The African Leadership University has started a revolution in higher education. It’s so much more than just another brick in the wall. It is transforming higher learning in Africa to produce its future leaders. It was named one of the Global Top 50 Most Innovative Companies for its work in 2019. To talk to us about this extraordinary achievement and how it became a possibility, Anne Pratt invites Provost Dr. Nhlanhla Thwala to the show. Dr. Thwala is the best example of what he’s co-creating at ALU for Africa’s students. Coming from a background of poverty himself, he used his abilities to rise to the top and ultimately build an illustrious career as a leader and educator. Join in and learn how Africa can leverage its’ talents and resources to emerge as a prosperous continent on the future world stage, how young people can learn, lead, and become successful entrepreneurs, and how ALU is making its contribution to this revolution.
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“African Leadership University (ALU) Ranked in Global Top 50 Most Innovative Companies” with Provost Dr. Nhlanhla Thwala
Revolutionary University Develops Millions of Future Leaders
Our bold leader today joins us from the southern tip of Africa. After quitting smoking in high school, he started taking education seriously. He spent 34 years in education, 10 years as a scholar, and took on teaching roles in the United States at the University of California, Yale, Boston University, and Ohio State University.
After returning to Africa, he spent sixteen years with the University of the Witwatersrand before moving into the private sector with a JSE-listed company Advtech, and then Pearson (Publishing) South Africa. He’s provost of the Revolutionary Africa Leadership University, which in 2019 made the fast company’s list as one of the most innovative companies in the world. An organization committed to developing the next generation of three million change makers and leaders for Africa. We warmly welcome Dr. Nhlanhla Thwala and welcome to the show.
Nhlanhla, what a great joy to be with you again. Thank you so much for being part of this conversation. I’m super excited to have you with us.
Thank you for having me. I’m excited to engage in this conversation with you on leadership.
What motivated you to make this transition? Why ALU, and why now?
There are many reasons for that. The first one is through my whole experience; I realized that I would like to have an impact as an educator. The best way of having that impact is by developing leaders of the future of Africa and making sure that we can train and facilitate the development of a large pool of leaders. As you know, Africa has this population dividend that we must capture. If we don’t capture that dividend, it can turn out to be a disaster.
Africa needs lots of leaders. Our population is growing. Our economies are not growing as well as they should be. Developing leaders who can harness Africa’s resources and ensure that Africa becomes a success became a strong motivator for me to transition from traditional education into the ALU model, where the focus is very clear on developing millions of leaders of the future for Africa. That was the biggest motivator for me.
That’s such an interesting innovation. I noticed that in 2019 the African Leadership University, or ALU as we call it, reached the list of fast companies, one of the world’s most innovative and fastest-growing companies. It is a remarkable educational innovation. What struck me about that is your model and mission and purpose, blending this combination of leadership, as you have rightly pointed out, with education and finding that sweet spot. Can you talk to us about what is distinctive about ALU and what structure and model differentiates it from typical Higher Ed institutions?
Many areas distinguish ALU from traditional education. The first one is to focus on the student. The focus is not on the disciplines. It’s not on the faculty. The focus is on the students in terms of what they wish to do with their lives. When our students arrive, we ask them to choose a mission. What is your driving passion? What do you want to learn, therefore, in relation to that mission?
That is a huge difference because our programs choose what we have for you here. The menu is created, and then you choose (a buffet of education). We go about it a different way. The second way in which we differ is we are trying to scale. As we are trying to scale, we are not trying to get the students to sit in the classrooms. We are trying to get the students to go and experience life, create products, create services, and then figure out what they need to know in order to create services.
The idea is to leverage the experience of your daily existence or the experience that you specifically choose to learn something in order for you to have long-lasting knowledge based on experience and also not sitting in a classroom all the time. There are instances where students will have to sit in the classroom, but you want to leverage the experience that we have around us.
We’re challenging our students to develop entrepreneurial solutions to grand problems and challenges we face in Africa. Getting the students to begin to think like entrepreneurs, come up with solutions, and then go to the vast knowledge that we already have as people all over the world that we have created to say, “I want to learn this because I want to use it to solve this problem.”At the African Leadership University, we leverage the experience that we have around us to challenge our students to come up with entrepreneurial solutions to grand problems and challenges that we face in Africa. Click To Tweet
The way we see it is that Africa cannot develop the way Europe and America did. The resources are not there. We have to be creative in how we think about education and how to skill our people. This is the way in which we have innovated and said, “Start with your mission and learn from your experience. Reflect on it.”
You can still study chemistry, engineering, or anything you need to study, but what do you want to do with it in Africa? Those are the ways in which we are innovating. We need faculty, but we need faculty to be coaches of students, assisting students to learn what they need to learn. We are employing all the resources of present education but in a different way to facilitate those students’ learning.
