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A Front Seat to Policymaking in Africa

The Republic of South Africa is a fledgling democracy. It is struggling, in fits and starts, to find sure footing as an independent and self-governing nation on a continent that still bears the scars of Western colonial rule. And, most importantly, it is a beacon of hope for all of Africa, as evidenced by the daily waves of immigrants flooding from bordering nations into urban areas like Johannesburg and Cape Town.

“We look to you in America as a role model and an example of what to avoid, too,” a taxi driver said to me as we hurtled through the streets of Johannesburg last month. “We have much to learn from your country.”

Well, maybe. But Americans—especially those interested in setting public policies in diverse communities—also have much to learn from the evolving democracy in South Africa. That’s the reason I was excited to escort the inaugural class of the Center for American Progress’s Leadership Institute last month to a conference of African presidents at the University of Witswatersrand in Johannesburg.

The CAP Leadership Institute began last fall with the selection of 12 promising public policy leaders from diverse backgrounds, all posessing a commitment to working in communities of color. The idea was to give them increased exposure to influential policy experts and to arm them with skills to break into the sometimes closed world of progressive policy development.

On the surface the conference brought together 10 former presidents of African nations who made democratic transitions out of office—Joaquim Chissano of Mozanbique, Amani Abeid Karume of Zanzibar, Festus G. Mogae of Botswana, Ali Hassan Mwinyi and Benjamin Mkapa of Tanzania, Pedro Pires of Cape Verde, Rupiah Banda of Zambia, Olusegun Obasanjo of Nigeria, Adbulsulami Abubakar of Nigeria, and Thabo Mbeki of South Africa—for a two-day discussion aimed at setting a 21st century energy agenda for Africa.

But just as important, the conference served as an eye-opening backdrop for a group of aspiring U.S. policymakers in their quest to bring progressive change back home. For the 10 of our 12 fellows who made the trip, the discussions provided an ideal opportunity to witness a rare collaboration among African leaders as they learned and debated how best to employ alternative energy, nanotechnology, and environmental concerns in their respective countries.

“There’s a new generation of young African scientists and leaders looking for renewable energy sources and moving away from coal and other detrimental sources on the continent,” said Jamiah Adams, director of diversity media strategy at the Sierra Club and one of the Leadership Fellows. “I learned the importance of working in partnership with African nations as they find sources for new energy and that we can’t dictate policies for those nations.”

Another CAP-LI Fellow, Tonye Lofton, an information technology specialist with Deloitte Consulting, LLP, said the discussion of energy needs in Africa is universal. “Some of their energy initiatives could be replicated here and promise to produce positive results,” he said. “Given the global pressure of energy demands, I don’t think we can afford to overlook what was being discussed in Africa.”

To be perfectly honest, this unexpected trip to meet and mingle with African heads of state provided the kind of experience I only dreamed might happen at some point far down the road for future classes of Leadership Institute fellows. But thanks in large measure to the generosity and invitation of the African Presidential Center at Boston University, this experience served as a capstone event for our inaugural class.

Now, with the success of our first year behind us, we’re seeking a new group of Leadership Institute fellows. Application materials and detailed information are available online and the deadline for applying is Friday, July 13, 2012.

While I can’t guarantee every class will travel to South Africa, the opportunity will be there for future generations of policy leaders to learn, network, and figure out how best to impact progressive social change.

Sam Fulwood III is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and Director of the CAP Leadership Institute. His work with the Center’s Progress 2050 project examines the impact of policies on the nation when there will be no clear racial or ethnic majority by the year 2050.