While undergraduate study has since inception been a key area of investment for the Trust, the management of individual undergraduate bursaries had proved difficult.

While undergraduate study has since inception been a key area of investment for the Trust, the management of individual undergraduate bursaries had proved difficult. From personal pleas for help to a more distant engagement through universities and banks, no model had worked sufficiently well until 2000. The Trust forged relationships with a number of specialist organisations including CareerWise. CareerWise evolved from the Anglo American stable where it ran the company’s internal bursary scheme, to take on responsibility for a range of bursary and scholarship programmes for business, government and some private foundations and trusts.

CareerWise receives an astounding 60 000 to 70 000 applications each year, and places around 500. The OMT bursaries cover tuition, residence, books and meals, and recently, include travel allowances so that students can return home twice a year.

“We filter the applications and in the case of the OMT, we organise interviews with some of the Trustees who then make the awards. We also have a support system for the students, and monitor their progress,” says Director Monique Adams. Typically, the students would not get to university without funding. Monique states, “Full funding like this offers the experience and opportunity of attending a mainstream campus. Where possible, the family is expected to make some contribution or the student must seek some paid work. And we encourage them all to do some voluntary work, someone is contributing to your education so we expect you to put something back”.

The focus is on students with a good work ethic and a particular type of background, specifically schools with good teaching and learning in place. To bridge the gap, CareerWise offers two maths and science programmes every year to identify children with potential but no access, and once at University, monitors and guides the students. But she emphasises that there are many levels of disadvantage with CareerWise students; social, educational, financial and linguistic. To help youngsters move forward, the Trust and CareerWise build personal relationships with promising scholars at the schools. These bursaries, unlike others, are not bonded, so while they do not guarantee employment, a successful graduate is free to take any job. Monique reflects on current attitudes to this freedom of choice: “A lot of students are, naturally, very concerned about job prospects so tend to focus on commerce and technical subjects as they and their families see these as viable areas of opportunity. When we meet them in matric, we try and guide them, and now have candidates successfully studying law, music and medicine, but there is reluctance among disadvantaged students to study broad humanities”. At another level, many of the candidates underestimate the complexity of what they are about to undertake, resulting in the small fish in a big pond scenario. Monique comments that problems arise when they do not partake in generalities, like going to movies or a play or sport, and only mix with kids from the same background, which may negate the broad educational value of attending a university. The absence of rules or conditions, with bursaries open to all disciplines, is rare. According to Monique nearly all other awards come with specific funding obligations:

“This is a scholarship programme that enables people to pursue their needs and abilities, they are expected to excel. The OMT programme is literally in support of learning and not about putting people in boxes, about talented individuals who work hard and overcome adverse circumstances to give it a shot.”

The Trust funds approximately 50 students per annum, with many coming from very disadvantaged schools and many from broken homes. To date, through CareerWise, the OMT has provided some 315 bursaries to undergraduate students.

Understanding that education is a process that starts with young children, the Trust administers a Primary School Scholarship Scheme and also works in structured partnerships with agencies such as the Alexandra Education Committee, Vuleka Schools, the Student Sponsorship Programme, Drakensberg Boys’ Choir School, St. Barnabas and Bishop Bavin Schools. The Alexandra Education Committee, originally a voluntary association and now a registered Public Benefit Organisation, first approached the Trust in 2001, requesting support for its work to redress chronic educational imbalances resulting from dire social conditions of poverty, overcrowding and associated ill-health in Alexandra. Through the AEC, the Trust offers bursaries to high-achieving and financially needy local primary school children, for the duration of their secondary school career. This is critical, given that Alexandra’s schools consistently underperform within their district. This is unsurprising when one reads of the life circumstances around each child: all affected by grinding poverty, some affected by TB, others losing parents to HIV/AIDS or simply surviving with absent or uncaring caregivers.

Despite their daily reality, this new generation of thinkers and dreamers go on to achieve their academic and creative potential, if given the chance. Letters from the bursars over the years offer insights into what this support means, with one highly motivated learner at Highlands North writing:

“My new year resolutions are to reach for the stars and strive to be the best, for two reasons, firstly, because the sky is the limit and, secondly, because I know, I can and I shall. I know because I believe, I can because nothing is impossible, I shall because you have given me the opportunity.”