What struck me about the model as well, and I know that you and the wonderful founder Fred Swaniker who founded ALU, have also alluded to this fact, is that learning experts tell us that traditional higher ed is unleashing possibly 10% of what people are capable of or what students are capable of. There is a different new learning model.
What also struck me on your website is that the first part of what students do is learn how to learn. It’s the 10, 20, and 70 principle of 10% are in the classroom, 20% from peers, coaches, and mentors, and 70% by doing in the real world at the university of life. You are the provost of this university and a good academic and a wonderful academic with an indelible and impressive academic track record for you personally and for the institution. Where and how do you define the line between traditional academic teaching and learning and this peer coaching and experiential learning?
We draw the line at the starting point. In other words, how do we decide what you should learn? That’s the starting point. The second point is how do we assess what you learn? The third point of differentiation is who is involved in your learning. Let’s start with the last one, who is involved in your learning? Of course, the experts and faculty who are experts in their areas of knowledge should support your learning.
You need to know chemistry in order to come up with this solution that saves lives using chemists. That’s not the issue. The question is, in which context do you deploy your chemistry? In which context do you deploy your physics? In which context do you deploy any of the traditional disciplines? We need them, but we realize that solutions are multidisciplinary. They are seldom ever requiring only one discipline.
We train our students then to say, “Learn but focus on which problem you are addressing.” The second way in which we differentiate is very clear. We are not going to create specialists and disciplines, but we wanted the catalysts or the people who bring people together to solve the problem. That’s the second area of differentiation.
You can then take that further back and say, “Now that we know that we start with the student at the center and we support their learning, what is it that will count as evidence that the students have learned?” Products and services that solve the problems of our people. We train our students to come up with artifacts or products that they can prototype and test in the market that will show that they are being impactful. We want to measure the impact of their contribution to society.
If you look at it, they will be with us for three years, but there’s a lifetime to do this. Over a lifetime, they will develop different solutions and prototypes that will address problems. What training problem solvers, not people who would be looking for jobs. That’s the other differentiating point; the other way is how the university structured itself.
ALU has structured itself as an entrepreneur. The university itself is always trying to innovate and how we relate to parents, students, regulators, and stakeholders around the university. We say to them we aim to find ways of improving the systems of education that we always had and trying to find some that are amenable to the times but also to the African context.
What also comes to mind, and you have alluded to this, is that instead of measuring students’ performance by marks and the dean’s list, it’s about measuring impact. In your own words, that takes time in terms of delivering impact. For the skeptics of traditional Higher Ed, how do you measure the performance of these students? How long does it take you to measure it? How do you know you can show a return on education investment? How do you prove that point?
There are two parts to proving that. The first one is if you assess our students in terms of the criteria of education, they perform very well. Why do they perform very well? They leverage experience. Which we all know has better results in terms of retention as well as execution. You can calculate better if you have done the calculations in real life and not just in theory.
The performance of students against standard criteria is very good. We are not measuring our students according to who is the faculty who has taught them. We are measuring them around which people have played a role in the learning, mentors, industry leaders, and faculty. It’s more than just the faculty that we know we are measuring something, but also in terms of where our students go.
Students normally exit into three areas. Those are employment, graduate school, and creating ventures. As we speak, our students go to some of the best universities to do graduate studies. It’s very clear that they have the depth of knowledge they can leverage. They go and work for some of the best companies in the world, like Microsoft. In the technology sector, we find a lot of students working there.
The outcomes of where they end up also show that they work, and then lastly, our students do create jobs. They do create ventures that do exactly what we want. They are out there solving problems for the continent. We are satisfied that we can see evidence that the model works after seven years. It’s producing the results that we wanted. You go to graduate school, get jobs, and then create ventures.
What also strikes me about the model is that you mention that in Africa, there isn’t the time or the resource to follow Western models. Even within Western countries, there is a challenge in terms of Higher Ed, like the cost of Higher Ed and the access to good quality Higher Ed. What do you believe is replicable in Western countries that the West could learn from ALU and Africa? There are challenges, and they are possibly slightly different challenges. How can this model be replicated? What can they learn? How will that help Western countries in terms of higher education?
Let’s start with the cost. The biggest cost to education is moving from your residence to a university far from you. The biggest cost is the transportation cost going back and forth. The second cost is the resident cost. That makes up about 60% of the actual cost of education. Then there is the cost of education itself, which is the tuition fee. It’s not necessary to spend all the time at a residential university. COVID has proven that you can continue learning even if you are not there. That’s replicable. We can have hybrid ways of learning.
Number two is knowledge of the content that is already developed and being developed inside and outside universities. Reaching that content no longer requires us to go to a particular university. Remember that the library was the anchor piece of learning in the old model. You had to be there in person to access these volumes of old and new knowledge.
