Is it time for business schools to embrace their heritage?

by Mark Smith: Director of the Stellenbosch Business School
Heritage Day in South Africa is a celebration of the nation's rich cultural diversity and its journey from a history marred by the suppression of diversity to a present where diversity is celebrated and valued. The importance of heritage in the country is evident in various institutions, including its higher education establishments. However, could this heritage also serve as a source of strength and distinctiveness, especially for business schools, as they compete on a global scale in the field of higher education?

In a world marked by fierce international competition in higher education, business schools must find ways to set themselves apart on the global stage. This is crucial not only to attract domestic students but also to appeal to international ones. At a recent MBA exhibition in Gauteng, it was striking to see nearly as many international providers of top business qualifications as there were well-known national names. Heritage might just be the differentiating factor that elevates business schools and management education to new heights.

South Africa's heritage is deeply rooted in its cultural diversity. With 12 official languages and a population hailing from diverse origins, the Rainbow Nation embodies both the challenges and opportunities that diversity presents. For educational institutions and managers alike, diversity is an integral part of everyday life, as is the legacy of the traumatic apartheid era. These experiences have led to a profound understanding and ongoing learning about managing in complex environments, even though perfection is elusive.

Going beyond the recent history of South Africa, the country's African heritage holds significant potential for thought leadership in management education. Contemporary discussions on leadership often emphasise responsible leadership and values-based leadership, emphasising the intricate interplay of relationships and responsibilities. Concepts like "ubuntu" encapsulate notions of responsibility, relationships, and community and environmental stewardship, which have become pivotal in management education.

Leadership within these culturally diverse contexts is a hallmark strength of South African business schools and management education. A cursory examination of MBA programmes in the country reveals a focus on responsible leadership, transformational leadership, and African leadership styles.

Heritage is not limited to culture alone; it extends to the unique societal and environmental aspects that shape a nation's economy and its organisations. South Africa's economic landscape highlights the challenges and opportunities posed by extractive industries, the wine sector, agriculture, and the enduring issue of extreme wealth concentration among a small segment of the population and corporate giants.

In this context, business schools have a vital role to play in leveraging the country's economic heritage and emphasising the role of business in society. South Africa, like many African nations, grapples with limited state capabilities to address all societal challenges, necessitating a collaborative effort from various stakeholders to advance the nation and its people.

South Africa's heritage is also a testament to the diverse geographical origins of its many communities. Indigenous peoples coexist with those who migrated from other parts of Africa, India, Asia, and Europe. At the same time the South African diaspora around the world forges new international connections. These international roots are a potential asset for the country in a global economy where interconnectedness is a fundamental reality.

Likewise, business schools thrive on international perspectives and origins to excel. The global reputation of South Africa's management education sector is heavily reliant on a concentration of international accreditations, a feature unparalleled elsewhere on the continent. However, to equip its future managers with a global outlook, South Africa must embrace its international heritage and outlook, rejecting the occasional xenophobic narratives found in the media.

South Africa's heritage of diversity, international ties, and advanced economy represents a formidable strength that business schools can harness. These distinctive factors can enable leading business schools to stand out in the global arena of management education. Importantly, this rich heritage also defines the mission and purpose of South African management education - to better serve the nation and its economy by preparing future leaders who proudly embrace their heritage for international connections. And naturally, share the art of how-to braai, a quintessential South African tradition.

Useful resources:
Stellenbosch Business School
The internationally accredited Stellenbosch Business School offers MBA, Master’s, MPhil and PhD programmes as well as executive education programmes – all focused on the development of business leadership.
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