Wits student reflects on Mandela Washington fellowship

Wits PhD candidate and Black Women in Science co-founder Ndoni Mcunu. Photo: Provided

A Wits doctoral student has returned home to South Africa after spending six weeks in the United States on the Mandela Washington Fellowship for outstanding leaders.

Ndoni Mcunu, a PhD candidate in Environmental Science, was chosen to attend the fellowship administered by the Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI) in Nebraska where she spent five weeks at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln followed by another week in Washington DC.

“It was challenging and I was not expecting that kind of challenge. I think I was expecting a challenge in terms of content and theory but instead I was more challenged as an individual,” Mcunu said about her experience.

“My highlight was just seeing how much effort is put into community, in terms of a soup kitchen or a place where the community can go get clothes or a place to shop for vitamins and food. It’s not just soup and bread, you literally take a trolley and grocer, that’s amazing and that’s how much donations they get. I think we need that culture here,” she added.

The fellowship which runs for six weeks brings together young leaders from 48 different African countries. This year, 63 South Africans were part of the fellowship. The fellows are selected for their outstanding leadership in their communities.

Mcunu applied for the fellowship based on her involvement in social entrepreneurship through her non-profit organisation(NGO), Black Women in Science (BWIS), and her PhD research which focuses on climate change and food production.

“I learned to have confidence in what I’m doing and in the way that I deliver what it is that I’m trying to do … I also learned a different way to view my NGO. It’s not just a charity thing that I’m just running but something that I need to start running as a business,” said Mcunu about what she learned from the fellowship.

Mcunu started BWIS in 2015 and her intention was to start an NGO that reaches out to black female university science students and teaching them scientific skills.

“I think that having more black females in the science industries can add some kind of different eye and perspective to whatever scientific topic that is there. I’s very important and it hasn’t been explored so we can’t say it doesn’t work,” she said.

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UPDATED WITH NEW IMAGES: Obama faces mixed reactions in South Africa

A roaring crowd of supporters sang “Shosholoza, Shosholoza, Ku lezontaba, Stimela si qhamuka e South Africa” as they waited impatiently for President Barack Obama to enter the University of Johannesburg’s auditorium in Soweto.

President Barack Obama addresses the gathering in Soweto on Saturday. Photo: Thuletho Zwane

President Barack Obama addresses the gathering in Soweto on Saturday. Photo: Thuletho Zwane

No you can’t, Obama

Outside the venue more students were singing, but a different tune: “No you can’t, Obama, no you can’t” shouted members of the ‘No You Can’t Coalition’. On their official twitter page the anti-Obama protesters said the US President would face “the mother of all protests” when he arrived in Soweto.

These vastly contrasting reactions to Obama’s visit have dominated the news headlines since the visit was officially announced more than a month ago.

Obama, on his first tour of Africa as President of the United States addressed an invited audience of young Africans, a number of whom were part of the Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI). There was not an anti-Obama person to be found in the auditorium.

Rubber bullets were fired

Outside the campus though, anti-Obama protesters clashed with the police. City Press reported that permission had been granted for a maximum of 120 protesters permission to assemble at the gates to the campus until 2pm. The protests soon turned violent with police firing rubber bullets at the protesters.[pullquote align=”right”]The USA under his leadership has escalated its assault on human rights.[/pullquote]

Brigadier Sally de Beer, spokesperson for the police’s Joint Operations Centre, told City Press the protesters “refused to disperse when asked to do so” and thus rubber bullets were fired.

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Protesters outside the University of Johannesburg Campus clashed with police while the US President addressed an invited audience on the campus. Photo: Connie Nagiah

The ‘No You Can’t Coalition’ was organized by South Africa’s largest trade union confederation COSATU, the South African Communist Party (SACP), the South African Muslim Students Association (MSA) and Boycott Divestment Sanctions against Israel in South Africa (BDS South Africa).

In an official statement, BDS South Africa, a Palestinian non-governmental organization said they rejected Obama’s visit based on the USA’s arrogant, selfish and oppressive foreign policies.