Number two, the faculty no longer reside in that university. There could be anywhere. Just think about it. If you register at a university, you can only access professors from that university. Why not access the best professors anywhere in the world? We don’t need to own the professors. You can have shared access to a professor who is anywhere in the world, and you can contact them virtually. What is replicable about the model, even in the West, is dropping the idea that you must move from your town to live for four years in a particular university. It’s not necessary.
We understand that universities are not just for learning. People go and find partners in universities, develop independence, and all of those things. Those things can be done without needing to go to that one particular university, which is why ALU is thinking about it this way. We have two flagship entities. We have African Leadership College in Mauritius. We have African Leadership University in Rwanda. Our students can come there for some time, but they can also not be there and be in other centers of learning hubs, as we call them.
In the media, there is publicity about a hub that we have in Silicon Valley. We have a hub in Nairobi. We have a hub now in Kampala. We also have a hub in the same city as our main campus in Kigali. Why are we developing those? In order to distribute where students can go and access each other, access technology, access experts and mentors, that’s what we are doing. We are distributing where students can learn. They can learn at home, work, and hubs and come to the university. The multiplicity of spaces where you can learn is what we need to increase in order to make learning accessible to many people. This model is replicable in Africa, the Western world, and the northern hemisphere.The multiplicity of spaces where you can learn is what we need to increase in order to make learning accessible to many people. Click To Tweet
It’s mentioned that you have 19 student communities in Africa and 3 in the US and the UK. Can you describe for us what makes up a hub? Physically and tangibly, where is it located? How have you structured these hubs?
The first thing to understand about a hub is that first, you develop a community. That is a community of interested parties in learning. You can have those virtual communities. More or less like what all junior business schools have a syndicate. Students who gather together in order to address a similar challenge.
The first part of that is developing a need for the students to come together. The second part is the spaces. The spaces are not necessarily classrooms. There are meeting spaces where the students will have coffee. They will have sitting areas. They will have breakaway rooms where they can meet, discuss, engage in experimentation, and meet mentors and industry experts to catalyze solutions or crack a problem.
It could be a learning problem, as in a chemistry problem, or one where we would like to solve this particular challenge and come together to meet with industry partners, community leaders, and the market so that we can test our prototypes. The hubs serve multiple purposes, but they are primarily for students and the partners who help their learning to meet because we know that sometimes there are physical spaces where they need to meet, but also virtual ones where they can meet.
Are they located in other people’s buildings or whatever when they meet? Do you have different contracts with different kinds of organizations in different parts of Africa, the US, and the UK?
We use multiple relationships. Most of the entities we don’t own. They are in buildings where there are other tenants or other businesses. These are not African Leadership University or African Leadership College buildings or owned, but we have relations with various stakeholders who provide these spaces. We keep the places so that they look and are branded to look like the African Leadership University or the African Leadership College entities.
You are so passionate about this. It’s wonderful to talk to you, and I have also met Fred Swaniker, your founder, who had a grand vision and passion for this too. In your young life, what was a defining moment for you? I know you grew up in Eswatini, formally Swaziland, in Southern Africa. Can you take us back to a specific moment in your young life that was a defining moment? What happened? What light bulb moment inspired you to take this course in your life?
I had two phases of my upbringing. At first, I was not interested in school. I went to school, and for some strange reason, I did well. I didn’t think much about it. I think the a-ha moment for me was when I went to high school. I went to a boarding school. Within seven days of arriving there, I was a young man, a little bit naughty, and I had taken up the habit of smoking.
Five young boys were expelled for smoking within seven days of arrival at the school. I thought, “Wait a minute. I can’t do this. I have been sent to this boarding school to get an education, and if I get expelled for smoking, it’s not going to look good.” I didn’t want to disappoint my mother. I stopped smoking and never smoked again. After that, my mentality shifted. I realized that I was not in school for anybody else. I was in school for me. It was for my benefit. From there on, I started taking my schooling very seriously. I did well in high school, and I went to university.
My second biggest moment was getting the Fulbright scholarship and studying in the US. I remember that day vividly because I had this secret dream of wanting to go and study in the US because way back in 1973, my eldest brother went to study in America to study medicine. I always dreamed of following in his footsteps. I also wanted to go there. When that happened, I was thrilled. It represented a moment where I said, “From now on, it’s up to me.”
How did you feel? Where were you at the time when you got that news?
I was at the University of Swaziland. I was a teaching assistant for Professor Davy in the English Department. He’s the one who broke the news to me and said the embassy called and said you got the Fulbright scholarship.
How did you feel?
I wanted to jump all over, but I had to contain myself. It was an emotionally pleasing moment in my life. I knew then that I was this close to getting to where I wanted to be. Those were the two moments for me: getting control of myself, stopping this acting out as a young person, and finally realizing my dreams of studying in the USA.
