Building a rainbow bridge with South Africa

THE RECENT meeting between Prime Minister Blair and President Mbeki in London spawned the usual headlines in the quality press and broadcast media.

As an adjunct to this historic strengthening of the ties between Britain and South Africa, there was another important, if somewhat lower key event. Organised by the Department for Employment and Education, it marked a milestone in the recently established UK-to-South Africa Further Education and Training partnership.

At London's Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre, on May 18, the 20 UK FE colleges selected for the International Exchange Programme assembled for a launch event entitled "Tirisano" (Tswana for "Working Together"). It was a fitting title, and also fitting that Baroness Blackstone should open the conference, since it was her visit to South Africa last year that initiated the discussions resulting in the partnership agreement between the SA Department of Education, British Council South Africa and British Training International.

An early indicator of the value of the partnership is the exchange programme, funded by the Business Trust of South Africa.

This initiative sets the tone for the relationship - one of respect and collaboration creating mutual benefits. This is a valuable second chance for British FE, and it will not be wasted.

This was evidenced by the prevailing mood at the conference - positive, but with an underlying sobriety because the colleges represented were acutely aware of their part in something extremely important for South Africa's social, political and economic development. This programme could have been launched in partnership with any country in the world, since it is funded by South African money and they must spend it where they think best. It is a measure of the distance that British FE has travelled in recent years that the UK was chosen.

The exchange programme, a professional development mentoring scheme for middle managers from technical colleges, will be an "internship", with South Africans learning the skills of modern F management under the tutelage of college managers.

The 20 colleges selected were chosen from a large and extremely competitive field. The number and quality of applications were a credit to the sector.

The launch marked the culmination of rapid progress in a few short months, during which the foundations of a long-term and mutually rewarding partnership between the sectors in the two countries been formalised.

This first year of the exchange programme will be very much a pilot year, with heavy reliance on the experience and expertise of our college partners to help us develop and refine a core curriculum for South African middle managers. It was appropriate that the conference was wound up by Les Phillips, outgoing regional director of the British Council, Southern Africa.

A staunch (and practical) supporter of Transformation in South Africa, and a recent convert to the important role that partnership can play in that process, his role in building an influential role for the UK in South Africa has been invaluable.

This exchange programme will be a fitting tribute to the work done by the British Council in South Africa under his leadership and UK FE is in a position to benefit from the strong foundations he has established.

It was also a proud day for me. There are few occasions when one's personal life and career come together in such a poignant manner.

As a South African by birth, but British by adoption, I was able to be a small part of an event in which my chosen career path acted as a positive bridge between the two countries that have dominated my life. I have been, in these pages, something of a "critical friend" of FE (with the emphasis sometimes on the critical). I am also an undiluted enthusiast for FE, and I have no doubt that the sector has much to offer South Africa at this important stage on its path to mature democracy, where it will be able to meet the material and political needs and ambitions of all its people.

Robin Landman is secretary of the Network for Black Managers

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