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Inside the Programme

Choosing how we show up: from receiving learning to co-creating it

Published 2 August 2021

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Although we are diverse, something which ties us together as Mandela Rhodes Scholars is our MRF story; how we came to apply for the scholarship, and the journey which led us to have these conversations, with these people, in this space, right now. A part of this experience seems to be a parallel sense of awe and wonderment (“Wow, I am a Mandela Rhodes Scholar. Like, Nelson Mandela”) and imposter syndrome (“Did they make a mistake? Did they call the wrong Chris and now they’re just too embarrassed to say?”). A third question I found myself asking is: “What does it mean to be a Mandela Rhodes Scholar in my context?”

This question took on unprecedented importance in 2020. For many, a large part of being a Mandela Rhodes Scholar is in the experience – catching flights, feeling the ‘Mandela Rhodes magic’ every time you step into a workshop space, staying in hotels with jealousy-inducing views and, let us not forget, the incredible food. The Class of 2020 did not have this typical Mandela Rhodes experience. For us, rather than being in Cape Town or at a hotel, the programme was very literally brought into our bedrooms.

During South Africa’s Level 5 Coronavirus lockdown it slowly became apparent that my Mandela Rhodes experience would certainly not look like what I had envisioned. And this was tough. It was incredibly tempting to simply ‘check out’, accept that my expectations were not going to be realised and write off the rest of the experience. It took a step of faith, and some plain old hard-headedness, to step up, step into and co-create something entirely new, unfamiliar and unexpected.

With hindsight, I think this embodies what I have come to believe it means to be a Mandela Rhodes Scholar. We all go through the phase of parallel awe and imposter syndrome, and I think that’s an important part of the journey. What 2020 has shown me is that the programme is not something we attend, it’s something we create. What it means to be a Mandela Rhodes Scholar is not something we receive, it’s something we define. The Foundation is not something which is, it’s something which is becoming, and as scholars we are all involved in that process.

The easy option is to sit back and receive what is being given to us – and no doubt, there is immense value in simply listening. The staff, facilitators and program coordinators – they are all equipped with the skills, resources and knowledge to be imparted to us throughout this journey. But that is only half the story. As scholars, we each bring our unique experiences, knowledge, life stories and conversations that we want to have. This is the true invitation, and this is the piece of the puzzle which unlocks what we all know as Mandela Rhodes Magic.

The best piece of advice I received from my mentor this year was to find and use my voice in defining my own Mandela Rhodes experience. I think that’s such an important lesson because, after all, we are the game changers of this continent’s future. Ours is to stand up when we disagree, make space for the conversations that need to be had and hold power to account. The MRF space is one which enables this – when we step out of our imposter syndrome and into the game, the invitation is open to critically engage and not only experience the year in residence but help to create it.

One of the most powerful decisions we make is how to show up. This is a lesson that 2020 and my year in residence has taught me. We can be equipped with many skills on Leadership, Reconciliation and Entrepreneurship but, if we choose not to show up, those seeds fall on barren soil. This is what it means to be a Mandela Rhodes Scholar in my context – taking the power, agency and responsibility to choose how to show up. To show up with kindness, innovation, vision, empathy, resolve, unwavering ethics, and a commitment to transformation. To carry the future, our future which we collectively co-create, into every space of leadership, impact and relationship that we occupy.

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