When you talk about getting this close to where you wanted to be, when and where were you in defining and deciding where you wanted to be to know how close you were?
I need to take you back to my circumstances. My biological mom passed away when I was five. I was taken on by another family to raise me, my foster parents. I was the last one in a family of seven. I always knew that the one way of getting out of poverty for me would be doing well in school. Even though I acted out and was uninterested, I still did well in school. Let’s not make any mistakes about that. I always had this secret dream of making it, and so my dreams grew. You dream in relation to what is visible to you.
At first, I just wanted a job. Once I finished my undergraduate degree, I did get a job. I got a job immediately. I finished in June, and I had a job. Once I started working for Professor Davy, I realized, “Maybe I can get a Ph.D. too and be a professor.” I wanted that, but I couldn’t voice it to anyone. When I got the Fulbright, I realized I was one step closer and could get a Master’s.
Once I got to America, I started and applied to five universities. I picked the five best universities in the world and applied to MIT, Berkeley, UCLA, Amherst, and Cornell. I applied to only those five. I got 2 rejections and 3 admissions. I got admitted to a Ph.D. on a scholarship and finished. My dream was finishing a Ph.D., and getting the Fulbright was getting me one step closer to that. I wanted to be a professor like I had seen Professor Davy when I was a teaching assistant. That is what getting there meant for me at the time.
You raise such an important point. That’s a very inspiring story, but you also make the point that possibility is partly seeing what is visible. What created that visibility for you in terms of what was possible? When did you struggle with that? How did you transition from the point of “Is this possible,” questioning it and perhaps feeling anxious and concerned to, “I can see it is possible?” Was there a moment when you questioned that and felt stuck in a darker place, particularly given your difficult childhood circumstances? What transitioned for you to go from doubting it to it’s possible or visible?
It’s not even a question of doubting it. Whatever goal I had, I thought it was attainable because mostly they were not very big goals. When I was younger, my big goal was to go to the USA. My brother went there, so there was visibility because he went there. He forged a path, so I knew it was doable. The question was, how do I get there?
I have an elder sister who went to Denmark around 1978. I thought, “There’s another one going there,” but I still needed a reason to go there. For me, in each successive step, I had good mentors. People who would look after me and assist me. I knew that as long as I did well in my academics, it was possible to reach the next step. I was not in doubt, but I was anxious about getting there. Every time the opportunity availed itself, I would grab it and make the best out of it.
My attitude was I even had a mantra of you can only achieve based on what is expected of you at the moment. It doesn’t matter whether you prime for it or not; you have to excel at what is available to you now. The next opportunity will avail itself. That model of life has transferred into my leadership. You need to lead where you are. That’s all you can do is lead where you are, excel where you are, and then you will be in a position to move further ahead when the opportunity arises.You can only achieve based on what is expected of you at the moment. You have to excel at what is available to you now. The next opportunity will avail itself. Click To Tweet
It’s interesting with African Leadership University that part of the mission statement. I think you clearly state it’s not for everyone, but it is for people who are innovators, dreamers, and change-makers. There’s still this aspect of having the dream, dreaming of change, and working towards that change. In ALU, can you take us back to a moment when navigating through a messy middle was difficult? What was that like? What happened? What was the event, and what helped you through that moment?
The messy middle is dealing with two skeptical stakeholders. One is the accreditation environment. There is always skepticism about new innovations.
Was this a particular moment in time? Is there a particular occasion or event? If so, when was that?
I think we are still in that messy middle. We are still working through accreditation, and the model is not established. In other words, it’s still in a provisional state. That’s very difficult because what you are doing is you are saying, “Here is the evidence of where this has worked elsewhere. Here is the evidence of how we are implementing it, and here is what it can do.” These systems work. You have established it. It works here. That is a moment where you ask yourself, “How do I get this innovative way of learning across to pave and make sure that the environment is able to deal with innovation?”
When you said the environment, are you talking about getting formal academic accreditation? Is that what you are referencing?
Yes. Getting that to me was difficult because we are not working with the standard model of saying, “Here are the proof points. Here is what we are doing. There is a 100% match.” Here it’s like there is a 100% match for 70% of the proof points. There is a 30% that is not established. That’s a little bit difficult.
Another one is persuading parents that the model is going to work where parents expect their children to be at a university for 3 or 4 years. When you say to them they will come back, and they will continue to learn, it’s like, “But COVID is over,” but hybrid learning is not over. We are going to leverage it. Those are some of the difficult moments. I’ve spent a day consulting and advising parents on how to deal with hybrid learning.
Can you give us a precise example of a particular parent and their concern? What did you say to them? What was the light bulb moment? How did you help them transform out of that and pivot out of that?
At that specific moment, we took the parents through experiential learning themselves. We put them in a workshop.