Other children were as appreciative. “This is the moment that I have been waiting for when I was awarded the Endeavour Certificate for Natural Science.”; “In my life I had been looking for the love of a parent, now I have found one.”; “Knowing that we are going to the school that we never thought we will go to … gives us something to smile about, and when our hearts have no anger, everything we do we try the best.”; “You have sent me to a lovely, disciplined school with very good facilities, in my first term I didn’t do my best since I told myself I was clever. That’s where I realised I was wrong.”; “I grew up in a township where people admired people who represented all the bad things. Where people accept failure and never do anything to change the situtation. Hence people never try for success, never hope, never aim to achieve.”

While it is easy to be moved by the plight of the youngsters, and their delight at achieving their aims, this engagement is testimony to the generosity and commitment of those educators and volunteers who staff the AEC and offer unstinting support. Clare Roussouw writes:

“Your OMT ongoing support is enabling so many wonderful young people to escape from the hopelessness and dejection that almost inevitably results from extreme poverty. Gradually we are really beginning to feel that all our efforts are making a small contribution to the terrible skills shortage in South Africa, and especially in places like Alexandra.”

The Trust also supports children with special needs by providing operational support and assistance to essential institutions like Forest Town School, the Key School and the Bel Porto Foundation. The Trust’s involvement with what was part of the “Federation”, today’s Zimbabwe, continues in the form of support for university students and young academics whose energies and intellects will contribute to the future reconstruction of that country.

Both feeding aspiration and rewarding excellence, the Trust demonstrates how intelligent spending can impact individuals and, through them, society. At the University of Limpopo, the ebullient Mokgadi Molelemane is unequivocal. When in 1995 she saw visually impaired students in the University Library relying on sighted students to access information in reference books, she was inspired to help. “I learnt Braille, and found that the Library had equipment for the visually impaired, but no-one to use it.” As Administrator responsible for students with disabilities at the University:

“Getting the grant to study rehabilitation teaching for the visually impaired at Western Michigan University, Department of Blindness and Low Vision Studies, was the best thing that ever happened to me. Skills in my field are scarce in South Africa  when it comes to people with disability, we’re on a learning curve. The programme I took was a real eye opener on how I, Mokgadi, view a person with disability, and certainly fine-tuned me career wise.”

Today, after the course in Michigan: “I can teach someone who is blind to read Braille, give people courage and help them to be independent so they can lead a normal life.” At the same time, she assists her colleagues in teaching the visually impaired and applies her new skills in the examination process, working closely with the provincial Department of Education. Currently Acting Assistant Registrar and Head of the Examinations Section, she is immensely grateful for what the grant did for her and what she, now, can do for others: “I believe any acquired knowledge and skills not shared with others soon becomes obsolete.”

Dr. Nisha Singh of the School of Biological and Conservation Sciences in the Department of Botany at the University of KwaZulu Natal initially received support from OMT in 1998, and again in 2005 for her sabbatical studies at the Research Centre for the Development of Horticultural Technology at Chungbuk National University, Korea. As principal technician in the Department of Botany, support from OMT has enabled her to significantly expand her horizons.

“Exposure to new technologies and thinking is greatly needed. The grant gives you the leverage and the possibility to see what is available in your field, and importantly the encouragement and confidence to continue.”

Learning new trends and technologies is essential, she says, given that South Africa has hundreds of medicinally useful plants that are over exploited, and supplies are dwindling. This has triggered her focus in on vitro bio-processing technology to sustain production of rare and protected plants and create bulking of bioactive substances. In her view, the Trust’s application of a proper and exhaustive evaluation process, rather than simply handing out money, is key to finding “people that do, and who move things forward”. Having studied for her MBA, Dr. Nisha has renewed respect for business which, she asserts, drives this country forward. She believes that “developing and growing a philanthropic attitude will grow South Africa”. The sky appears to be the limit for this resourceful scientist who wants to develop a plant system for bioprocessing phytocompounds. “This will mean local product, local business and local jobs.”

