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Neglected by government, traditional rural communities take control of their development

Réjane Woodroffe
McNulty Prize
Eastern Cape, South Africa

This is part of a series of leadership case studies featuring McNulty Prize Laureates.

For three years, Réjane Woodroffe lived a life of extreme opposites.

On a weekly basis, she undertook the 12-hour commute between Cape Town and an isolated community on South Africa’s southeast coast. The worlds could not have been further apart. In Cape Town, there was a modern apartment, a car, and a job in high-end finance. In her mud-brick home in the village, there was no running water, electricity or roads. Her neighbors and later her colleagues were largely illiterate.

Réjane’s growing understanding of the meaning of the contrast is ultimately what led to her full-time commitment to the work she now does: “My everyday life in the village is the same as my neighbor’s, but I’m not poor. She is. Poverty is not about the absence of material possessions. It’s about not having resources, not understanding the immune system, not knowing your rights. Poverty is about people not knowing or owning their choices.”

Yet in this same poverty-ridden community, Réjane experienced a quality of social harmony that city living appears to have lost.

Of the adult population in South Africa lives below the poverty line.
13 million
South Africans in rural areas do not have access to basic hygiene services.
Villages receive vital health services from the Bulungula Health Point in Nqileni

Former economist and asset manager for a global wealth management firm.

As a youth, Woodroffe was classified Colored under Apartheid – her family forcibly removed from their home in District Six (Cape Town)

Co-founder and Director of the Bulungula Incubator. She lives in the community she serves, along with her husband, Dave, who is intimately involved in the project.

As of June 2014, Bulungula Incubator had paid staff of over 20, and 200-plus volunteers and trainers working with 6,000 community members.

Poverty is not about the absence of material possessions. It’s about not having resources, not knowing or owning your choices.

That “something,” she and Dave initially thought, would be the rebuilding of the tumbled-down school. But in order to enjoy the benefit of it, the children – riddled with parasites and malnourished – would need to be on a better footing. Which meant health resources and parent education. It soon became clear that only a holistic intervention would be most effective. And so Bulungula Incubator was born.

Many ventures fail because they don’t understand the extent of the challenges. For Réjane, the research phase, therefore, was all about understanding the territory. Was there someone else doing work similar to what she had in mind? What could she learn? What could and should she align herself to? What were the strengths of the community? What traditional development assumptions needed to be challenged?

She began to truly appreciate the power of the Aspen Global Leadership Network, and the fellowship of her Africa Leadership Initiative-South Africa class: “I had no idea how powerful and resourced the Fellowship is. “For me, that is the research process: having every coffee, every conversation. The 80:20 principle applies – you’ll get 80% of the help from 20% of the people – but you have to speak to all 100%.”

The BI is established now, and the success measures are proliferating. Sustainability is at the heart of all her endeavours, so Réjane’s leadership goal continues to be “to work myself out of a job.”

On the ground, this means a radical combination of respect for all aspects of humanity, and a conviction that competencies – while often hidden – can be nurtured into evidence. Every contribution is equally honored and valued: “When we do our work, it’s important to preserve the positive aspects of this strong, cohesive, harmonious community, and the cultural traditions that make it such a wonderful place.

“We do that by working at depth through the community leadership structures,” Rejane says. “It takes longer to make progress if you are taking the whole community with you. But that’s what the work is. The community must have ownership in order to want to protect what you’re building.” It is central to Rejane’s view of the world that leadership and successful collaboration go hand in hand – she credits her husband, her team and the community with the multiple successes of the BI's work, such as a graduation ceremony for the pre-primary schoolers organized and paid for by a community which previously had no reason to place any apparent value on education.

There are many operational challenges. For instance, when the pre-primary school was ready, the government agreed to fund certain ongoing operating costs but required expenses to be paid by check. Not one person from the village had ever seen a check. But banking is a must, and in line with Réjane’s philosophy of management, those responsible for the school – some of whom were themselves illiterate – would need to open the account and manage it. Therein lies an entire learning journey.

All 4 Villages
Now have preschools and pre-natal healthcare, nutrition & basic access to medication.
Every Household
Now has access to running water.
Almost 27%
Decrease in unemployment from 2001 to 2011, in part due to Bulungula’s work.

And there are many areas in which answers are not clear. “It’s all very well to talk about the rights of children,” says Réjane. “But what do you say when the elders then ask who is going to look after them in their old age?” In traditional communities, children seldom travel far or stay away long, and it is assumed that they will care for their parents as they age. Intervening in the system – helping to equip children for success in a modern world, for instance – has consequences that need to be part of the discussion.

Réjane describes Bulungula Incubator’s work as “the most challenging thing I’ve ever done in my life. There are so many variables, there are so many things I don’t understand about this culture, about this work, about this place, about people, about what motivates people.”

When asked about her measures of success, Réjane could point to any number of statistics, like the fact that every household in the four villages covered by BI now has access to running water. Instead, she talks about one small girl, the daughter of an alcoholic father and a mentally disabled mother. Psychometric tests showed that the little girl was exceptionally bright, so the Bulungula Incubator got her into a scholarship program from Grade 1 at a school in the nearest town, Umtata. Now in Grade 5, the little girl is excelling in math, English and sports.

“When I see how quickly a life can change and how the life of her whole family can change, I wouldn’t need anything else to feel satisfied about my work,” says Réjane.

In these later stages of her venture, Réjane and her team are engaging more with how their work can be systematized and, leveraged – the intention, after all, is to enable government processes that others can then build on. It’s a reflective time: “There’s a lot of noise in terms of the emotional weight when you’re doing development work; and each of us has our own baggage and context. I have had to learn to take time out and just sit with the challenges; to clear my soul to see things clearly.

“You have to see the long term in the face of the immediate need,” says Réjane. “There are not enough years in my life to see this work done.”

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