Is that in Mauritius?
How does experiential learning work? You start by throwing them the global challenges and say choose one, then tell me how you would define it. Where would you find the sources? How would you create a learning contract for yourself? How would you want to be assessed for the outputs that you will get out of this?
Who would you consult among these faculty, the foundation faculty, the specialization faculty, or the mission faculties? How would you arrange your time to consult with them? What would be your schedule for ensuring you deliver the outputs required in your learning contract? That’s a concrete example of how you deal with the skepticism of parents. The students understand it. They are amenable to it.
You took some parents through this. What was the outcome?
It was transformative. The outcome was, “I wish I had gone to an education like this.” We suddenly got stories from parents like, “I studied for four years something I didn’t like, I didn’t want, and I didn’t know how to use it, and then I had to retrain again.” You don’t have to in this model because you start with the end mind. That was a pivotal moment for me to say that we need to practically take our stakeholders through the model for them to appreciate what the model does.
How long did it take you to take those parents through that model? How many parents at a time? How do you manage that logistically?
We took the parents in groups. It took us a day. We had a whole day planned for them. It was a taste. It’s not something that repeats itself. We don’t have the time for that. Taking them through the workshop for a day on how the ALU model works were useful. It would be lovely to see them again, but I don’t think the time constraint would allow them.
Do you do that for every set of parents of every potential new student?
Yes. This is what we have decided we will do. From now on, we have three intakes a year. For every intake, there will be an open invitation for parents to come and experience the model. We will also invite parents to come and sit through some of the skills labs we run so they can see what the students do.
Talk about scale and impact. At the time, ALU had big, lofty, and impressive goals. The goal is to have 25 campuses with 10,000 students at a time, 250,000 students effectively at any one moment in time. Also, by 2050, to develop three million change makers and transformational leaders for Africa. How do you scale? What is the secret sauce?
I think that post-COVID, we have now modified that strategy in relation to the campuses. Instead of having the campuses, we are going to replace those with the apps, which means that you don’t necessarily need the residential campuses. Let’s talk about how you scale. There are many layers of scaling. There are those whose aim is to get a university degree. That’s one bucket.
We have undergraduate degrees and a Master’s degree, and MBA. Those are credited qualifications. That’s one side of the scaling, and I will talk shortly about how you do that. The other type of scaling is for those who want to improve their professional skills. They may want to change careers, or they may want to upgrade themselves. They are lifelong learning journeys. The biggest part of our scaling will be on the side of professional development because the market is much bigger.
They deal with people who are already at work and want to add credentials to their work through our work skills. Those will constitute the majority of the scaling, but there is the credentialed side of the business as well. How do we scale there? It’s by adopting this hybrid learning. Number two, we are also taking students in three times a year, January, May, and September.
The students will come and reside on each flagship campus for a maximum of 3 to 4 months and then make way for the next group of students to come in. If we are admitting 2,000 students per intake, that’s quite a size for both our flagship in Mauritius, the ALC College, as well as the African Leadership University in Rwanda. Our scaling then is about using this Rolodex of intakes.
They come for 3 to 4 months, then become virtual, and then they come back at intermittent points so there’s still a point of personal contact.
We also retain contact with them virtually throughout the learning journey. That’s one side of the scaling. On the MBA side, we have never had a traditional MBA program, anyway, to start with. We always had only 6 weeks of residential out of 20 months. The students would come for only a week at a time, six times, in order to be intense.
The rest of the learning was divided into 2 or 3. On your own, and you learn with your home learning group, or you learn with your Pan-Africa group. To make it even more exciting, the students do activations. In other words, come up with new concepts to implement into the market and prototype every week. That’s intense.
Our idea was to give them the capacity to think about a problem they are not familiar with and think about a product or a service for a market so that they get into the habit of being entrepreneurial thinkers. That is supplemented by what we call the leadership layer. How do you practice your leadership? Those are the elements that we have always used. We want to expand access to those because we are lowering the price now. We still have to pay, but we have pegged the pricing to what most Africans can afford, which is no more than $3,000 per year of study.
Fred Swaniker talks about this in his TED talk. The different generations of leaders in Africa and how we are onto the fourth generation, the change makers who will create prosperity for the continent. What is interesting for me is that for each student coming through the university, part of the core skills, competence, and training is around entrepreneurial capability and leadership. Developing as a leader is core to the curriculum. In your mind, what is ALU’s definition of leadership?
For us, leadership starts with ourselves. First, it’s self-leadership. The second part is authenticity. You need to find leadership that coheres or resonates with your talents, motivation, and interests. The third one is being of service to the community. By bringing into the community a solution, we are being of service. We don’t want to stop there. You need to create prosperity.