In an increasingly electronic, visual world, where time is at a premium and attention spans are minimal, literature and literacy remain central to education. A good book can seduce the most hardened technophile to engage with words, and is a powerful medium to introduce the reader to new worlds and new ideas. In recent years, the Trust has supported SA PEN and the Anthony Sampson Foundation and since 2001 has been a major contributor to The Caine Prize for African Writing. The Prize is awarded for a short story by an African writer published in English, and currently carries a purse of £10 000. Named after Sir Michael Caine, former Chairman of Booker plc and Chairman of the Booker Prize management committee for nearly 25 years, the intention of the prize is not only to encourage writing, but, in Caine’s words, recognition of the quality, richness and diversity of African writing in English in the open, competitive world market. Speaking at the 2000 inaugural award ceremony, writer Ben Okri —himself a former Booker Prizewinner and Caine Prize selector — emphasized the value of this award in transforming perceptions and enriching the literary canon:

“It is easy to dismiss Africa, its people, its problems, its literature. It is easy to patronise Africa, all it takes is having a fairly good education and needing someone to feel superior to in order to feel good. It is easy to profess to like Africa, for the wrong reasons. It is easy to have liberal views about Africa. And it is just as easy to condemn, to bash, to wound, and to insult Africa, all that it takes is ignorance and meanness of spirit and the desire to provoke, to get a reaction, to get some attention. But it is difficult first of all to see Africa. To look at it, in its variety, its complexity, its simplicity, to see its people, and to see individual, human beings. It is difficult to see its contributions, to see its literature, to hear its laughter, to behold its cruelties, to witness its spirituality, to withstand its suffering, and to sense its ancient philosophy. Which is why literature matters. It gives the opportunity of encountering other possibilities and people in the mind, in the heart, first. It is the best ambassador of the unity of humankind.”

An invigorating and important element of the Prize are the annual writing workshops introduced in 2002, bringing writers of different ages and from different African countries to work together in a dedicated space, free from distraction. One writer explains: “For 10 days you write and eat and sleep.” This forum encourages peer review, and another writer states, “I so rarely have the chance to discuss my work with other writers, and never with writers from elsewhere in Africa”. The most telling comments are about the breaking of isolation and the building of relationships across this vast continent. “I’ll always know I’m not alone,” says writer Stanley Gazemba, who works as a gardener in Nairobi.

Demonstrating its credibility in the wider literary fraternity, and how effective the Caine Prize is in igniting interest in African writing, all winners from Sudan, Kenya, Zimbabwe, Uganda and South Africa to date have attracted immediate interest from literary agents and publishers outside Africa and have all gone on to publish a full-length novel or prepare one for publication. The number of entries continues to grow from countries across the continent. To quote Ben Okri once more:

“African literature has long been on the margins. That is one of its strengths. It has so much to do, so many new moods and possibilities to bring into being. It will bring many unsuspected gifts and wonderful surprises. O ye who invest in futures, pay heed to Africa.”

As the Trust has, and continues to do.

So too does the Sydney Brenner Fellowship Award, founded in 2006 by South African born and trained Dr. Brenner. After receiving the 2002 Nobel Prize for Medicine and Physiology, he donated US$100 000 of his prize money to establish a prestigious post-doctoral fellowship in molecular sciences, that must be taken up within a South African institution. The inference is clear: South Africa is world class. The Trust has partnered in this fellowship programme, seeing it as complementary to its own interest in the unfettered pursuit of originality and ideas, as articulated by Harry Oppenheimer. Run through the Academy of Science of South Africa (ASSA) and the National Academy of Sciences of the United States, the Fellowship targets the world’s brightest and best in this field. In 2007, the first two-year fellowships were awarded to Dr. Zenda Woodman of the Institute of Infectious Diseases and Molecular Medicine and Dr. Shaheen Mowla of the Department of Human Biology at the University of Cape Town. Both will benefit from personal mentoring by Dr. Brenner who is renowned for taking an independent view and applying lateral thinking to resolve scientific puzzles.

