Overcoming the social and economic problems facing South Africa after the 1994 elections was never going to be easy. For the past six years, a struggling economy, unemployment, crime and the impact of the HIV/Aids pandemic have put the fledgling democracy to the test.
South Africa's greatest hope is its human capital - but finding the resources to equip its potential leaders with the skills they need is difficult.
Now a three-year partnership between a multinational company and a small London-based education charity is beginning to address these demands through a scholarship scheme for study at masters level in the UK.
Former South African president Nelson Mandela takes a close interest in the scheme that bears his name. Earlier this month in Johannesburg, he met students from the communities disadvantaged under apartheid who have been selected to take up the Nelson Mandela Unilever scholarships, awarded by the Unilever Foundation. All 40 of the past, present and nominated future scholars were at the meeting.
The first students were in the UK in 1998-99, and six are back in South Africa having completed their studies. Ten others took up places for 1999-2000, and several are now on Unilever placements around the world. The third group of students, who will spend 2000-01 in Britain, are about to leave South Africa, and the fourth group, who will take up places on courses in the UK in 2001-02, have just been chosen. Together they will form the nucleus of an alumni organisation that will formalise the existing network on which the returning scholars can draw for information, contacts and support in meeting the challenges they will face.
In private talks with Mr Mandela, the scholars explored ways in which they could best contribute to South Africa's future. The first scholars to return to South Africa established "Call to Service", a programme to shape the way their newly acquired skills are used to benefit their local communities. Experts from business, industry and government in South Africa will provide them with a nationwide electronic support system, offering guidance and practical help.
One of the 1998 scholars, Sarita Ranchod, who is now working in Johannesburg, said: "Nelson Mandela endorsed the concept. He encouraged us to focus our input on the poorest of the poor and challenged us to work in rural areas where our skills would make the most difference. It was a very positive, inspiring and encouraging meeting."
Unilever UK chairman Richard Greenhalgh said: "We are delighted to see the scholars who have studied in the UK setting up such a worthwhile initiative focused on making a difference to South Africa's future. In doing so, they are demonstrating exactly the kind of leadership abilities that the Unilever Nelson Mandela scholarships were set up to encourage and promote."
The scholarships reflect Unilever's experience that placing an individual in a different culture and in a different country accelerates leadership development. They carry full funding to complete postgraduate studies in the UK and are open to students who demonstrate academic excellence but do not have the opportunity to undertake such studies in South Africa.
The scheme is administered in the UK by the Canon Collins Educational Trust for Southern Africa, which began developing a scholarship programme in South Africa in 1990 after Mr Mandela's release from prison. The partnership with the Unilever Foundation was launched in 1998.
Trust director Ethel de Keyser said: "As a relatively modest charity entering into a partnership agreement with a major global corporation, the trust was concerned to maintain its independence and identity.
"Time has proved that the expertise and experience of the trust is valued and respected in the partnership. The trust and Unilever play complementary roles in the selection, support and management of the Nelson Mandela scholarships. Indeed, the trust is interested in developing similar relationships using this experience as a model."
Unilever has committed more than R25 million (Pounds 3.1 million) to the project and will award up to ten scholarships each year until 2008.
MAKING A DIFFERENCE
When Mlungisi Mathonsi applied for a Nelson Mandela scholarship to take an MBA course in the UK, he was far from confident.
"I felt the people who got a scholarship must be the cream of the community. It never occurred to me that some people out there would actually consider me. I used to think of myself as a guy from a rural area who has been assimilated into urban life and just works hard to make his mark."
That mark was sufficiently strong for Mr Mathonsi to be selected for the scholarship's fourth year, beginning in autumn 2001. He is now considering which university he should study at, insistent that the MBA it offers must have a strong enterprise element.
Mr Mathonsi is evidence that the scheme is not aimed just at young black South Africans who intend to contribute to their country's future by working in the community. The health of its economy and enlightened management of its industry are held to be just as crucial.
Almost ten years working in the country's soft drinks industry have given Mr Mathonsi increasing responsibilities and a taste for management.
This autumn, paediatrician Sanjay Lala will leave his work at the Chris Hani Baragwanth hospital in Johannesburg's Soweto township to begin two years at London's Royal Free Hospital, where he will work with his PhD supervisor to hone his knowledge of laboratory practice. The focus of his research will be on the benefit of micro-nutrient supplements for HIV-infected infants, because it can be a cost-effective option in developing countries.
Exceptionally for the scheme, he will be working towards his doctorate rather than taking a one-year masters course, but the foundation took the view that a more crucial area of study than his specialism - mother-to-baby-transmission of HIV - was difficult to envisage.
Baragwanth, the world's largest hospital, is on the front line of South Africa's battle to contain the HIV/Aids pandemic. Its wards are frequently more than 100 per cent full, and it is not unusual to find young children four to a bed. The HIV rate among paediatric admissions is greater than 30 per cent.
Mr Lala studied medicine at the University of Wi****ersrand and completed internships at hospitals across Johannesburg before specialising in paediatrics at Baragwanth in 1994.
Following in the footsteps of South African president Thabo Mbeki, Sarita Ranchod, one of the first to travel to the UK under the scheme, chose Sussex University, where she took a masters in gender and development at the Institute for Development Studies.
"In my class there were 23 people from 11 countries from every geographical region - a very equal mix of North and South. I learned an incredible amount from those people, something I would not have been able to do had I not gone to Sussex.
"It has opened up a global network of people working in the development sector - we all keep in touch."
Ms Ranchod is full of praise for the scheme: "I am passionate about making this programme work. It provides an incredible opportunity for black South Africans, and there are too few of these programmes around. I would like to see the programme grow and prosper."
Ms Ranchod returned to Johannesburg to work on a women's communications and advocacy project. She is project manager for WomensNet, a developing online platform for women's issues, which is a joint initiative from internet service provider Sagonet and South Africa's Commission for Gender Equality. It seeks to help non-governmental organisations working with specific projects to develop resources on issues as varied as HIV/Aids, human rights and establishing small and medium-sized enterprises.
Ms Ranchod studied journalism and politics at Rhodes University. She worked as a media consultant with the United Nations in Pretoria and worked for the United Nations Development Programme.