The Southern African Bursary: 50 years on
Churchillians making an impact in Southern Africa
Churchill College strives to be a place that fosters academic excellence and innovation. Therefore, it is no surprise that the resumés of our alumni include significant achievements. Senior University officials; winners of the Noma Award for Publishing in Africa and South African Department of Science and Technology’s Women in Science Award; First National Bank Botswana Board Member at age 37; Special Advisor (political) to the cabinet minister responsible for Co-operative Governance and Traditional Affairs in South Africa’s National Government. And those are just a handful of the accomplishments of four of the past recipients of The Southern African Bursary so far.
The impact of The Southern African Bursary
“Churchill College and Cambridge University left an indelible mark on my consciousness and for that I will forever remain in its debt.”
Dr Oscar Van Heerden (G06)
“The Southern African Bursary fulfilled my dream of mingling at a level beyond my own country and being exposed to diverse perspectives to life.”
Professor Mpilenhle Sithole (G94)
“My stay at Churchill College and studying at Cambridge was the most exciting, fulfilling and academically rewarding experience of my lifetime.”
Mr Sifelani Thapelo (G93)
Statements like these could be, and often are, made by any member of Churchill’s alumni community. Professor Ndebele’s words give a deeper insight into what studying here meant to him in the 1970s and why the creation of this bursary was so important at that time especially.
“It enabled me at the time, to escape from the severe, daily restrictions apartheid South Africa imposed on the thinking, feeling, imagining, and movement of black South Africans. Away from such a dispiriting environment, I got to experience, far more than I could imagine at the time, a lot more freedom in the United Kingdom, particularly in the welcoming atmosphere at Churchill College.”
Professor Njabulo Ndebele (U73)
For students, by students
The majority of the £1million of financial support the College awards to its students each year is funded by donations from the alumni community, but it is the generosity of current students and Fellows that has funded The Southern African Bursary since the early 1970s. The Southern African Bursary began as an idea from the JCR (the undergraduate representative body) for a student-funded bursary intended to enable more students from Southern Africa to study at Cambridge. Fifty years on, around 80% of today’s current students and Fellows at Churchill College opt to contribute £6 each term. Both the bursary’s creation and the unique manner of its funding have resonated deeply with the recipients.
Professor Ndebele, the bursary’s first recipient in 1973, said “I admired and respected how the bursary was a concrete manifestation of the collective commitment of the College’s students and Fellows to what I experienced as humane internationalism.” The reason behind the award was also particularly meaningful for Dr Van Heerden (G06), who had been a student and youth activist in the 1980s and early 1990s. Given his own contribution in the Anti-Apartheid struggle, which included being arrested and detained without trial, he “was immensely proud to be associated with an initiative which came about precisely to fight against such an evil system and assist students from Southern Africa in some small measure.”
Whilst Mpilenhle (Pearl) enjoyed the window seat in room 2G, Njabulo and Oscar lived in the Wolfson Flats accommodation, 33 years apart. Njabulo lived there with his wife and son and described it as a place where “married graduate students from around the world interacted in a rich international environment far away from racist dogma and parochialism of white-ruled South Africa”. Oscar’s wife, Dr Nicky Roberts (G08), also completed a Master’s degree as a Churchillian, and their twin children who are now 20 years old still recount fond memories of growing up in Churchill College.
“I felt honoured to have been supported by people from their pockets. To feel you are in a close-knit community that gives and nurtures, with some co-ordinating, makes one feel especially valued. It is almost like an African version of the saying ‘It takes a village to raise a child’ – in this case Churchill College was raising a professional.”
Professor Mpilenhle Sithole (G94)
The future of The Southern African Bursary Fund
These four former recipients whose experiences have been shared in this article are unanimous in their assertion that The Southern African Bursary is an important tradition to continue, so that the College can continue to assist persons who are less fortunate than most in Cambridge, equipping them with the necessary skills and critical thinking to continue to advance the transformation project which is ongoing in Southern Africa. Professor Sithole believes that “such traditions as The Southern African Bursary, create international affinities nested in hearts. They teach us pure care – that there are human beings who care for human beings”. Dr Van Heerden urges current students and Fellows from Churchill College to continue donating each term:
“Please continue making a contribution to The Southern African Bursary, because though the Apartheid system has subsequently fallen, thanks in part to all our combined efforts, the consolidation of democracy remains an ongoing project.”
Thank you to the hundreds of current students and Fellow currently donating, as well as to the generations of Churchillians who have donated over the past fifty years.
With thanks to…
- Professor Njabulo Ndebele (U73) Chairman of two of Nelson Mandela’s three legacy organisations; formerly Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Cape Town; teacher and researcher in English Literature, African Literatures, and Creative Writing; Noma Award winner for the best book published in Africa in 1984
- Mr Sifelani Thapelo (G93) Senior Partner of law at S.Thapelo Attorneys; Board Member from 2002 to 2021 for First National Bank Botswana, now the biggest bank in Botswana by market capitalization, customer base, profitability and the leading bank in technology
- Professor Mpilenhle Sithole (G94) Vice-Principal: Academic and Research at the Qwaqwa Campus of the University of the Free State; social scientist recognised by the South African Department of Science and Technology with a Women in Science Award in 2011
- Dr Oscar Van Heerden (G06) Special Advisor (political) to the cabinet minister responsible for Co-operative Governance and Traditional Affairs in our National Government; formerly Deputy Vice Chancellor at Fort Hare University