EMBAs Visit South Africa

Posted 4.14.2006

The Weatherhead Executive MBA program includes an international study tour in the second year of study. The trip is a 10-day tour outside the United States during the university's spring break period. The goal of this experience is to explore and contrast the cultural, historical, political and economic issues involved in new business opportunities outside the U.S. This year, the EMBA Class of 2006 visited Johannesburg and Capetown, South Africa.

The class started the trip with an evening and morning safari at the Pilansburg Game Reserve. Seeing elephants, zebras, giraffes and rhinos close up was an amazing way to start the journey. The visit to Johannesburg included stops at Soweto, DeBeers, Ernst & Young (to discuss Black Economic Empowerment) and Mintek. In Capetown, the EMBAs visited Stellenbosch Business School, Spier Winery and met with three South African entrepreneurs who are interested in moving their businesses into the U.S. market.

What follows are three student's perspectives on the trip from business and personal perspectives. 



From a business perspective, my most fascinating impression was the tour and discussion at DeBeers corporate headquarters and mining facility at Cullinan mine. The work that DeBeers is pursuing in the reduction of HIV and the development of Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) is truly a conscientious effort. The marketing avenue that DeBeers is developing brings home the thought of “The Love of Diamonds”. The old saying: “diamonds are a girl’s best friend” is resurfacing the market. There is something about a diamond that is unique and different. It is a part of the culture that DeBeers wants to capture in order to increase sales and profitability.

Since I work at a mining facility, the tour of Cullinan mine left a lasting impression. Peterson, the tour guide, gave an excellent tour even though he never worked in the mine. He was actually hired to lead tours! It was exciting to see the mock display of the underground mine and the way they dynamite the underground stone. Some of the old railcars used were also on display. At the end of the tour, I was happy to purchase a diamond star-cut from the Cullinan mine for my wife which will be a lasting memory of our trip.


From a personal perspective, I was most fascinated by the talk given by the CEO, Senele Sobantwana, at Ernst and Young. It was fascinating to hear him talk about how he had to learn the language and computer. I also had a chance to eat lunch with him. He described to me how he lived in poverty but always wanted to get an education and move to Johannesburg. He is now the CEO of a radio station! He plans on returning home in the near future.



South Africa does not seem to garner much interest from our news media, nor do we see many images of the country. The unexpected is what excited me most about this trip.

I have visited developing countries before including Thailand, the Philippines, the hinterland of China, etc. In all of these places I have seen the effects of dire poverty, but have also experienced the resilience of the human spirit. South Africa was no different. I was particularly struck by the cheerfulness of the children in Soweto playing in their sharp school uniforms, or the little kids rolling around on old tires next to our bus. They looked as if they hadn’t a care in the world.

The strongest and most lasting impression for me was the visit to the Apartheid museum. The museum communicated a level of injustice and suffering that various movies and books on the subject simply could not convey. The scale, scope and duration of these inhumane and discriminatory practices were shocking. I reflected back to my life in the late 80’s and early 90’s and how little I knew of Apartheid or its effects on such a huge number of people. Looking back, I would have expected far more coverage by the news media and discussions to be taking place on my college campus. My first introduction to Apartheid came from listening to Peter Gabriel’s “Biko”, and hearing Bono talk about Bishop Tutu on the Rattle and Hum album. These artists took the cause to the rest of the world in ways that the media seemed incapable of. Only now am I able to more fully connect with the emotions these artists were bringing across.

After visiting the Apartheid museum I spent the rest of the trip pondering the miracle that had occurred right before our very eyes when Apartheid was lifted. It would have been so easy and perhaps natural for the nation to disintegrate into civil war. It would have been easy for the oppressed masses to rise up and exact their revenge on the former government and on the business community. I came to appreciate much more deeply the leadership qualities of Nelson Mandela and Bishop Tutu. The lessons of healing and hope shall endure with me.

South Africa has a rugged beauty about it. I saw it in the cliffs and brush lands, as well as in the eyes of her people. It is a rich tapestry. Its geography at the meeting point of two very different oceans seems more than a coincidence, for South Africa seems to bring the unique together.



I expected the trip to South Africa to be somewhat of a heart warming welcome-home experience for Americans with any African ancestry - much the same as we Jews experience when we first visit Israel. Instead we learned that “African” is a term reserved for those born there. This made all visitors simply that; Visitors. In effect it was as if we arrived in a tray of fresh, new watercolors and were then doused in water, blending us into one. Experiencing this total blurring of color was a rich feeling. It was diversity at its best, and could only have occurred in this unique place and circumstance.

The closest experience to this for me has been when my staff has been highly diverse and they are all engaged in a common goal. The staffing philosophy that has always served me best has been to leverage cultural and racial diversity in order to achieve the best software solutions. Diverse groups simply bring more variety and better outcomes to problem-solving. My experience in South Africa-becoming blended in a tray of watercolors- reminded me that diversity in the business environment is exactly what I should and will continue to foster.

Visiting South Africa is easy, but leaving South Africa behind is not. The trip really left me with only one option: find reasons to go back again and again. From a very young age, I was exposed to many languages and cultures, and international travel has remained a passion of mine. I’ve been fortunate to vacation in many countries and found something beautiful about each. But they all suddenly paled in comparison to South Africa. It’s not the diamonds; it’s the diversity.

Interested in learning more about Weatherhead programs? Request more information or apply now, or register for one of over 70 open enrollment courses through Executive Education.

Weatherhead School of Management at Case Western Reserve University cultivates creativity, innovation, and purpose-driven leadership to design a better world.