Author Olga Gladkikh, January 28 2014: The world’s attention was focused on South Africa as Nelson Mandela was laid to rest. People inside and outside South Africa are remembering the years of struggle to end apartheid and the birth of a new inclusive democracy.
Perhaps less known is the long history that the Coady Institute at St. Francis Xavier University has had in building the Canadian-South African connection.
Between 1963 and 1994, more than 100 community leaders attended Coady’s leadership development programs at St. Francis Xavier. Coady staff also provided training to more than 1,800 other leaders on the ground in South Africa, many of whom played important roles in the struggle against apartheid.
During this period, Coady graduates and program staff who worked in South Africa to develop leadership skills and mobilize grassroots communities, particularly in black townships, had to be very careful.
As late Coady director Dr. A.A. MacDonald once said, “We always had to be very cautious not to make any political statements that would get our hosts in trouble and jeopardize them or ourselves.”
One such host was the Wilgespruit Fellowship Centre (WFC), an independent church-based organization active in the anti-apartheid struggle for many years. Steve Biko and other members of the South African Students Organization and Black Consciousness Movement were closely connected to WFC, with some serving as staff.
In 1972, the Stellenbosch Commission was appointed to review its operations; while in Parliament, then-prime minister John Vorster called WFC "that den of vipers."
Coady’s relationship with WFC began in 1975 with a focus on building the capacity of staff through training both in Canada and South Africa. In 1986, WFC set up the Ubuntu Social Development Institute (USDI) to provide leadership training to local communities and non-government organizations using content from the diploma program and methods modelled on the Coady’s participatory approach to learning.
Another Coady partner, Self-Help Associations for Development Economics (SHADE) was established by the South African Council of Churches to provide leadership training to black groups and encourage them to set up self-help projects such as co-operative businesses and credit unions. The program provided a viable alternative to the capital intensive, restricted, white-dominated economy.
These activities did not go unnoticed by the authorities. Partner organizations were often raided by the police, and Coady staff were sometimes stopped at the airport and prevented from entering the country.
Graduates returning home from Canada would regularly be questioned about what they learned and how they intended to apply it.
After the fall of apartheid, graduates who had come to the Coady as community development workers with very few rights were now serving their communities as members of parliament and deputy mayors, as policymakers and public servants, or as the heads of construction companies and small businesses. In 1996, Nelson Mandela chose WFC’s founder and first director, Rev. Dale White, to sit on a five-person advisory council. Coady graduate Mary Mxadana served as Mandela’s personal secretary for many years.
During the transition process, Coady staff began collaborating with the Centre for Adult and Continuing Education (CACE) at the University of the Western Cape, to build the capacity of gender trainers and community development workers to facilitate discussions and actions to deal with gender, race and class issues arising in the new post-apartheid South Africa.
The Coady Institute's role in South Africa continues today. In the past eight years, more than 50 South Africans have attended Coady programs on the St. Francis Xavier campus in Nova Scotia, while more than 500 have attended Coady training in their own country.
Throughout the years, the Coady Institute's emphasis has been on providing educational opportunities to enable local communities to play an active role in shaping their own destinies by using their own assets and ingenuity to make change happen.
As Nelson Mandela said, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”
This contribution from Olga Gladkikh, a senior program staff member at the Coady International Institute in Antigonish, Canada, was orginally posted on the Coady Institute website.