We’re tired of failing. Let’s innovate instead


We’re tired of failing. Let’s innovate instead

Prof Erwin Schwella has a fixation with new ideas. ANNELIESE BURGESS talks to him about the School for Social Innovation that he set up at Huguenot College, the course in coalition politics that he recently offered to a group of opposition politicians, and how dreams lead to actions.


THERE is something extraordinary bubbling in the lovely old buildings of the Huguenot College in Wellington, where Prof Erwin Schwella has been building a School for Social Innovation.

When the state withdrew Huguenot College's accreditation (through Unisa) as a tertiary institution in 2012, it “had to think out of the box to come up with an alternative plan", says Schwella.

The institution went through deep waters for a few years but reimagined itself as a private, faith-based higher education institution that now offers accredited degrees in, among other things, theology, play therapy and social work.

At the heart of all these degrees, diplomas and short courses is “training social leaders who are willing and prepared to devote their lives and talents to improving society".

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Schwella has a long history in academia. He was connected to Stellenbosch University's schools of business and public leadership, but when he became an emeritus professor (he is also one at the University of Tilburg's law school) he had more time on his hands to devote to his non-profit company, CiviNovus. It aims to root the concepts of leadership and social innovation, with which Schwella has been working all his life, in the broader community.

“At CiviNovus, we plan and we execute," he says. “It is a tool for change and experimentation."

Prof Erwin Schwella
Prof Erwin Schwella

Huguenot College

Huguenot College approached him three years ago to build a leadership programme.

“I proposed we dig a little deeper into the idea of ​​leadership and build a programme for social innovation and entrepreneurship," he says. “I would like to see us move away from the traditional concept of charity and instead give people tools to build sustainable income-generating social enterprises in their communities.

“We build our leadership model on integrity, empathy, compassion and reciprocity," he says about what they have christened Integritas (and which Schwella hopes can eventually become a nationwide movement).

Huguenot College has about 500 students, primarily rural Boland women who could not get National Student Financial Aid Scheme scholarships.

“Our typical student is a woman whose father is a warder at Drakenstein Prison," explains Schwella.

“The first class graduates this year. And these students will make an extraordinary impact in the poor communities of the Western Cape because they return to a context they know. They will, for instance, have an empathetic understanding of foetal alcohol syndrome, poverty and other social issues their communities grapple with."

“I'm not a big Bible puncher. My father was a Freemason, my brother a Broederbonder, but I was nothing. They probably didn't ask me because I wasn't talented enough," he jokes.

“But Huguenot College is a faith-based institution connected to the Dutch Reformed Church, and we work with Andrew Murray's ideas. He was a social innovator."

Murray was the Dutch Reformed missionary who established Huguenot College as a seminary in 1874.

“We have a work team and a prayer team. And if the work team doesn't manage something, they pray a bit. Not as much as Murray, though," Schwella laughs. “Apparently, he prayed 11 hours per day.

“But we work incredibly hard to establish new ideas, leverage the concept of inclusivity, and thrive under sometimes challenging circumstances. And I think what makes an enormous contribution — and yes, I know it sounds old-fashioned — is that the institution still has a sense of vocation. Of being called to help make the world a better place."

Coalition leadership

Between CiviNovus and the School for Social Innovation at Huguenot, Schwella is involved in various other projects.

Such as “Leadership for coalition governments in South Africa", a programme he developed with the Konrad Adenauer Foundation and which was recently attended by 40 opposition party members.

“We had the IFP, the ACDP, ActionSA there, Corne Mulder and the Freedom Front. People like Mmusi Maimane and Thomas Walters also attended. John Steenhuisen would have come, but if Michael Beaumont from ActionSA is there, it is always a bit more difficult to get Steenhuisen in the same place," he laughs.

“We are humbly proud of what we have achieved because we believe that this two-day course (another is to follow next month) contributed to the surprising progress made at the recent moonshot talks led by my colleague William Gumede.

“One can sense a change in the air. It feels as if something is lifting," Schwella says.

“We are now working on a programme in the art of coalition governments that we want to roll out across South, and we will also be holding a conference on coalition governance towards the end of the year.

“We don't just want to talk about the ideological divides and fault lines; we want to do something practical to improve governance. There is a strong focus on knowledge, expertise, wisdom and inclusiveness.

“Given the history of coalitions, we all now have the perception that it's not going to work, but it's still far better than a hegemonic, one-party-dominated political system, so anything we can do to dismantle centralised ideologically driven power is a step in the right direction.

“I think coalitions are a great opportunity in the future. It has become a bit of a fixation for me because this could lead to some interesting smaller prototype innovations at municipalities, for instance."

But there will have to be a focus on culture change because the whole concept of coalitions is still driven by what he calls “an embedded behaviour and lust for power and greed". 

He admits: “We have to accept that this is a messy business. You have to have an open mind, you have to experiment, you have to try, you have to accept there are going to be some stillbirths, but we have to keep going. And after all, what else can we do unless we run away or die?"

A head full of dreams

Schwella has his fingers in all kinds of other pies, too.

He tells the story of how he hired a brilliant city planner, Shahid Solomon, when he became the first CEO of the Greater Tygerberg Partnership on secondment from the university some years ago.

“Over time, Solomon built a network of outstanding black and brown professionals in the planning world in Cape Town — engineers, planners, architects. Initially, I was the only token whitey there," Schwella comments about the interesting paths his “fixation with innovation" has led him on. 

“We started looking at projects. Both [Western Cape premier] Alan Winde and [Cape Town mayor] Geordon Hill-Lewis and others at the city have been very supportive, so we recently got involved in the Guguletu Gate project. The community wanted to erect some symbolic image of the struggle at the entrance to Guguletu, and we are now involved in redesigning the whole entrance.

“We want to make the space more people-friendly. At the moment, it's hard lines and busy streets, and taxis and police vans racing up and down, lots of shisa nyama places and stalls. We are working with community representatives to achieve something bigger here — an iconic, catalytic project that can become a prototype for other sites.

“The team on the Gugs project has grown and is very inclusive. People want to help. There is a lot of empathy and love among South Africans. And business people with a heart and a social conscience.

“I sometimes tell people I'm too embarrassed to tell them about the dreams in my head, but you have to dream because dreams are the foundation of thought and action."

Success stories

“We are all tired of failures in this country," says Schwella. “On Saturday evenings, when people drink less and less Coke, they talk about how bad the government is and how desperately they must try to find another alternative. The atmosphere is something between suicide and emigration.

“My question is: Can't we put something else in place? Can't we get a more dynamic and hopeful ethos and conversation going?"

One of the ways he wants to do that is with a book he is collaborating on which will tell the story of 16 successful social business enterprises and end with a checklist of how to get there.

“Successful social enterprises are first and foremost about understanding that the charity model has limitations and is not sustainable. Then, you must work more entrepreneurially, sweat your assets and innovate new products and processes."

He uses the example of Badisa, the Dutch Reformed Church's charity organisation, to illustrate what he means.

“Badisa runs 250 children's homes and nursing homes and spends millions of rands every year looking after people who cannot afford to do it for themselves. Badisa is a social business enterprise, and it makes sense to me that we look at a new kind of economic model where we add income-generating elements to an organisation that plays such a hugely important social role, to make it more self-sufficient.

“Let's face it, the state no longer has money for these things, and fewer and fewer people go to church and give their tithes. It is what it is. You can lament or you can try to do something about it.

“Social innovation must be a co-creative process that moves away from entrenching dependence. We want to build capacity, expertise, ability and skills to empower people to empower others."

♦ VWB ♦

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