Open Society Foundation Bulelwa Ngewana

Bulelwa Ngewana – ED for OSF-SA

Dear colleagues, partners and friends, 

Today marks my 45th day at the helm of the Open Society Foundation for South Africa (OSF-SA) – an organisation I have long admired for its bravery in advancing equality, social justice and basic human rights in my country – and as a member of the African and global Open Society Foundations. This time has been something of a whirlwind for me but also stimulating and enlightening. It has filled me with hope and a sense of purpose. 

I am well aware that changes in the leadership of any organisation can be unsettling for the organisation as a whole and stakeholders alike. Hence this email, the first of regular monthly messages to keep you informed and updated on developments at OSF-SA. 

Since joining, I have focused on listening, learning and getting my bearings. Thank you for your patience and for affording me the time to find my feet. If we have not yet met, I look forward to connecting and collaborating in future.

I am humbled by the achievements of the foundation over the past 26 years in protecting our hard-earned democracy. I am also grateful for the opportunity to lead OSF-SA into a new decade, one that promises to present unique and unexpected challenges. 

To quote Open Societies Foundations Founder and Chair, George Soros, “in turbulent times, the impossible becomes possible.”

My priorities for 2020 are to work with my OSF-SA team, board, the African OSF Foundations and regional office, and global OSF partners, to build a strong, stable, relevant and responsible organisation, fit for our times; to be a model of transparent and ethical grant-making; to broaden and deepen our alliance of partners; and to collaborate more closely so that we can jointly leverage our resources and expand our impact. 

I echo the sentiments of incoming OSF-SA Board Chair Mary-Jane Morifi that ”democracy is not for passengers – it screams at all of us to be active participants”. It’s of particular significance that Mary-Jane was one of the first recipients of the Karl Popper Bursaries awarded by OSF founder George Soros at the University of Cape Town, some 40 years ago.

I am also guided by the words of former Deputy Chief Justice Dikgang Moseneke, speaking at the fourth Open Society Lecture in 1997, where he cautioned that: ”An open society is not a challenge once met and achieved forever. It is an ever-moving target continually requiring new responses to changing challenges”.

We, along with all the Open Society Foundations, are in the process of reviewing our strategy and areas of focus in light of the current context.  Our grant-making strategy is also under review. 

Open Society Foundations President Patrick Gaspard has asked: ”What does it mean to have a strategy, since we cannot predict the future and can only hope to be able to react urgently with any precision to events of the present day?”. He ventures that we may need to orientate ourselves towards ”a kind of opportunistic improvisation”. 

For us at OSF-SA, 2020 will be a year of listening, learning, testing, reflecting, experimenting, responding and evolving, as we develop and refine a clear strategic vision.

Within this shifting context, I am committed to maintaining openness, stability and trust. I can offer the assurance that I will communicate timeously and transparently any changes that may affect you. I ask for further patience as we chart our course in these sometimes-stormy times. 

Speaking at the World Economic Forum this month, George Soros opened by saying that “we live at a transformational moment in history”. He added that ”the survival of open societies is endangered and we face an even greater crisis: climate change”. In response to these challenges, he announced the “most important and enduring project” of his life, a $1 billion gift to start the Open Society University Network (OSUN), an unprecedented defense of critical thinking and academic freedom.  

The announcement was accompanied by an appeal that I would like to add my voice to: ”We can’t build a global network on our own; we will need partner institutions and supporters from all around the world to join us in this enterprise. We are looking for farsighted partners who feel a responsibility for the future of our civilization.”

I share this commitment to partnership and collaboration. It is an approach I have valued throughout my working life and one which I hope will define my tenure at OSF-SA.

Best wishes,