Whether transforming scientific knowledge and disability into opportunity, or revisioning our perceptions of ourselves, open-mindedness is the key. The Most Reverend Thabo Makgoba – installed in January 2008 as Archbishop of the Anglican Church in South Africa, Lesotho, Mozambique, Angola, Swaziland and St. Helena – is no stranger to enquiry well beyond the realms of theological discourse. He regards the OMT’s support of his current doctoral research into ‘Mine, Health and Safety issues in relation to workplace spirituality’ as enlightened, and a model for other businesses operating in South Africa.

Well-known as an educator and writer, with profound and often controversial insights into South African education, Professor Jonathan Jansen is also exploring the workings of the mind, from a different perspective. With a PhD from Stanford University School of Education and Masters in Science Education from Cornell University, he was Dean in the Faculty of Education at the University of Pretoria for 7 years, charged with transforming the attitudes of young, white Afrikaner students. This, he asserts, requires understanding. During this time he started work on a book capturing his insights, but recognised his approach was wrong. He started to rewrite, and the award of a 4-month sabbatical grant to visit Stanford University in California in 2007 enabled him to conduct research amongst peers engaged in similar work on issues of reconciliation and ethnicity, youth, history and memory. In his view the application process for an OMT grant compared to other academic awards is relatively uncomplicated, and he feels privileged.

“Decisions are made on the quality and depth of scholarship, and genuinely award individual talent with no tokenism. The fact that it is highly competitive, and we are judged by our peers, makes it something worth striving for.”

There was real value in having an opportunity to concentrate on his work without daily interruption or concerns. “It is a very practical grant, there is no stinginess. I think one will see from the book, ‘Knowledge in the Blood’, that one can only produce this level and quality of work if given the time and space. I was desperate for a space to write, this was an opportunity to talk and reflect with colleagues, in a place I knew well and I started writing from day one and ended as I left.” He stresses the need for South Africans to grapple with their past and look to their shared future. “A lot of us as South Africans are hurting. I am hoping, apart from its contribution to scholarship and social science, my book will drive dialogue between black and white South Africans”. ‘Knowledge in the Blood, how white students remember and enact the past’ was made available in 2009.

Accepting that dialogue of all sorts is essential to our shared future, the support the Trust offers to young pioneers in the arts, in some cases actively supporting their careers, is of critical importance. Following an initial grant enabling her to take up a residency programme at De Ateliers, Amsterdam, Dineo Bopape was in 2008 assisted to take up her scholarship for a Masters in Fine Arts at the School of Arts, Columbia University in New York. “It would be easier to study locally where everything around me is familiar and safe, and I am ‘home’. But easy is not exactly what I want, I want a challenge! I want to grow and explore the unfamiliar, where possibilities that I have not yet dreamt of are possible!” In her view, developing her craft is as important as having access to major trends in the arts world and making new connections.

“South Africa is a player within the global field, and it is our responsibility as its citizens to represent ourselves in the best way possible, with all our resources and capabilities. Brand South Africa must grow further!”

She has no doubt she will bring back to South Africa “a special knowledge, special skills and a special way of looking, interpreting and creating the world we live in”.

James Oesi expresses his young voice through music. James started playing piano, violin and then he discovered the double bass. Winning a music scholarship to St. Johns College in Johannesburg, in 2004 he became a member of World Youth Symphony Orchestra. At 16, the youngest in many years, he was accepted for a one-year preparatory certificate course at the Moscow State Tchaikovsky Conservatory in Russia. Still there three years later, this undergraduate music student, whose studies and living are supported by both OMT and the Apollo Music Trust, is adamant that the opportunity to study and learn abroad is important: “My teacher is exceptional, and I have constant access to extraordinary performances.” Up until recently, the double bass class was held backstage of the main performance centre, The Bolshoi Hall of the Conservatory. “Once I had a lesson and my professor asked if I knew who was rehearsing. He suggested I go and watch, it was Yo Yo Ma, and I was the only person in this audience!” He considers the Trust’s inclusion of music education as very unusual within the South African context where he believes the arts are not ranked highly. Looking forward, he plans to start his career in Europe, coming home “to make performing contemporary and 20th century music a high priority” and “to contribute to elevating the status of South African music throughout the world”.

