Lessons from 25 Years of Open Society in South Africa—and Dreams for the Next 25 Years

This year, the Open Society Foundation for South Africa celebrates its 25th anniversary. My father opened the Foundation in Cape Town in 1993, on the eve of the country’s first democratic elections. I had the extraordinary honor of meeting Nelson Mandela around that time, and I remember sitting rapt, listening to him talk about his experiences in prison and leading the struggle for South Africa’s liberation from apartheid. I grew up knowing how important South Africa’s story is, and the country’s progress has informed both my and my father’s views of what is possible.

My father first visited the country in 1979. He went to see a friend he’d met in New York who had returned to his home country to teach. My father’s friend took him places white South Africans rarely visited—such as Soweto and Transkei—and introduced him to people in the townships, as well as anti-apartheid activists of all backgrounds. At that time, South Africa was the epitome of a closed society. Due to apartheid, the overwhelming majority of South Africans were deprived of basic rights, and any South African could pay with their life if they ran afoul of the apartheid regime.

My father felt compelled to act, and he started by providing bursaries for 80 black students to study at the University of Cape Town, which at the time was a predominantly white university. The operating theory was that with education, black South Africans could be the leaders of a democratic country if it overcame racial prejudices and economic and political exclusion. This was his very first major act of philanthropy and the beginning of a journey that eventually led to the creation of the Open Society Foundations.

Unfortunately, the scholarship experiment was at first a disappointment to my father. Despite earning their admission to the university, the scholarship recipients were ostracized and alienated. When he visited the Students Union a couple of years later, the students told him that they didn’t feel welcomed at the university. My father felt the government was not making a genuine attempt to open the education system to black South Africans, and he decided to end his support for scholarships after the first cohort.

In retrospect, my father regrets that decision. He has said that the country would have benefited from having more black university graduates to become leaders after the apartheid system was finally toppled. But he learned a lesson—there is value in fighting battles which, at the time, were viewed as hopeless. There is value in maintaining a long-term commitment to these causes. It was a revelation which has guided his philanthropy ever since.

In the 1980s, apartheid seemed entrenched, and the prospects for a peaceful handover of power seemed remote. But in 1987, my father was asked by leading anti-apartheid figures to finance a meeting in Senegal between the banned African National Congress and white business leaders, academics, writers, and journalists. The conference that followed—the Dakar Conference, as it’s remembered today—was one important step on South Africa’s long road to democracy.

Within a few years, Mandela was presiding over an incredible political transition. With Frederik van Zyl Slabbert, someone whom I got to know very well growing up, my father opened the Open Society Foundation for South Africa in 1993, one year before South Africa’s first democratic elections. And since then, the Foundation has worked with civil society to make a tangible difference in South Africa—from supporting more than 60 community radio stations, working with the Mandela administration to build houses for black communities through equity partnerships, setting up the first sexual assault care and support centers, to funding all major NGOs that work in communities to advance socio-economic rights and tackle state capture. Led by local staff and governing board since its creation, the Foundation has assisted more than 750 local groups for a quarter of a century, many of which represent marginalized South Africans whose constitutional rights are being advanced through their work.

This work is taking place in what was once an implacably closed and repressive country. While there is no denying that South Africa still faces enormous challenges, there are abundant reasons to be hopeful. In this youthful country, where the median age is 26, the Foundation is looking for young leaders who are committed to rights, justice, and accountability. And as anyone who has worked with South Africa’s remarkable civil society would guess, the Foundation is finding just such future leaders.

In tribute to the scholarships that launched the Open Society Foundations, and as part of the anniversary celebrations, we are proud to award 25 fellowships and scholarships to previously disadvantaged students from diverse backgrounds from across the region. Access to tertiary education for poor families on the continent remains low, and we wanted to provide opportunities for those who are the most educationally and economically marginalized.

Just as I was inspired by Mandela all those years ago, today I find inspiration in these emerging leaders of today. Following in the footsteps of Mandela and all those who have fought for freedom, they will help South Africa fulfill its boundless promise.