“The USA under his leadership has escalated its assault on human rights, militarization of international relations and continuing guzzling of world resources at the expense of the environment and oppressed peoples of the world,” said BDS South Africa.

Hello, everybody! Yebo Mzansi!

Inside the auditorium invited guests were happily chatting, taking pictures and looking at their watches in anticipation.  “Hello, everybody! Yebo Mzansi!” said Obama as he took to the podium to address some burning African questions.

Obama said he was passionate about African growth and that although Africa faced great challenges these should not be ignored.

Guests enthusiastically photographing  themselves inside the auditorium where Obama spoke. Photo: Dinesh Balliah.

Guests enthusiastically photographing themselves inside the auditorium where Obama was speaking. Photo: Dinesh Balliah.

“I’m making this trip to Africa because I believe this is a region on the move.  Even as this continent faces great challenges — and they are great, and we can’t paper over them or pretend that those challenges don’t exist.”

Obama placed great emphasis on the youth being the key to a  stronger African continent and pledged his commitment to youth development. He said this was the reason behind him launching the Young African Leaders Initiative.

Yes, we can

“That’s why three years ago, I launched a new effort to make sure we’re tapping those qualities of youth — the imagination, the courage, the “yes, we can” attitude of young Africans like you.”

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Protesters were eventually dispersed with rubber bullets. Photo: Connie Nagiah.

He stressed his commitment to skills development in Africa and announced a new initiative to further cultivate youth skills.  He said YALI would be expanded to introduce a new program called the Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders.

The Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders will focus on civic leadership and public administration and business and entrepreneurship. He said these skills were important to nurture as they would help serve communities, start and grow businesses.

This programme will give young Africans the opportunity to go to the United States and develop their skills at American colleges and universities.

“I believe in you, and I intend to make this a lasting part of our engagement with Africa beyond my presidency, for years to come.”

During his address Obama gave special recognition Lebo Bogapan, Jacob Jabari, Khadija Patel(@khadijapatel) and Fred Swaniker for their contributions to building better futures for their respective communities.

It will not be easy

“So building the future that you seek, realizing the vision that you have, not just for your own countries but for the world — it will not be easy.  It will not be easy.”

Before the question and answer session Obama closed his speech off by encouraging the young audience to never lose faith, imagination, optimism and idealism.

[pullquote]young people are gonna be determining the future of the continent[/pullquote]

“Because the future of this continent is in your hands, and if you keep your head pointed towards the sun and you keep your feet moving forward, I promise you will have no better friend and partner than the United States of America.”

Robben Island

Before addressing young people at the University of Capetown (UCT),on Sunday,  Obama  along with his family visited the historical jail Robben Island where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 27 years.

SABC news reported that after touring the former prison, Obama and his wife Michelle signed a guest book in which Obama wrote:

“On behalf of our family we’re deeply humbled to stand where men of such courage faced down injustice and refused to yield. The world is grateful for the heroes of Robben Island, who remind us that no shackles or cells can match the strength of the human spirit.”

More protests

At UCT  more protest actions from the ‘No You Can’t Coalition’ were underway. A noisy group of anti-US protesters chanted while , brandishing placards reading “Obama Zionist Puppet” and “Obama Mass Killer,”reported Eyewitness News.

 $7 billion

Obama said America needed to “step up their game”  when it came to Africa and he planned to bring together more American and African business leaders  to deepen engagements. “We’re going to start by investing $7 billion in U.S. government resources.”

He said a strong partnership between America and Africa  was an America vision which could empower people on the African continent.

“So this is America’s vision: a partnership with Africa that unleashes growth, and the potential of every citizen, not just a few at the very top.”

Mandela, Kennedy and Gandhi

During his address,Obama also encouraged young leaders to draw inspiration from Nelson Mandela,  Robert Kennedy and Mahatma Gandhi’s life.  Obama said these icons stood as a challenge for him and for the younger generation.

“You get to decide where the future lies.Over 60 % of Africans are under 35 year old. Demographics mean young people are gonna be determining the future of the continent and this country. You’ve got the time and numbers on your side.”