A roomful of high school students arguing over music is not what you expect at a business school. But this was the experience of Nick Binedell, director of the Gordon Institute of Business Science (Gibs) at the University of Pretoria in Johannesburg. Moreover, it was he who had initiated the debate.
The discussion took place on the first day of Spirit of Youth, a programme Gibs began in 2005 to get bright senior high school students – South Africa’s future leaders – thinking about big issues.
Prof Binedell admits to a moment of panic as he walked towards the room of 60 teenagers. “I walk in thinking: ‘What would 18-year-olds be interested in talking about? I thought, it might be music. I asked them which [band] was the best. I wrote as many of them up as I could spell,” he recalls.
He then widened the topic to discuss family, clothing, culture and which influences were stronger. A student from a school on Johannesburg’s industrial East Rand asked why he needed to ask such questions.
Prof Binedell laughs. “That was a . . . great moment of learning for me. It’s an obvious thing to do when you look back, but South Africans don’t know each other. We won’t succeed if we don’t do that.
“The only way that white and black South Africans will overcome the lack of understanding between them is to be exposed to intense personal discussions,” he says.
Sixteen years after the end of apartheid, most South Africans still grow up in racial and cultural silos, largely ignorant of how their fellow citizens think or feel. Such habits do not disappear without active attempts to break them down.
Gibs is committed to building a more competitive and sustainable society through business education. The 10-year-old institute, which has featured in the Financial Times’s executive education rankings since 2004, has developed a group of programmes unrelated to business education that aim to bring people of different backgrounds together to talk about themselves and their country.
Prof Binedell believes such programmes are fundamental to creating leaders with enough understanding and wisdom to pull a fractured country together.
“Leaders need to understand the whole country. [We] tend to remain in isolation, either by class [or] ethnicity,” Prof Binedell says. “Putting them into a programme like this encourages them to understand the whole, not a part.”
Now in its fifth year, Spirit of Youth currently has 150 participants. This year there will be eight formal sessions between January and October, typically taking up a full Saturday.
Private and state high schools in the Johannesburg-Pretoria region are asked to nominate bright children in their final two years to take part. Many are head boys and girls and house captains.
The costs are covered by Gibs and, over the course of a year, a key piece of social engineering that has the potential to influence the future of a country takes place.
As the programme progresses, the high school students hear a range of talks and opinions from leaders, mainly drawn from outside the Gibs faculty. Events include a leadership development weekend, a career expo and an HIV/Aids session.
“When you have kids from private schools working together for 10 Saturdays with kids from township schools, something profound happens,” Prof Binedell says.
Why should a business school diversify into this line of service? Prof Binedell’s answer is that no one else is doing it. There are fewer opportunities in South Africa than in developed countries to expose children of high school age to the wider world, he says. They exist, but do not reach across the full range of social divides. And the formal education system does not offer such openings, he says.
“[In other countries] you can be a scout, you can go on a student exchange programme. In our country, these have been too restricted.”
There is also, he admits, a pragmatic element to the Spirit of Youth programme. It plants an awareness of Gibs firmly in the minds of future
“Ultimately, many of these kids will come and study here,” Prof Binedell adds.
The Spirit of Youth programme puts pupils on the spot, testing their beliefs and perceptions from the outset.
“You get exposed to all these people and people not only from different social backgrounds, but people with different views of life and politics,” says St John Hunter, a 17-year-old pupil at a privileged state school in Johannesburg.
Another student, Danielle Trollupe, who took part in Spirit of Youth as a 16-year-old student from a predominantly white private school in Johannesburg, says the programme gave her pause for thought.
“Is this really what I believe in? Maybe my argument’s not as solid as I thought it was,” she says.
Through a series of excursions and visits, the programme also plays the crucial role of exposing a generation too young to have experienced apartheid to the history of what went on.
It is, in a sense, a year-long whistle-stop tour for South Africa’s next
generation of leaders of the country they are growing up in.
Exposing them to the many and varied dynamics at play in the country is vital, Prof Binedell believes.
“Clearly we have an interest in future leaders . . . but it’s more than that. These young school kids will be in senior executive positions in 17 years. When is it too soon to start working with them?”