JOHANNESBURG // Nelson Mandela. Kofi Annan. Desmond Tutu. These are some of the African leaders who brought inspiration to their countries and their continent. The African Leadership Academy is determined to add to this list in the coming years and make sure Africa's next leaders will be groomed for positions at home.
On Saturday the school graduated its first class, a unique group of students with diverse backgrounds - from those who grew up in refugee camps to those who came from the upper classes. "Our dream is not to educate kids and get them to college. Our dream is to transform Africa," said Fred Swaniker, the school's co-founder. "We want to create a powerful network of people who can bring about that change. If 100 promising students graduate each year, Ala will build a network of 6,000 leaders over the next 50 years."
The secondary boarding school might just be a real solution to a main problem in Africa: the need for engaged and inspiring leadership. Founded in 2004 and launched in 2008, the academy situated on the outskirs of South Africa's capital offers a two-year programme to boys and girls from ages 16 to 19. The inaugural class comprised 98 students from across Africa and the Middle East and were chosen from more than 1,700 applicants. The school can boast a 91 per cent graduation rate in its first class.
Eighty per cent of the graduates will continue their education at top universities around the world on full scholarships. Mr Swaniker, 33, who was born in Ghana and graduated from Stanford University in California, admitted this unexpected success rate is a triumph in itself. More than 95 per cent of students received full or partial scholarships structured as "forgivable loans". Students will not have to pay back the estimated annual tuition of $29,000 (Dh106,500) if they return to Africa when they are 25 and commit to work on the continent for at least 10 years.
The academy curriculum consists not only of internationally recognised A-level courses such as maths, biology and languages including English, Arabic and Mandarin, but also of three core classes Mr Swaniker likes to call "the special sauce": leadership, entrepreneurship and African studies. "We train our doctors, we train our engineers, but we don't train our leaders," Mr Swaniker said in an interview. "So instead of hoping that good leaders would emerge, we wanted to be pro-active in creating them."
Classes on time management, public speaking and group assignments are considered necessary skills to become leading agents of positive change. "We want them to develop the skills of having a vision for something and how to practically bring it to life," Christopher Khaemba, the dean of the academy, said. Besides regular schoolwork, each student is expected to participate in student-run businesses, community service projects and have original ideas for development. Some of the projects included a bulding and running a children's library in a nearby community, staffing an on-campus room cleaning service and manufacturing a milk-butter lotion that not only softens the skin but also aims to repel malaria-carrying mosquitoes.
These engaging courses and unconventional teaching methods have attracted scholars, teaching fellows and leaders and entrepreneurs in the fields of science, business, and public service. "We all believe the actions of one can impact a continent," said Hatim el Tayeb, 22, a Harvard graduate who was born in Sudan. "And this school has put that in its curriculum." Mr el Tayeb was doing a teaching fellowship at the school.
The commencement presentations reflected the ambitious goal of the school to develop leaders. Winnie Imbuchi, 19, from Kenya, worried about the brain drain that plagues Africa and applauded her peers for their passion and dedication. At the graduation ceremony, the school choir performed the song Schools for Africa, which she co-wrote. Ms Imbuchi was given the school's Spirit of Africa award. William Kamkwamba, 21, the academy's first published author, cowrote a book recounting the challenges of building a windmill when he was 14 in an attempt to bring electricity to his poor village in Malawi. At the moment, Mr Kamkwamba's windmill provides 60 families with power and clean water.
Another graduate, Joseph Munyambanza, 19, fled the Democratic Republic of Congo at the age of six and ended up in a refugee camp in Uganda where he realised education was his only way out. "I always expected to fail and felt a great anger," Mr Munyambanz said. "Now I look at the future and feel hope." The freedom fighter Seth Mazibuko, 50, who spent several years imprisoned on Robben Island, was the keynote speaker. "The tree of liberation has been watered with blood," he said. "Let this generation water it with sweat and enjoy the fruits and shade."