That’s why we are encouraging our leaders to be definitive about prosperity being about wealth creation. We don’t want to share poverty. We want to share prosperity by making our people more prosperous economically so that they have access to services and goods. They have access to opportunities. They have access to the whole world because they are no longer troubled by poverty.
That’s what leadership is to us. It’s not about standing on top of the roof and telling others what you do. It’s about being of service to society because you are a problem solver. Even if you don’t solve the problem yourself, you can bring people together to solve the problem. This generation must understand that we will be prosperous if we work together. We are not going to be prosperous if we try to work alone.This generation needs to understand that we are going to be prosperous if we work together. We're not going to be prosperous if we try to work alone. Click To Tweet
What also strikes me about what you are saying is something deeply African. It’s the whole notion of Ubuntu that fate, fortune, and the future are intertwined. To what extent do you think African culture or concepts like Ubuntu have played into your definition of leadership and how you develop leadership within your university?
It has played a role. We accept that we must leverage our culture and institutions to resonate with our audiences. That plays a big role. What has also played a big role is that we need to learn from other cultures. It’s the creation of hybrids of understanding and also hybrids of looking forward.
We cannot always look backward. We will leverage that which in our culture is positive. We will borrow and steal from other cultures that can add to our arsenal of understanding assets. For example, Fred talks about the idea of democracy and the institutions that sustain democracy. We need those because there needs to be a bedrock of institutions that support prosperity.
If those institutions don’t exist, we will always start from scratch. Each generation will be starting from scratch. We are very clear that we will leverage our cultural assets. Still, we will also improve our cultural knowledge and understanding of others in order to strengthen what we need to do going forward.
That’s a powerful point. If I think about it, you have alluded to the fact of the institutions that serve and help democracy stand the test of time. Apart from that, are there other specific examples of what you borrowed or have stolen from other cultures?
The Greeks, who have taken the notions of democratic representation. It’s critical. It’s the philosophy of human rights from the Western hemisphere as it’s understood presently. From our different societies, we have also taken the idea of community. How do you organize the community? Organized community from home, Pan-Africa, as well as connection to the world. We are taking concepts from everywhere that we find useful to apply to the institution but also to the learning of the students.
A tradition of seminal readings. There’s a tradition here called once a term. We convene a week where we ask our students to read seminal readings. What seminal ideas can we all explore and debate that have affected human development? Not just Africa. We do read seminal readings from Africa, but we do seminal readings from all over the world because we want our students to be embedded in there is human knowledge, which we can all benefit from as opposed to just benefiting from our context. Those seminal readings are institutions to help students link to themselves, their communities, and the whole world as well.
I love that, and it is a wonderful segway into the next question. Based on those seminal readings, what are young people raising as issues in the world, and what have you heard and listened to? What do you think are perhaps the three biggest issues that young leaders are most concerned about in the world today?
The first one that they are concerned about is the bright future for them. In other words, is Africa ready to hand over to the younger generation? That’s the biggest concern because leadership in the continent is largely very old compared to the generation. That’s the first issue. The second issue of real concern is access to resources they can use to catalyze Africa’s next transformation. In other words, investment. Where can they get financial investment to support their entrepreneurial ventures?
We tend to impress upon them that it’s not the investment; the product you bring to the market will determine whether you get the investment. Lastly, the issues around LGBTQ are big for young people. They are young, and as a university, we have been very clear that we are accepting of all human formations and dimensions in any shape or form here in Africa because these are generational movements. They are all over the world. They have nothing to do with they were in Africa.
We are abandoning the traditional orthodoxy and saying that young people have the right to be in whatever they are and want to exercise their rights. The issue of rights for all communities in society is big. We are happy to see that young people are challenging and pushing us into new territory. Some older people find it difficult to do, but we have argued that you can’t stand against such generational changes. To share a joke, I told my sister when I was visiting home, “Can you believe that we used to argue about girls wearing pants?”
When you say pants, do you mean long pants?
Yes, long pants. It was a subject of national debates. These are the issues that we are dealing with again. Why did you even bother about these things? Those are some of the issues that are concerning young people.
Just to qualify, when I say rights around the LGBTQ, that’s an important right. Is there a feeling amongst the young people in ALU and the young students you are listening to that LGBTQ has been denied as a right in terms of many of the experiences across different parts of Africa?
I won’t mention names, but there are some countries where presidents still speak about this as immoral. Those students are here, and they fully express themselves, and it’s odd that when you cross a border, you have to hide who you are.
There has been quite a lot of bad press around the victimization of people who are LGBTQ in many countries across the continent and other parts of the world. It’s interesting for me that this is such a heightened issue that it comes to the top three in terms of issues that current students on campus are most concerned about. An important transformation for the university is to make a big stand about that and ensure their rights and dignity are protected and respected.
