Forum to mark UM System, South Africa partnership

Sunday, March 30, 2008 | 9:47 p.m. CDT; updated 1:54 a.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

In 1986, the University of Missouri System and the University of the Western Cape, South Africa, beat the political, economic and social odds of apartheid and formed an academic link. Sustained for more than 20 years, the South African Education Program is the topic of the Chancellor’s Global Issues Forum on Monday.

The program was initiated to further social and educational opportunities in both countries via faculty exchange.

Through this network, the two have developed ideas and expertise on topics such as small business advancement and the treatment of HIV/AIDS using traditional medicine.

The Chancellor’s Global Issues Forum, which will be held from 3:30 to 5 p.m. at Ellis Auditorium on the MU campus, will reflect on the successes that were made possible by this program.

“It’s just amazing story, after amazing story, after amazing story of doors and windows being opened,” said Ron Turner, founder of the South African Education Program. He, along with Brian O’Connell, University of the Western Cape’s vice chancellor, will be the panel members at the forum.

O’Connell grew up in District 6, the residential area in Cape Town, South Africa, that was forced by the apartheid government to leave because of its multi-racial community.

“I lived there 25 years, and then came a big shock when the apartheid government declared District 6 a white area,” he said. “They bulldozed everything. I watched people’s spirits destroyed.”

In 1978, the Missouri Students Association began organized protests against the UM System investing its retirement and endowment funds in U.S. corporations doing business in South Africa. Finally, in 1985, newly appointed UM System president C. Peter Magrath appointed a task force to address the issue.

Turner staffed the task force for Magrath, and not long after, the first international academic exchange program, known as the South African Education Program, was started.

“It started with divestment,” Turner said. “Then we decided to do what we do best: education.”

The program was founded with two goals in mind: to develop a relationship with a nonwhite South African university and to stop investing in companies doing business in South Africa.

“The partnering has turned out to be the most significant thing that has happened to UWC,” O’Connell said. “It’s a tribute to very visionary leadership thinking of the future.”

Among the success stories of the program, one that sticks out to Turner is that of Chuck Korr, a faculty member at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

Three days before he was to leave his six-week exchange at the University of the Western Cape in 1993, Korr, an expert in sports history, found boxes of notes and documents from the political prisoners on Robben Island in the UWC archives. Inside the boxes were records of organized sports leagues within the prison that had existed during apartheid. The discovery, which showed the effect of sports on the political prisoners, changed his life.

“It’s easy to turn South Africans into victims,” Korr said. “But here you have hundreds of men: player, official, spectator, in the worst circumstances ... who refused to be broken.”

The prison had a three-fold mission: to punish, to deter others from speaking out, and to isolate the prisoners from the rest of the world. Whether physically or psychologically, the goal was to break them, Korr said.

“One way the prisoners could combat (their life in prison) was finding something important to them,” Korr said. “Sports accomplished that more than anything.”

Korr spent nearly three years interviewing more than 40 past political prisoners of Robben Island that was still alive, and he is now writing a book on his findings called “More Than Just A Game: Football v. Apartheid” that will be published Oct. 6. In addition, Korr teamed up with South African director Junaid Ahmend to make a docu-drama that opens nationwide in South Africa in three weeks and in the U.S. within a few years.

“They are wanting to use my film throughout the country to show the power of leadership,” Korr said. “It’s the creation of a new South Africa, and it wouldn’t exist without the exchange program.”

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