Innovation for Africa

by Benji Shulman

There is an oft repeated narrative about the South African community that talks about a small, conservative, aging group of Jews stuck at the bottom of the Dark Continent. The South African Young Jewish Innovators Gathering, held Feb. 11-12 and hosted by the Schusterman Family Foundation and Sasfin Bank, not only blew this conception out of the water but also showed the interesting paths that the community may take in the future in South Africa.

What was perhaps the most interesting aspect was that the big bogey men of the Jewish world were largely absent from the debates taking place among the 50-plus Jewish innovators that attended. There was no talk of anti-Semitism, religious divides, the peace process or assimilation. In general, the focus was innovation, how we could “Jewishly innovate and innovate Jewishly” as one speaker put it. The sheer array of sectors was astonishing and one of the strengths of the conference was that many people did not know that one another existed. There were the bankers and the greenies, educationalists and the marketers, the media junkies and the community workers, the health care providers and the rabbis. Without exception, each of them was applying some considerable yiddisher kop to the problems troubling our community and our world.

Getting all of these people in the room was one thing; finding ways of creating synergy was quite another. This is where the organisers really out did themselves in moving from identification to collaboration. Delegates were treated to a number of elevator pitches, speed-networking sessions, inspirational talks and thought leadership forums where new ideas were proposed and old ones were revitalised.

It was also fascinating to see how the challenges facing the community have changed in the last few years and the new ways that these are being met. Take, for instance, Helen Lieberman, founder of one the largest NGO’s in the country, Ikamva Labantu. Starting during the height of apartheid and under terrifying conditions, she managed to start a plethora of community institutions, including schools and hospitals, to help people in poor areas. On a daily basis, she faced harassment, political instability and even death threats to do her work, which has ultimately helped thousands of people.

Now apartheid may be dead and buried, but some of its unpleasant side effects carry on and are affecting the country to this day. One of these is the incessant lack of doctors in rural areas due to emigration and absorption in urban hospitals. Reversing the brain drain is a chronic issue for African countries who have to compete with better pay and equipment in first world states. Conference attendee Saul Kornik of African Health Placements is defying conventional wisdom that there are no doctors available for rural clinics. By marketing these vacant medical posts as a form of altruistic, career-enhancing experiences, he has managed to increase placements in these areas by tenfold.

The conference also showed how Jewish community institutions can adjust to changing conditions and renew their mandates. Take, for instance, ORT South Africa, a Jewish community institution known the world over for providing education to Jewish students. In this part of the world, they mostly worked by providing artisanal skills for vocational purposes. However, as the Jewish community gained better access to resources, they moved away from “trades” and more toward “professions,” leaving ORT with a smaller pool of people to train. Now, instead of losing this institutional memory, they decided to apply it to the local non-Jewish population, particularly working with math and science teachers of which there is also a massive shortage. As attendee Nicci Raz explained, not wanting to lose their Jewish roots, they also started ORT-JET, a division of the organisation devoted entirely to mentoring and supporting failing Jewish small business and assisting Jews in the job hunting process. It’s a big change from their previous operations, but it still very much fits in their original mandate.

I could go on and on about the amazing stories at this event, many of which I would never have heard if I didn’t attend. It was a privilege to see how the Jewish community in South Africa will innovate into the 21th century. Well done to the Schusterman Foundation for their foresight on this; it is refreshing and much needed.

Benji Shulman is the education co-ordinator at the Jewish National Fund of South Africa.