Fred Swaniker, a Ghanaian by birth and a pan-Africanist by experience, aims to manufacture a new generation of leaders. Is this Africa's silver bullet? By Parselelo Kantai in Port Louis, Mauritius.
Until about a year ago, Sofonias Negussie was a 2nd-year engineering student in a large, prominent university in South Africa. With over 60,000 students from all over the continent, the university had promised the kind of academic existence that Negussie, 20, had dreamed about in high school. But he found himself strangely underwhelmed. While he had no complaints about his social life--he comes across as soft-spoken but easy-going and assured but there is a more reflective, serious side--he was finding his classes, well, boring.
He began considering leaving the university. "The simple reason is that I was bored. I wasn't challenged," he says, referring to his intellectual growth. "When I thought about what I had learned I didn't feel I was better in any way. I just needed to get out," he recalls.
Negussie had grown up on university campuses. His father taught statistics; his mother stayed at home and raised Sofonias and his two brothers. The family had left Ethiopia when Sofonias was two-and-a-half years old in the late ' 90s as the Ethiopian government faced off with the Eritreans, pushing their young men into the meat-grinder that was the Badme war. The family had first settled in Lesotho.
In 2005, when he was 10, the family had moved across the border to South Africa. He describes his existence as comfortable. When the family settled in at the University of Limpopo campus in Polokhwane, Sofonias picked up iSipedi in high school, which he speaks fluently. Speaking the local language acted as a kina of insurance. He spent his teenage years in the shadow of the xenophobic riots that swept across South Africa in May, 2008. Sofonias was never in any physical danger but he nevertheless carries a feeling of never being completely safe in South Africa.
"We were lucky. We live in a decent place and I've been privileged enough not to feel the hostility directly mostly because of my knowledge of iSipedi. People would look at me differently as soon as I spoke it. But you have to understand that the hostility is not just in the poor neighbourhoods, it is at all levels. The perception here is that foreigners, especially Africans, come to South Africa to steal locals' jobs--and that is believed across the board," he says.
Towards the end of his first year, Sofonias' search for alternatives began on Facebook. One day he followed a link that took him to the African Leadership University website. He added his email address for the application process and a month later, they emailed him to say that the process was now open.
It was the most rigorous application process he had ever done. He was suddenly alive. In the first round there were a lot of questions that bordered on the philosophical--mostly essay questions dealing with thoughts on African leadership. He qualified for the second round, where applicants were taken through a 4-course module called 'Africa Rising' that lasted about two months.
A month after completing the second round, the results arrived. "I did somersaults," says Sofonias.