At Education Africa, every component of their programs is designed to advance the social cohesion within South Africa.

A quick history on Education Africa

When James Urdang, CEO, began the organization some twenty-five years ago, he – and the country – were beginning a new life with a more just government without apartheid rule. James’ family members were exiled during apartheid and so he personally felt the impact of this time in his country’s history.

James is also dyslexic and understands the struggles that traditional education can bring to those who are wired to learn differently.

Combining both his desire to support innovative forms of education and to bring together a country in need of hope and unity, James founded Education Africa.

Education Africa, Nelson Mandela and the South African Model UN

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Team Russia delivering a closing statement at Friday’s debate

James knew it was important to gain support from political groups within the country as he started the organization. He soon became connected to Walter Sisulu (a lifelong mentor), Nelson Mandela and the minister of Education.

Through these relationships, James helped to broker an incredible opportunity for the country and children working with the organization: a chance to accompany Nelson Mandela to the first UN General Assembly meeting where South Africa was recognized as a voting nation after apartheid.

After this incredible experience, all parties agreed that more children in the country needed to learn about the importance of diplomacy and global collaboration. The South Africa Model United Nations was born!

How Education Africa changed the game

Replicating the typical Model UN program was not enough for the organization. Given the recent history of South Africa and the belief that education is the key to sustainable and deep change, Education Africa developed the concept of “twinning.”

In this program, twinning means that every four-person team of delegates (students representing a country) two are from an advantaged school and two are from a disadvantaged school.

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Strategy, teamwork and communication are keys to success at SAMUN

For those not familiar with the South African school system, there are two types of schools: government-run (public) and private. The government-run schools are typically categorized as the disadvantaged schools in our program. These schools do not have amenities like a computer room or wifi, which would be a true disadvantage for a team hoping to participate in this very research-heavy program.

By twinning these two schools, students who many never have met before have the chance to form relationships, share knowledge and resources, and engage in life-changing experiences.

For at least three months, the teams operate as a country and must learn about that country’s economic, political and social viewpoints and environments.  They meet regularly to train for the provincial debate in hopes of reaching the national competition taking place now in Cape Town. For one lucky team – and one student from each province – the next step is to travel to New York and Washington DC to participate in an international Model UN competition.

For the eighteen years of global competition, a South African team has taken home an award for at least twelve times.

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Friendships formed at the conference are just one of the tangible takeaways for delegates

What’s more, the South Africa conference includes a sleepover at Robben Island. Bongi, the program manager, describes this component as incredibly important to demonstrate appreciation for the country’s history and recognize the price of freedom earned by the nation’s famed leaders and lesser-known victims.

This is the only program that exists in which the public stays on the island and is curated specifically for the participants of the Model UN conference. Bongi describes this program component as simply transformative and sees a marked difference in the students at the final luncheon which takes place on the island after their overnight experience.

The impact created

While the trophies do bring glory, the program itself creates much more substantial impact. SAMUN, which is free to all participating schools and open to any in the country, has changed the trajectory of students’ lives.

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Both soft skills and hard skills are learned throughout the program

Just the other night, I was sitting at dinner with two Model UN alumni who are now coaching teams going through the competition. They met at the conference five years ago and are currently both studying law at the same university in South Africa. Without doubt, this program has catapulted their growth and they expect the same for those they are now mentoring.

Each student is given an individual interview to help the judges decide who will go to the international competition. I sat in on these interviews where students shared stories of their past that included fleeing their home countries, growing up without parents and overcoming hardships in a school filled with apathetic classmates and teachers.

For most, coming to Cape Town for this conference was the first time they had traveled outside of their province. For many, staying in a hotel and flying on a plane were luxuries that they were also previously unexperienced.

As I watch the formal debates, speak to students on the bus and see them forming friendships over dinner, I am inspired by their professionalism and authenticity. It is impossible to tell which students come from advantaged or disadvantaged schools, and the sense of camaraderie and teamwork spreads quickly throughout Cape Town’s civic center.

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Delegates working together with other countries to finalize a resolution at the first debate

Yesterday, the delegates passed a resolution to support “The Fourth Industrial Revolution” as a means to encourage technological advancement in the face of rising unemployment. They agreed that the potential to improve millions of lives through technological innovation is far too exciting to suppress and that job creation should be taken as a shared challenge by nations around the world.

The thrill felt by the thirty-six students was palpable. In just four hours, they had built trust, expressed their views and come together in pursuit of a goal that benefits others very different from themselves.

Witnessing the intelligence and passion that these students possess is not only impressive, but energizing. It makes me want to become a more informed and creative global citizen.

Most of all, I feel fortunate to know these students as I have no doubt that they will be the ones who move our world towards a more productive, empathetic and thoughtful future.

How can you help?

Support Education Africa to help grow this program to more schools within the country

Join South Africa Model UN as a school: email admin@educationafrica.org

Share our story on social media and like us on Facebook!

This post is written by Catherine Soler, USA Board Trustee of Education Africa. She will be posting about her experience on the ground in South Africa this month. Follow us on social media and sign up for email alerts on the right hand side to receive updates when a new piece is posted. 

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