Anne Sromek is a third-year student in the EWMBA program at Haas, and one of 20 students enrolled in Seminars in International Business: South Africa during the Spring 2014 semester. Class instruction is led by Doy Charnsupharindr, Professor Mark Rittenberg, and Ingrid Gavshon. The 2-unit course is comprised of several pre-trip evening meetings at Berkeley, during which students explored South African history, business, political climate and culture through guest lecturers and selected readings. The students also spend one week abroad to solidify the lessons learned and connect with a country outside of their own.
This blog is assembled from the experiences and musings of the author for the purpose of showcasing the SIB experience for prospective students and future SIB participants.
Our fifth and final day in South Africa started with a visit to Robben Island. The island has played a role in the history of South Africa long before it was used as a jail for political prisoners. Robben Island is named after the seals that have called it home (robben is Dutch for “seal”), before the island was a stop on the Dutch East India trading company’s spice routes in the mid-17th century. The island was conveniently located as a mid-point on the route from Europe to Asia, so European travelers began to stock the island with rabbits and cattle to have a ready source of fresh meat for their sailors. The island also became a place to keep prisoners and slaves, who spent their time on the island as manual laborers in farming and stone mining. In the 1800s, the island was used as an offshore mental hospital and leper colony. After clearing the island of its inhabitants so it could be used as a point of defense during World War 2, a prison was built on the island to house political prisoners.
It was on Robben Island that Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for a total of 18 years. Here, he lived in a tiny cell and fought the prison’s administration for basic human rights. The most memorable story I heard about his time on Robben Island concerned the prison uniforms that the inmates were forced to wear. The uniforms consisted of shorts and short-sleeved shirts, which didn’t protect the prisoners from the harsh daytime sun, nor from the cold, windy nights in their concrete cells. Nelson Mandela demanded long-sleeved shirts and trousers, which he was given. However, upon learning that only he was granted these articles, he refused the new uniform until all prisoners were afforded the same courtesy. A true leader, indeed. Nelson Mandela and his fellow inmates used their time on Robben Island to learn from one another.
On the island, there is a quarry where prisoners were made to mine limestone. The stone was not used for any purpose other than hard labor to fill the prisoners’ days. On some days, the prisoners were forced to move piles of mined limestone from one side of the quarry to the other side of the quarry, by hand, one piece at a time. Instead of feeling down and broken about this mindless work, the prisoners walked together in these tasks and taught one another about their cultures, about their professions and generally discussed important political matters. For this reason, Nelson Mandela called the island a “university”, as it was a place of learning.
To get to Robben Island, the IBD group from Haas boarded a ferry from the V&A Waterfront in Cape Town. The trip was relaxing but cold, and I felt like I was on a typical, happy tourist cruise because of the lovely scenery. We saw seals and jellyfish in the water, and took plenty of pictures of Table Mountain.
SIB South Africa – Ferry to Robben Island
Once we got to the island, I felt the mood of the group taper off to one of reverence. We boarded a bus that drove us past the leper graveyard, the old hospital buildings, and the current settlements (yes, people actually still live on Robben Island!). After the bus tour, we were led in to the prison where a former prisoner gave us an overview of the conditions he faced while imprisoned on the island. We also visited the cells in which the prisoners lived, where we could read stories about the prisoners, why they were incarcerated, and view some of the mementos they left behind.
Gaby Mogomola’s trumpet, Robben Island Prison
One of the more striking sights we saw was Nelson Mandela’s cell. The group was especially moved by this because of the recent passing of Mr. Mandela on December 5, 2013. How amazing is it that this man and his peers could live in a prison on an island so isolated from society, but take away only positive thoughts and harbor no resentment toward the prison guards, nor their accusers? It’s a true testament to the strength of spirit and positive thought. When people urge others to “make the best of a bad situation”, I can almost guarantee that this is not what they have in mind. And yet, the prisoners survived, and arguably thrived, because of the community they were able to build with one another.
After our trip back to the mainland, we had a lovely lunch on the waterfront at Karibu, where we reflected on our time at Robben Island. After lunch we discussed our experience in South Africa at length and were able to make suggestions for future SIB South Africa participants. We were scheduled to visit Monkeybiz, a wonderful non-profit that supports local artists by sourcing and selling handmade beaded artwork, but our time had run out and we weren’t able to make it to the Cape Town shop
Monkeybiz Shop Entrance, 43 Rose Street, Cape Town
Flash forward one day: I made it a priority to visit the shop after our program was over, and I was delighted by the menagerie of sparkling animals in a fantasyland of a shop tucked away on a small street, among factories and warehouses.
Monkeybiz Menagerie: Shop ‘Til You Drop
The woman who was working at the shop when I visited told me that she had spent some time in the US in 2013, doing work in San Francisco’s Tenderloin District to help the homeless. I felt an instant connection to her – she traveled all the way from South Africa to help OUR home city, how remarkable! When I was browsing the animals, she noticed that I was particularly interested in a set of elephants. They were so unique – oddly proportioned, but just so perfect in their features that you could swear they came out of some awesomely imaginitive child’s dream.
She then told me, “She has one eye, you know?”
I was stunned. “I beg your pardon?”
“The artist,” she clarified, “she lives in a settlement nearby. She has only one eye. Elephants are her favorite subject.”
I was almost in tears at this point. I am surprised at my willpower: I picked (only) two animals to come home with me as souvenirs.
Flasback to Friday: after lunch at Karibu, the group split up. Half of us went back to the hotel to enjoy the sunset and some pool time. The other half went shopping for souvenirs. We reconvened for dinner at Harbour House on the V&A Waterfront, where we laughed, reminisced and shared regret in that our time together was now coming to an end. After hearing moving speeches from our team’s leaders, we promised we’d return as a group to visit South Africa for a reunion before too long.
SIB Farewell Dinner at Harbour House, Cape Town
I will wrap this blog by saying how grateful I am to have been a part of this remarkable group. I have learned so much about the wonderful country of South Africa, about myself, and about my accomplished classmates during this unforgettable week. I want to thank Doy Charnsupharindr, Professor Mark Rittenberg, Ingrid Gavshon, David Richardson and Lelena Avila for their oversight and dedication to making this class the most memorable of my 3 years at Haas. You, dear classmates and leaders, truly embody UBUNTU and I look forward to reminiscing about this trip with you in the years ahead.