Turning to somebody who was a great proponent of human rights, someone we both love and admire, Graça Machel, chancellor of the university and the widow of the late Nelson Mandela. Can you take us back to a moment in time that was a specific Mandela Moment for you? A moment you remember when what Mandela did or what he said shaped or molded who you are and how you think and lead in the world today. When was that? What was that? How did you feel at the time?
I think I was in Syracuse at the time, and when he was released, he made that speech in Cape Town. I didn’t know whether to believe it; four of us were in a room.
You were in Syracuse in the USA.
Yeah. You didn’t know what to do with yourself, whether to go out, have a drink, celebrate, and so on, because it seemed surreal.
Talking about when he came out of prison, the day on the steps of Parliament in Cape Town. That was February 11th, 1990.
The context is important here. You heard about the name all your life, there was a great picture, and you finally see the person. It’s almost like he is alive, and then he speaks, then you go, “He does command respect.” I think those things were very important to me because we didn’t believe them then. That was a special moment that I remember with pride and affection.
As an academic in linguistics and literature, what words stood out in that first speech?
What stood out to me is the olive branch of non-racialism because remember that the struggle was waged partly on a racial and the other one on a non-racial basis. Mandela made it clear that he stood for non-racialism. In other words, he was not going to pursue revenge, and he was not going to pursue Black supremacy. This relates to the second moment for me, which was the speech he made before he was incarcerated. That speech, and for context, the debate was always around Pan-African, PAC, and ANC.
The Pan-African Congress and the African National Congress.
The Pan-African Congress was on another side of this debate, and the ANC was on another side of it. When he came out and stood for non-racialism, what stood out for me was there is now hope for building a country instead of going to a second round of civil war. That’s what stood out for me because I studied history in my undergrad program. I was always fascinated by this question of how you resolve this issue. Do you go for we get out and we fight a round of civil war to expel all the Whites, and then what after that?
He then came out and said very clearly that he was for non-racialism, reconciliation, and building the country. I thought, “There’s a bit of hope here.” I was apprehensive. When he finally was president, he lived through that promise. He didn’t abandon it, and I think that was the thing. The second one is the famous speech in that everyone resides. I have always found that and Martin Luther King’s speech to be the two most seminal speeches I repeatedly listen to.
1964 I Am Prepared To Die speech. What’s striking about that is the consistency between what he said in 1964 and what he said in 1990. He did not waiver in that position of non-racialism.
To me, this is what the word leadership is about. It’s standing for something. whether popular or not popular, that you believe in through time.
That’s such a powerful point. I love that. Shifting gears a little. A couple of fun facts. You have lived in numerous different countries in the world. You grew up in Eswatini, Swaziland, as it was known then. You have lived in different parts of the USA. You have lived in the United Kingdom. I know you came back to South Africa, where your wonderful partner is from. What has been one of your greatest highlights in traveling to different countries around the world? One event that stands out as a highlight, and why was it a highlight for you?
My time in Los Angeles was the best time of my life as a whole. I found my wife there, so that was also another motivation. I traveled to the United States and learned a lot about it when I was in California. I went to Arizona, New Mexico, Oregon, and Washington. Those five years were the highlight because I loved the road. I love traveling.
I finally managed to buy a car when I was in Los Angeles, and I was able to drive to Washington, Oregon, and all of these places to explore the world. That was wonderful. Later on, from ‘95, I could do that with my girlfriend, who’s my wife now. It always reminds me and gives me memories of growing up in ‘95 or the freeway to Las Vegas. I enjoyed that. I started relating driving with freedom. I could get away and see things and learn. Those were the best times of my life. I was traveling to another place.
Another fun fact is you are a linguistics and literature media guru. What piece of writing or what verse or poem truly stands out for you as something that has greatly impacted your life in thinking?
I don’t know if you know Bertolt Brecht and his writings. I was looking him up. He has this quotation, “Unhappy is the land that needs heroes.” I have always repeated that. If your land needs heroes, it’s because it’s in a poor state. A land that does not need heroes is in a good state because nobody needs to save anybody. It has always stuck with me. How do I know if my country is doing well? There’s no need for heroism because we have made the arrangement such that it’s not desperate. Think about it. When do you need a hero? When things are desperate.Unhappy the land that is in need of heroes – Bertolt Brecht Click To Tweet
What if the hero lies in you?
Remember that you become a hero when the circumstances require you to step up. I can be a hero for myself. That’s okay because it means I’m stepping up in order to elevate myself.
Last fun fact. What was the hardest part of quitting smoking when you gave up smoking?
My friends. The hardest part was not the addiction to smoking. It was turning down my friend who wanted to go with me, sneaking out to go and smoke. That’s when I understood the power of peer pressure. I don’t know why I started smoking. I think I started smoking because of peer pressure. Stopping smoking was harder because I had to ignore my peer pressure friends who wanted me to continue.