James Oesi is in tune with the Buskaid Soweto String Ensemble, based in Diepkloof, Soweto. Their distinctive interpretations of classical and contemporary sounds and styles have enlivened orchestral performance wherever they appear, most notably at The Royal Albert Hall in 2007, as part of the celebrated ‘Proms’ season. The Trust’s support for this 11-year old school that offers intensive musical training that generates extraordinary results, includes direct bursary funding for several Buskaid students of exceptional promise to continue their undergraduate studies at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester, England. The first recipient was violinist Samson Diamond who, after 4 years of study, secured a first class BMus (Hons) degree and a high distinction for practical examination recital. This secured him the College’s Philip Newman Prize for violin, allowing a further year’s postgraduate study. He now freelances for orchestras such as The Hallé, Britain’s oldest professional orchestra.

What is music without dance! Dance is an area that the Trust has consistently supported, from the choreological study grant in the 60s, to today’s young contemporary and classical practitioners, including the funding of bursaries for talented young ballet dancers to train with the South African Ballet Theatre. In 1993, with the assistance of the late Harry Oppenheimer and several other prominent businessmen, Lady Anya Sainsbury established a South African Dance Scholarship Fund at the Rambert School of Ballet and Contemporary Dance specifically to help young black dancers. 10 years later, the Trust responded to a direct approach to help Dane Hurst, an unusually talented young dancer from Port Elizabeth, to complete his final year and obtain his Professional Dance Diploma from Rambert. His letter of thanks to the Trust is a poignant record of a young man’s efforts to survive a disruptive homelife, and survive he did. Referring to his experience, he wrote:

“I knew there was something that I just couldn’t leave. This something was a sort of refuge from the complicated ordeals of family life. This something was known as ballet. … Words couldn’t comprehend how grateful and emotional I am towards this gift that is of such value that it could change the rest of my life forever.”

Since graduating, Dane has successfully auditioned for and joined the Rambert Dance Company, Britain’s oldest modern dance company, received the 2007 Critics Circle Award for Spotlight Dancer of the Year, and is currently a member of the Phoenix Dance Theatre based in Leeds. He plans to return to South Africa, “with enough experience and maturity to create a work. I will continue on this journey and hope to one day share what I have learnt along the way”.

Another award winning choreographer and dancer Gladys Agulhas, founder of Agulhas Theatre Works, received a grant from the Trust to accept an invitation to attend the World Alliance Dance Symposium in Italy. Long a proponent of dance for people with disabilities, and as well known for her professional performance as for her work with children, she was invited to present a paper on dance in education. “This gave me the chance to link into this huge dance network worldwide. Hopefully we will start a World Dance Alliance branch here in Africa which, in turn, will give us a platform to exchange work with Europe on an equal footing.” She was both surprised and honoured to receive a prestigious Stefano Valentino Award for her work with disabled dancers and for composing the International Dance Day message, which has been translated into over 100 languages around the world. It begins:

“The spirit of dance has no selected colour, no selected shape or size. Each dancing soul, young, old, persons living with disability, creates and transforms ideas into life changing moving Art.”

And there are times when actions do speak louder than words. Displaying its customary sensitivity to current events, the OMT was quick to respond to the waves of xenophobic attacks that gripped the country mid-2008. A donation of R1 000 000 was made to Operation ReachOut to secure immediate relief for immigrants displaced and affected by the xenophobia, with a further R250 000 each to the Methodist Church and the Salvation Army, both of which were housing numerous men, women and children. On behalf of the Trust, Mary Slack expressed her dismay at the behaviour of South Africans towards their neighbours and commented on the value that immigrants could introduce to a country – new ideas and new energy – just as her grandfather, a Jewish immigrant, had done some 100 years before.

Drive, energy and the intent to change their lives and the lives of those around them marks most, if not all, of the beneficiaries of the Trust, and the Trustees themselves. It is a tribute to this country, and one we should all celebrate, that it remains so full of pioneers and solid citizens, some overcoming seemingly insuperable odds to move ahead, and all committed to a positive future.

Copyright © The Oppenheimer Memorial Trust 2008

Written by Nicola Danby and Clare Digby