UNC Kenan-Flagler MBA Blog

Global Immersion Electives, or; my field trip to South Africa

May 17, 2008 By Susanna Schick

MBA\'s and EMBA\'s learning togetherHow to compress two incredibly action-packed weeks in South Africa into one blog post??? So it starts with a big presentation about the various trips we can choose from, then we apply to the ones we want. At first it seems like an easy way to buy 3 credits (they’re not cheap) and enjoy a less touristy perspective of some exotic locale. But we really do work for those 3 credits after all. And it was sooo worth it! I was antsy through the pre-departure classes, eager to get there already and experience it. Mod 4 was pretty hardcore for me, so I wasn’t even thinking much about South Africa, being obsessed with passing Managerial Accounting.

But once we got there, it was so exciting to be somewhere so far from home. The minute we arrived at our hotel, a bunch of us hit the nearest nightspot, which was fabulous. Cape Town was gorgeous, albeit a little too European if you’re seeking a more authentically African experience. Our classes at UCT’s GSB were excellent, we had lectures from some of their professors on pertinent issues, such as the legacy of apartheid and current politics. We visited mostly large companies, some MNC’s, but most were based in South Africa.

It was really inspirational to hear all the things Pik n’ Pay (as big a deal as Wal Mart is here, but more like Target) is doing to help black entrepreneurs/suppliers, as well as how their founders flouted some of the inane apartheid laws. We also met with current UCT GSB and Wits GSB students, and got to talk to them about their experiences. Everywhere I went I struck up conversations with locals, seeking their perspective on things, which was fascinating.

The first week, we were out every night, some students probably contributed to the local economy in bars as much as I did in high-end South African designer fashion, of which there’s quite a lot to be had. Over the weekend we went to Pilansburg game reserve and it was so nice to unwind after a week of getting up 6 hours ahead of normal. We had 3 game drives (safaris) to choose from, and all were quite fruitful. I still haven’t seen any leopards, but we saw some black rhinos, which are pretty rare.

Johannesburg is a massive, smoggy sprawl that represents something like 30% of South Africa’s GDP. It’s very industrial, and felt rather impenetrable between the confusing layout and the nasty reputation it has. Yes, it is probably more dangerous than more developed major cities, and I let that reputation get to me more than in Cape Town. Cape Town was just too darn cute to be dangerous, and I walked all over the place, whereas Joburg is a city with a decimated core, sprawling warehouse districts, and massive slums, one of which, Alex, is in the midst of serious unrest.

However, we were put up in the toniest ‘burb, Sandton City, where all the businesses which used to be downtown have fled to. It was pleasant, but I craved the real city. I adore city life, and knew that somewhere in Joburg I’d find my people. I stayed on a couple extra days, in a chic boutique hotel in Melville, which was exactly the right place for me. It was hip, artsy, diverse, and so much fun. I rented a motorcycle and rode around the city, which was a great way to get a better feel for it, much more intimate than the bus tour of Soweto.

I wanted to go back and experience the real Soweto, but everyone said you can’t find it unless a local shows you, and that opportunity didn’t arise. But I had the most interesting deja-vu, as parts of Soweto resembled a dream I’d had before we arrived. In my dream, I was staying with some friends, in a rather humble house, and people of many races lived together in this house. I asked some Sowetans if white people had been moving in, and what they thought of it. They welcomed it, and seriously, I saw more interracial friendships and media representations in Joburg than I’ve seen in Los Angeles.

My favorite Joburg company visit was probably SABMiller, where we toured one of their largest breweries. The funny thing is, I don’t even drink. I enjoyed it so much because the brewery manager actually became nervous with all my sustainability questions. I was freaking out about how on their website they say it takes about 5 liters of water to make 1 liter of beer. And that’s not including all the water it takes to grow the hops, barley, sorghum, etc. Sure, SABMiller has many breweries that operate below that global average, but I still wanted to know how he could get it down to 1:1.

At one point he mentioned effluent, and I asked him what happens with the effluent, as that’s not mentioned on their website. So he told me. Turns out, brewery effluent is good for municipal water supplies, as it has these microorganisms that help purify the water. So they actually send most of theirs to the city, leaving only about .8:1 being wasted. Phew. I told him that needed to be on their website, and he explained that he’d though everyone knew where brewery effluent went, and was glad to hear an outsider’s perspective. Well, maybe I will be a good sustainability consultant after all.