Think Tank for strategic guidance

Mandela Initiative newsletter (Issue 1, Nov 2016)


The Mandela Initiative (MI), while administratively located at the University of Cape Town (UCT), is a collaboration by a diverse range of role-players who are concerned with efforts to shift the country’s persistent high levels of poverty and inequality. In 2014, a Think Tank of prominent individuals from government, business, academia, civil society and organised labour was set up to provide strategic leadership and guidance in constituting and driving the MI research programmes, action dialogues and other work. This article outlines the thinking behind the Think Tank.


A unique collection of quality minds

The MI national coordinator, Francis Wilson, an emeritus professor at UCT, says there is huge potential in involving these individuals in the initiative: “The diversity of the Think Tank members, the quality of the people, and the high level at which they are working mean that their discussions about the poverty and inequality problems of the country, and their consequences, give potential for action.”


The group includes, for example, influential individuals from Cabinet and the Presidency, National Treasury, and Statistics South Africa, and former government policy-makers such as Trevor Manuel. Vice chancellors of four of the country’s largest universities are involved, as are acclaimed research recipients of the South African Research Chair Initiative (SARChI) of the Department of Science and Technology and the National Research Foundation (DST-NRF). These DST-NRF South African Research Chairs’ work are closely aligned to the five major areas that emerged out of the 2012 conference, and their contributions include assessing current policy and suggesting viable alternatives.

A wealth of expertise is also vested in Think Tank members who are heading statutory or independent research institutions, or who served on higher education governance structures, advisory bodies to government, or the trade unions. Other members are leaders in the faith-based, civil society and private sectors.


Not just a talk shop

The launch conference in 2012 identified social cohesion, health, education, rural and urban renewal and labour issues as key interventions for poverty and inequality.



“The diversity of the Think Tank members, the quality of the people, and the high level at which they are working give potential for action.”

“The Think Tank is not just meeting to talk, but also to take the lead; to contribute to real strategies to tackle poverty and inequality in their own sectors”, says Wilson. Bishop Malusi Mpumlwana, general-secretary of the South African Council of Churches, for example, mobilised top church leaders on the burning issue of education as an equaliser for poverty by bringing them together for an action dialogue on the church’s role in education. This vision remains firmly on the agenda of the South African Council of Churches.


Connecting and breaking sectoral silos

The MI provides the opportunity for tertiary institutions to connect to assess how to work together to tackle poverty and inequality challenges. Such conversations, says Think Tank member Adam Habib, vice chancellor of Wits University, help to break down institutional boundaries and the competitive dynamics that exist in the sector. It also allows for connection across disciplines.

“In the academy, we are so encapsulated in our work, in our disciplinary office, that we aren’t able to develop a collective project. The MI forces us all out of our disciplinary boundaries to engage one another in conversation on how to do this.”

The Think Tank, in line with the initiative’s overall approach, creates new dynamics by bringing together various communities under one theme. Says another member, Haroon Bhorat, head of UCT’s Development Policy Research Unit: “The Mandela Initiative connects academic researchers; senior policy-makers – either present or past – in government, or perhaps more broadly within the policy community; and community activists or organisations.”

What excites Bhorat about the Think Tank is that it includes the DST-NRF South African Research Chairs who are driving the MI’s eight research programmes: “These producers of the knowledge base will in turn be interrogated and questioned [in Think Tank conversations] and hopefully start adding form and shape to the actual content of what we discuss…. We’ll have something to react to.”


Law Scholars


A platform for solution-based thinking

Think Tank member Kefiloe Masiteng, deputy-director of Population and Social Statistics at Statistics South Africa, stresses that the platforms created by the MI to discuss poverty and inequality challenges, and the related policy issues, provide an enabling environment for finding solutions through appropriate interventions. Bringing data producers like StatsSA around the same table with government and academics is thus an important undertaking. DST-NRF South African Research Chair and Think Tank member Servaas van der Berg, a professor in economics at Stellenbosch University, believes that the involvement of political and other role-players in the Think Tank is very useful, although the nature of such a social process can be slow given the challenges of bringing together a high-profile group of busy individuals.


The power of networking

A critical characteristic of the MI process is that it aims to build and strengthen networks nationally. While this is most tangible in the initiative’s action dialogues, it is also experienced in the Think Tank meetings. Wilmot James, member of parliament and shadow minister of health, says his involvement as a Think Tank member has helped him “network into constituencies not worked with before”.

Linking up with well-connected and knowledgeable Think Tank members has served the initiative well to date. For example, the involvement of Jonathan Jansen, vice chancellor of the University of the Free State, connected the initiative to the Centre for Sustainable Development at UFS. This led to a dialogue on social cohesion with participants from small towns in the Karoo. Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University vice chancellor, Derrick Swartz, through his participation in the Think Tank connected Wilson to NMMU’s Centre for Integrated Post-School Education and Training to host a community training and jobs action dialogue. Habib was again the lead to the Solar Energy Unit of the University of Johannesburg, which resulted in an action dialogue on the role of this form of solar energy as a strategy to assist the poor and bridge inequalities.



A critical characteristic of the process is that it aims to build and strengthen networks nationally

The Think Tank will use its next meeting to review how the evidence collated during the research and action dialogue phase can be consolidated to allow for meaningful multi-sectorial engagement and dialogue. Central to this approach will be the goal of informing strategies to overcome South Africa's poverty and inequality challenges.


View the list of Think Tank members


This article was written by Charmaine Smith, with much-appreciated contributions from:
Think Tank members: Haroon Bhorat, Adam Habib, Wilmot James, Kelfiloe Masiteng, Francis Wilson, Servaas van der Berg
Fact-checking and peer review: Haajirah Esau and Francis Wilson