculus.

But the people I convened with demonstrate a resoluteness of purpose, a reservoir of resilience, and a courageous embrace of creativity that makes absolutely clear that the work is becoming stronger by the day. And that is notwithstanding all that has conspired to tempt them to lose perspective – whether COVID, electrical shortages, or the kind of political shenanigans South Africa seems particularly good at cooking up.

Let me say that the people I met were exceedingly kind about Kresge’s role in all of this. Indeed, I ardently hope that we have been good partners.

But the reality is that all this work rests on the shoulders of those working day-in, day-out on campuses, not ours. They are on the ground every day fighting to make students’ lives more enriching, equitable, and hopeful. Their work is heroic. I left South Africa not pessimistic or cynical but uplifted and inspired. These leaders are changing their country. They have our deepest admiration and thanks.