We Were Brave - Sokari Douglas Camp

Sokari Douglas Camp’s studio in Elephant and Castle is dense with her art. Her larger-than-life metal sculptures listen attentively as she carefully explains her work. Her passion for social justice is evident and her sense of humour is contagious. Her aesthetic sensibility and celebration of her Kalabari roots give force to her focus on injustice; on the violations of power, whether by Nigeria’s military regime, multinational corporations or through the persistent legacies of slavery.

Here, the Kalabari characters that she knew from her childhood in the Niger Delta dance with inspirations from the Italian Renaissance and William Blake’s dark imagination:

Kalabari festivals celebrate mythological characters and water spirits and historical characters. What attracts me is that they are meant to be fairy stories. They’re fascinating! From a young age you’re introduced to these mythological characters. It’s like coming in touch with Father Christmas, except in a far more electric way. Peter Pan, a real fairy, playing in front of you! They come to perform for you and they tell you stories about their world.

When she reflects on the influences that have shaped her work, the tragedy of the Niger Delta and the appalling record of exploitation by multinational oil companies are a constant theme that has run since the execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa – and others of the “Ogoni Nine” – in 1995.  Sokari’s installation – “Battle Bus” – toured Britain before being shipped to Lagos, where it was impounded by the Nigerian government. 

A second theme is the legacy of slavery.  Here, Sokari has taken a thread of inspiration from William Prescott, one of many elderly freed men and women who had formerly been slaves and who were interviewed in 1937. Prescott had spent his whole life on the rice plantation where he had been enslaved.  Reflecting on this, he said:

it is something, but soon there won’t be anyone alive who was a slave … they will remember that we were sold but they won’t remember that we were strong.  They will remember that we were bought, but not that we were brave.

Many of Sokari’s recent sculptures work to this refrain of strength and bravery; for example, her larger-than-life “Europe Supported by Africa and America”, a response to a print with the same name made by William Blake in 1796. Through her work, Sokari shows how art can shape and define key issues with a persistence that defies power and influence.  As she says in the video we made together, her work in metal is “my way of writing”.

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This ChangeMakers series is a partnership between Connected Learning Studio and the Allan Gray Centre for Values Based Leadership, Graduate School of Business, University of Cape Town.

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People doing Things - Sam Paddock and GetSmarter

Martin Hall, February 2019

For Sam Paddock, anything is possible.  From a first online course in wine appreciation, launched in 2008, his goal was to change a million lives through education.  When, nine years later, he sold the company he had co-founded with his brother Rob, he was well on the way to achieving this target, with courses delivered in partnership with five of the top ten ranked universities in the world, including Harvard, Oxford, MIT, Chicago, Cambridge and the London School of Economics.

I worked with Sam and Rob at GetSmarter from mid-2015, helping them to reach out from their base in South Africa and go international. I loved the culture that they built and led; a purposefully zany combination that I’ve touched on in the intro and outro for the video. The interview, though, catches Sam at a more reflective moment as he shows how leading from values goes to the bottom line.

First, people matter above all else; a leadership value that is often stated but seldom realized in practice. As GetSmarter grew from a classic front-room startup to an enterprise of close on 500 people, Sam, Rob and their leadership team were able to scale up their founding enthusiasm and commitment. In the interview, Sam ties this to effective strategy and successful business execution: the right people, doing the right things at the right time.

Second, access to education is the great enabler.  Anyone who knows South Africa knows how the toxic combination of a legacy of discrimination and continuing inequality denies people the opportunity to benefit from their potential and achieve their ambitions.  Here, the still-unfolding revolution of online learning is rattling the gates of ivory towers everywhere.  The Paddocks’ key insight, and the cipher that explains GetSmarter’s success, was that short professional courses, delivered in partnership with top universities, could be taken by anyone, irrespective of their prior qualifications.  This is the key to professional emancipation for those innumerable people, everywhere, who have not had access to the traditional routes into elite universities.

This ChangeMakers series is a partnership between Connected Learning Studio and the Allan Gray Centre for Values Based Leadership, Graduate School of Business, University of Cape Town.

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United by Pain - Mandla Majola and the Treatment Action Campaign

Martin Hall, January 2019

An abiding first impression of Mandla Majola is the intensity of his focus and determination.  We had asked him to contribute a 4-minute segment for a Harvard University course on public health; we stopped the camera over an hour later, and only because the batteries were flat. Editing the file down to 30 minutes for the full casebook version of this study in values based leadership was sacrificial – everything that Mandla has to say is relevant…..

Mandla was born and raised in the Cape Town township of Gugulethu.  He became aware of the HIV epidemic that was sweeping through South Africa in the late 1990s, when an aunt died of AIDS.  The Treatment Action Campaign had just been formed to take on an obdurate government, pushing for fair access to medication for all.  Over the next fifteen years, Mandla was involved in a series of  campaigns: for affordable generic antiretrovirals; for treatment to prevent pregnant women passing HIV to their unborn children; and for the constitutional right of all South Africans to medical care.  Today, the TAC is widely recognized of one of the world’s most successful civil society organisations.

 In getting to know Mandla through the making of this project, I’ve been struck by his combination of humility and courage.  Mandla’s values are clear – the right of everyone to fairness in access to their constitutional rights.  His bravery is evident in taking on President Thabo Mbeki, notorious for his AIDS denialism.  And the cost of Mandla’s values based leadership is evident in physical abuse by the police, and in threats made against him and his family.

 Today, Mandla is building a new organization, the Movement for Change and Social Justice, which is campaigning for basic rights for all – a signal priority in a country that has one of the highest rates of inequality in the world.  I have no doubt that Mandla will repeat the successes so evident in his leadership within the TAC.

This ChangeMakers series is a partnership between Connected Learning Studio and the Allan Gray Centre for Values Based Leadership, Graduate School of Business, University of Cape Town.

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