Jubuntu: Innovation Comes to South Africa

by Michalya Schonwald Moss

All it took to propel the South African Jewish community into the global Jewish conversation of the 21st century was 24 hours with a “dream team” of visionary orchestrators all connected to the Schusterman Family Foundation and the ROI Community: Guy Lieberman, Seth Cohen and Jen Keys. Add to that the generosity of powerhouse philanthropist Lynn Schusterman and the Sasfin Bank, inspiring speeches and workshops by Shaka Sisulu, Helen Lieberman, Charles Maisel and Taddy Blecher among others, some speed networking and open-space sessions and the result was an event that truly catapulted the 50 participants at the South African Young Jewish Innovators Gathering into a whole new realm of possibility.

An event with innovation at its core was the first of its kind for Jewish South Africans. Due to factors such as living for periods of uncertainty post-apartheid, the mentality of fear still manages the point of view of many Jewish South Africans today. As a result, thinking “outside of the box” and taking risks that might defy the status quo has become a rare quality within the Jewish community. Since the end of apartheid, the community shrunk to half of its size with many Jews convinced they were fleeing for their lives. Of the 70,000 Jews who remain today in South Africa, the growing trend has been an increase in religiosity, a decrease in inclusivity and a wariness towards innovation – especially any kind of innovation within the Jewish community that is not perceived to be “orthodox.”

Outside of the Jewish community, while business entrepreneurialism is popular amongst Jewish South Africans, social entrepreneurship is a newer concept that often goes hand in hand with innovation – a daunting prospect for a community I would describe as risk averse. A gathering around innovation was thus a risky undertaking for the community, as the prevailing tension between innovation and tradition could be problematic.

Yet somehow, the gathering was able to override the tension, and the diverse group of participants with a variety of expertise, each coming from different spaces religiously, found common ground.

Only an international presence could have accomplished this seemingly impossible feat where no clash of belief systems occurred and both Orthodox and Reform community members came together. No international initiative that I am familiar with has ever come to this land promoting innovation for the sole purpose of equipping young South African Jews to become change makers in their communities and in the larger scheme of Africa. That the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation recognized the potential that exists within the Jewish community to contribute to the larger transformation of the nation and chose to invest through this unique gathering was incredibly moving for me.

The intention of the gathering was to bring together young Jewish South African social innovators in various sectors in order to create a strategic global community network that connects and creates. The gathering was also an opportunity to showcase the entrepreneurial spirit that exists within the South African Jewish community and to celebrate, in the words of Seth Cohen, Director of Network Initiatives at the Schusterman Foundation, “what the South African Jewish community has to bring to the global Jewish community.”

The Jewish contribution to South Africa was emphasized and honored. Both Shaka Sisulu, the grandson of the great freedom fighter and founder of the African National Congress (ANC) Walter Sisulu, and Helen Lieberman, known as the “Mother Theresa of South Africa” for her work during apartheid, spoke about the role Jews played in South Africa’s struggle for freedom. Both Shaka and Helen urged those in attendance to choose to continue to pass the torch on toward the development of South Africa.

In a community that sometimes chooses to be silent rather than challenge the prevailing authority over issues such as the role of women in the community and inclusivity of other streams of religious expression, the South African Young Jewish Innovators Gathering empowered us to step up and reclaim our voices as members of the Jewish community. We took on the commitment to each other of taking responsibility for our role as change makers and promised to support one another in the process.

When sharing with a friend in Israel about the event, she wondered, “Imagine what would have happened to the Jewish community in South Africa if it were not for globalization.” I took her words into the gathering with me and observed from this perspective how empowering it was for young Jewish South African’s to realize that they are not as alone, isolated or cut off from the global Jewish community of innovators as they had previously imagined.

What I took away from the gathering is that inclusivity and innovation go hand in hand, for without Ubuntu, the African philosophy that means “I am what I am because of who we all are,” tikkun olam cannot succeed. We cannot afford to continue to operate from islands, disconnected from each other and from our larger communities. At the end of the gathering, as conference director Guy Lieberman declared, “It’s a wrap,” I looked around the room and saw a multitude of smiling bright-eyed peers, full of the spirit of “Jubuntu,” and thought to myself, “a new generation of freedom fighters has just awakened.”

Michalya Schonwald Moss is a development consultant for Tevel b’Tzedek and is currently pursuing a graduate degree in International Development at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, exploring how South Africa is taking on the social economy. You can follow her blog, Postcards from the Rainbow Nation.

A version of this article first appeared on Postcards from the Rainbow Nation.