How did you substitute that? How did you pacify your friends and still stay true to giving up smoking?
I don’t know. I think I just ignored them. I don’t think I had a methodology. I decided and told them, “I’m not smoking anymore.”
Did you change your friends?
I kept one. There’s one who continued smoking until he went to university. He never stopped, but he never fights with me. The good thing about him is that he didn’t put pressure on me to follow him.
In our final closing time, any final thoughts that you would love to share with people around what is the future of leadership? What would you say to our generation and the next? What would Nelson Mandela say to our generation and the next?
Mandela did say, “It’s now up to you.” It is up to us to lead and take Africa to the next stage where it needs to be. I like to frame it this way. At this particular time in the history of Africa, where the population is growing, and the demand for education is an all-time high, we have a unique opportunity to meet the needs of our people in terms of their education so that they can help themselves. There are lots of talents in Africa. There are lots of opportunities, but we are not capitalizing on them.It is up to us to take Africa to the next stage where it needs to be. Click To Tweet
It’s up to us to capitalize on that talent. Leadership in Africa now is about capitalizing on the resources and human talents we already have. We don’t have to go back for those. We do have them. I met a young woman who is a third-year student in our program. She already employs 250 people. All we need to do is capacitate the young people, who will do the rest for themselves. Let’s give them the power to help themselves. We can then assist them with other things. Still, the African leadership challenge is how do we capacitate the next generation to be better economically, socially, and otherwise than we were of this generation?
What a joy and what a celebration. Thank you for ending on that inspiring note. Thank you for being part of this conversation.
Thank you. My pleasure.
What an inspiring conversation with Dr. Thwala. I appreciate and value his reference to Mandela’s example and definition of bold leadership. Stand up for what you believe in, whether popular or unpopular. Put words into action and words that will stand the test of time. I love that The African Leadership University made the 2019 fast companies list of the world’s most innovative companies.
ALU has started the Higher Ed revolution. It is so much more than just another brick in the wall. How? By radically reducing student fees to $3,000 a year, emphatically focusing on the student rather than faculty rankings and bragging rights for low admission rates, and confidently empowering students to empower themselves. Each student, in every degree, develops entrepreneurial skills, leadership competence and creates economic wealth and prosperity in the real world.
I deeply reflected on his fun fact share, a quote by the German poet, playwright, and theater director Bertolt Brecht who famously once said, “Unhappy is the land that needs heroes.” It made me think about this modern turbulent world, which tends to focus almost exclusively on external validations and measurements of success like fame, fortune, and high-end fashion.
Have we forgotten who we are? Have we lost our way? Perhaps ALU is the breakthrough that we need in education today. Perhaps Mariah Carey is 100% right that in this over materialistic world, the real hero lies in you.
Thank you for joining us, and come back soon. Until next time, remember that leading boldly is about making clear, thoughtful choices, and bold leadership is about taking action one small step at a time. One step for you but together, one giant step for humanity. Take care and take thoughtful bold action.
- Dr. Nhlanhla Thwala – LinkedIn
About Dr. Nhlanhla Thwala
Dr. Nhlanhla Thwala started his career in 1986 as a high school teacher in his native Eswatini (formerly Swaziland) after completing a BA in History and English plus a Diploma in Education. In 1990, he completed an MA in Linguistics at Syracuse University. In 1994, he completed a Ph.D. in formal Linguistics from the University of California in Los Angeles.
His post-Ph.D. career started at Indiana University, Bloomington, where he was a Visiting Scholar and Coordinator of the African Language Program from 1996 to June 1998. He then spent 16 years at Wits University, Johannesburg, from June 1998 to May 2014 in various capacities, including serving as the founding Head of the School of Literature, Language and Media (2001-2003), Director of the Wits Language School (2007-2014), Researcher at SOAS while on Sabbatical at Wits (2004-2006). In 2014, he left Wits and joined Advtech (one of the largest JSE-listed private education companies in South Africa) as Head of the Institute of Independent Education (IIE). He then joined Pearson South Africa as Managing Director of CTI Education Group (a higher education company acquired by Pearson in 2013) in September 2014. In that time he also served as the Academic Director of Pearson Institute of Higher Education from 2016 until his departure in September 2020 this year.
Nhlanhla’s education professional career spans 34 years. After starting as a Higher School teacher in June 1996, he returned to the University of Swaziland in January 1997 as a Teaching Assistant in the English Department until June 1988.
During his graduate studies, he worked as a teaching assistant at Syracuse University and UCLA. He also had Summer Teaching roles at Yale University (1993), Boston University (1994), and Ohio State University (1996). In 1998, he started at Wits as Lecturer and rose to Senior Lecturer in 1999 before his appointment as Head of the School of Literature, Language, and Media in 2001.