Exile who came in from the cold

July 12, 1996

When David Johnson fled South Africa in 1983, he left his heart behind but had no idea of the part he would play in the rebirth of his nation.

Now a lecturer at the University of Bristol and an international educational consultant, he has used his expertise and contacts to train education managers for the new South Africa, and has started a programme linking Bristol with the University of Transkei.

Such higher education links between South Africa and Britain are flourishing and it is hoped the awarding of no fewer than eight honorary degrees to Nelson Mandela by British universities this week will further strengthen them.

Dr Johnson was a student leader in the late 1970s and early 1980s when political activism landed him in trouble with the police. He was repeatedly detained and banned for five years in 1980.

He was leader of the Black Student Society at the University of the Wi****ersrand and a prominent member of the United Democratic Front in 1983, when a charge laid against him for being a member of the African National Congress forced him into exile.

After teaching in Botswana for a few years - a "harrowing" period during which there were raids against the ANC - he moved to Zimbabwe and then to Britain, studying a masters at the University of Manchester, and then taking a doctorate at Bristol in 1992.

When the ban on political organisations was lifted in 1990, Dr Johnson went home as part of a Commonwealth secretariat group studying "human resource development for post-apartheid South Africa". He interviewed senior registrars and vice chancellors and looked at their plans. Their work paved the way for the Commonwealth Heads of Government mission in 1992.

"That study sensitised me into recognising there was a gap in the preparations and development for a new education bureaucracy," he recalls. "None of the universities I spoke to, except the Afrikaans ones, were producing education bureaucrats." On his return to Britain, Dr Johnson began putting together a proposal for funds to set up training for a cohort of people with some background in education planning, policy and management.

The Commonwealth secretariat, Overseas Development Administration and the United Nations all contributed to the programme, launched in 1992 at Bristol.

"We worked for two years on what is called an on-site model, in which students came to Bristol and did masters and doctoral studies in education management." About 30 people were trained over two years.

Meanwhile a programme was underway in South Africa to develop capacity in community-based organisations with a view to improving the ability of parents to govern schools.

Between 1992 and 1994 all the regional organisers of the former National Education Coordinating Committee went to Bristol for three to six months of intensive courses on parental governance in schools, and education management.

The programmes have now ended. But, Dr Johnson says, materials written for them have been developed further for use by local organisations. "In this way the work done in Bristol continues to live on and be used in South Africa."

He also contributed to the National Education Policy Initiative - the study of local education that laid the foundations for the education policies of the new government.

"The idea of taking educationists to Bristol for training worked well," he says. "But it was never going to be a long-term route for training South Africa's new education managers."

Dr Johnson began thinking of ways the training he had started could be continued in South Africa, enabling more people to be taught for less money. The result is the Education and Training Programme for Southern Africa, based at the University of Transkei and run with the University of Bristol.

A unit specialising in educational management and policy has been established, offering a masters degree and using an off-site model. "Instead of students going to Bristol, Bristol teachers are going to the Transkei," Dr Johnson explains.

He would love to return permanently to South Africa: but he may just be one of the few talented exiles who should not return. "Bristol has given me the space to work on things I feel passionately about," he says. "It has allowed me to work with South Africa in a way I believe is good for the country. It is the best of both worlds."

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