Business schools in SA reflect African context

Made for SA

The country’s top business schools are shaping their available qualifications to reflect a uniquely African context while maintaining global standards of excellence

Made for SA

There’s no doubt that a business degree from Harvard, Insead or Oxford University’s Said Business School can add prestige to your CV and dollars to your monthly salary. But will it prepare you to navigate an organisation through rolling electricity blackouts and drought-related water restrictions, or handle striking staff and other intricacies that make doing business in SA unique from elsewhere in the world?

As one Harvard alumnus put it, ‘drilling for oil in Texas is one thing. But setting up a mine in Mpumalanga is quite another. South African leaders have to address different issues, taking into account relevant social and economic challenges that you won’t find in a Harvard case study’.

That’s why local relevance should be a priority for SA business schools, argues Pfano Mashau, a lecturer at the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s Graduate School of Business and Leadership. ‘Students enrol in business schools to learn about the needs of the societies they serve. Business schools need to teach about the local societal and business needs to capacitate the students with a good understanding of the environments in which their organisations operate.’

The South African Council on Higher Education clearly thought along similar lines when – during its review and re-accreditation of MBA programmes in 2002 – it urged business schools to provide a ‘South African’ MBA programme in accordance with the social and economic needs of the country.

The African Association of Business Schools (AABS) also encourages its member institutions in SA and the rest of the continent to be responsive to the needs of their societies. In 2018, it launched the first-ever accreditation for African business schools – underpinned by African values and contexts. In AABS’ own words, ‘it’s a globally recognised standard of quality and a bold step in shaping the African concept of management education’. The accreditation standards are grouped into six main areas, which include relevance to the African context (how does the business school’s overall approach to the awareness of the surrounding environment – national, political, legal, social and economic – as well as its mission and portfolio, serve the needs of its operating environment?); impact on Africa (how has the school contributed to inclusive economic and social development in Africa?); and sustainability (how sustainable are the school’s own governance structures, relationships with stakeholders, and its portfolio offerings, and their impact on the continent?).

Academics have warned for decades that simply importing US and European business school models is not necessarily relevant for Africa, as these fail to consider the continent’s contextual realities.

According to Lyal White, senior director of the University of Johannesburg Business School (JBS), Africa is a latecomer to global business education. ‘It took nearly 50 years before the first MBA was offered outside the US. Even then, from Africa to Asia, degrees were either modelled on, or offered in partnership with, US MBA programmes,’ he writes in the Financial Mail. ‘Many insist the MBA is still ensconced in the US template.’

This may be the case for some institutions, but the leading SA business schools have made progress in ‘South Africanising’ their business education and notably their flagship MBA programmes. According to White, ‘a global impact starts at home, in South Africa, with a continental vision that redefines the purpose of business in our African context’. Therefore, the JBS intends to develop MBA students who will have a direct impact in the community, are part of day-to-day business in Africa and actively contribute to reducing unemployment in SA.

‘I’m a big fan of global exposure to expand students’ mindsets,’ says White. ‘For our international elective, which is included in the overall cost of the MBA course, we’re sending our students to places that have similar challenges as South Africa. We’re partnering with business schools in Argentina, India and China as well as in African countries where we’re looking at Afro-innovations and what we can learn from the way these countries are doing things differently.’

For local relevancy – and in an effort to ‘decolonialise’ the learning content – some institutions have been writing their own SA and African case studies rather than relying on those traditionally sourced from Harvard and other Western universities.

Wits Business School (WBS) describes itself as the largest producer of case studies in Africa, having established its Case Centre in 1999 after ‘recognising that the South African business environment has many unique characteristics that cannot be explored in international cases’. Today, an increasing number of universities, educational institutions and corporations across the world are using emerging-market case studies made in SA.

The UCT Graduate School of Business (GSB) launched its Case Writing Centre in 2017 and regularly wins prizes, such as the annual case-study writing competition by AABS and Emerald, which promotes the development of high-quality teaching cases derived from real-life scenarios in Africa. The most recent awards went to case studies about a cooking start-up (‘UCOOK: Growth challenges faced by a small to medium-sized South African venture’) and a producer of non-alcoholic gin (‘Drink the Duchess: Marketing challenges and opportunities encountered when SMEs internationalise’).

While the Gordon Institute of Business Science (GIBS) doesn’t have a dedicated case centre, some faculty members have been prolific in writing case studies. One of them, senior lecturer Caren Scheepers, says that ‘case studies are perfect for Africa, because telling stories around the braai or campfire is part of us being a storytelling continent. So it fits very well with Africa’.

According to the school magazine, Acumen, the case-study writers are keen to feature more black and female business leaders as role models for black students who, after all, are in the majority in SA. GIBS has launched its own case-study writing competition and in 2018 introduced a pilot that gives full-time MBA students the option to write a case study (in partnership with a supervisor) rather than the traditional monograph.

At Unisa’s Graduate School of Business Leadership (SBL), the drive for local relevance has led to collaboration with organisations that have a wide community reach, for example the National Federated Chamber of Commerce and Industry, whose 500 000 members mostly consist of SMEs in townships and rural areas. Raphael Tabani Mpofu, until recently SBL’s acting executive dean, explains that the school is addressing SA’s crippling unemployment by forming a post-grad business incubator for science and technology, agriculture and environmental sciences. ‘Working closely with the university’s other colleges, we plan to develop a robust incubator model that combines business sciences with technical skill,’ says Mpofu. ‘Layering a programme such as the MBA with a specialist technical qualification will enrich knowledge that can ultimately support job creation. This is what our continent needs.’

In the Western Cape, the GSB and the University of Stellenbosch Business School (USB) both run well-established township initiatives for the benefit of their own students and township entrepreneurs: the GSB through its Solution Space in Philippi, where entrepreneurs are mentored and students are urged to take courses and interact; and the USB through its Small Business Academy.

Yet the South Africanisation of business education has to go beyond pushing local relevance and addressing the country’s burning socio-economic issues, as it also needs to strengthen the confidence of local academics and students in order to give SA a voice among international peers.

‘African scholarship is woefully under-represented in prestigious global academic journals based in the US or Europe,’ says Ralph Hamann, a GSB professor and co-author of an article on contextual north-south bias, published in the Conversation. ‘As a result, global management knowledge hardly considers African contexts. But this knowledge affects the continent in terms of what is taught in classrooms and how managers make decisions.’

The authors warn, however, that the northern mainstream tends to trivialise southern context and to ignore indigenous values and practices.

In SA, meanwhile, the globalisation of management education and research is often considered to be an expression of ‘epistemic colonialism’, as seen in the use of Western managerial theories that may not apply to Africa. Sometimes this leads to the valourising of indigenous management practices.

‘We thus face two contrasting options: either we become a colony of the northern mainstream, or we retreat into a southern “indigenous” enclave,’ say Hamann and co, who call instead for academics to face such contextual bias and engage in dialogue.

Essentially, the South Africanisation of management education will succeed only if it finds the sweet spot between global best practice and uniquely SA solutions.

By Silke Colquhoun
Image: Gareth van Nelson/Highbury Media