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Sajnos ezt tudjuk. De itt Európàban is nagy a szegénység a munkanélküli ràta a sok hajléktalan.Egyenlôre itt kell rendet terenteni Európàban mint magyarként segìteni Magyarorszàgon az elesett embereken kirekesztetteken a tàrsadalomból, ha van egy kis hazafiassàg Önben Soros úr tisztelettel. Nem a Kormàny politikàjàt kell nézni, ha nem mint orszàgot humanitàris szempontból Magyarorazàg Hungary. JK szociàlis munkàs.

Just when we think nobody is watching.God sent an Angel.thank u Mr Alexander.....

Thandi from South africa

Amazing work..... South América.. Perú.. Need this kind of help. So many People cannot afford to pay university fees... God bless you

The anti- apartheid struggle for human rights is one of the main areas of resistance in the 20th century which the new Archive of Resistance Testimony at the University of Sussex, UK is prioritising in its holdings of video material and recent interviews. It is great to see so much support from the Open Society Foundations in South Africa for this history of struggle and its continuing legacy of hope and commitment to liberty and justice.

This is a tribute to the human spirit that helped South Africa to march towards A Civil Society . We need to support the 5 pillars of A Civil Society: 1. Right and Respect for all living humans.2. Literacy and Education.3.Rule of law, Justice and non violence.4. Respect for U.N.Declaration for Human Rights 5. A vibrant economy, equal opportunity and sustainable growth. Please extend your vision to include these universal ideals and support to promote these all over the world- A CIVIL SOCIETY,

Thank you Gorge, this world needs you more than ever!

My hero. George Soros.

Good work may God bless you

Thank you Mr Soros Junior for sharing these news with us. Please help my NPO help unemployed graduates to access international job market.. Please allow me access to your personal email so that I can share with you how.

What I heard is that South Africa has become a kleptocracy. Apartheid is replaced by a different apartheid. Now it’s the rich (black or white) against the poor who have no hope of getting anywhere. It’s socialist Government is creating a Zimbabwean country where neither industry nor agriculture can survive.

Thank you for sharing the scholarship experiment and the lesson learned. I built a company called Quoza.com based on your father's reflectivity ideas with a major focus on all the different participant's bias. I was attacked from all directions and ended up losing a great deal. Your story hear today made me feel it was worth it. I consider your father one of my intellectual fathers. It is nice to see your involved. It gives real hope to all of us who believe in open societies.

Soros and OSF provided future for African.

really i am interested to engaged

I'm on the fence about the Soros foundation. They have a base in the UK but appear to totally ignore the UK Spouse Visa system created by Theresa May which pretends to prevent marriages of convenience among former commonwealth citizens but in reality breaks up British families. British citizens, even those with a family history of a thousand years in England are targetted and punished if they fall in love with and marry a none EU or none British national. The cost of a UK Spouse visa is two and a half thousand pounds, and more in legal costs fighting for human and family rights. The terms laid out in the visa guarantee are bordering on ridiculous ( deliberately) separating the spouse ( and often children, even though they hold UK passports) from a stable family unit. Children are denied their rightful places in UK school, tax contributions paid for years to support the UK system are ignored. Families are forced to flee overseas into hardship and poverty, with the children being deprived of education. The claim by Theresa May for this visa is an open lie, she says it is to stop a foreign spouse claiming benefits in the UK but ignores that law is already in place to do that. The UK Spouse visa is clearly racist and punishes a British citizen for marrying a foreign national and sets out to break up a family, causes huge harm to innocent children by surreptitiously taking away children's rights, a right to family life and human rights.
So how about it? How about setting up a fund to bring down this corrupt visa system and protecting the rights of marriage, family, and children?
My two British children are currently living with me and my wife in forced exile overseas, it has been hell for our British passport holding children and is destroying my family because I refuse to abandon them overseas. Do I get any donations to help me fight for justice, the rights of me a British citizen, the rights for my wife of 9 years, our children's human rights? Any offers?

Education...and therefore the ability to critical thinking is crucial to protect democracy, fairness, check & balances...positive growth. Thank You! Clara...a Hungarian-Canadian

That's make quite good. Burundi would see to have such kind of foundations to sustain peace, human rights and other universal values coz since many years, this country has never seen a sustained peace and development!
How Open Society fondations can join us and see how to develop a joint and strategic plan to work all these issues?
Our address email is [email protected] or [email protected]
Thank you for your story!

I am inspired.

Good words are needed at right time and you had made it.

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