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