This article originally appeared on the Allan Gray Orbis Foundation website.
Batandwa Alperstein was born in Cape Town but grew up in a village called Cala in rural Transkei, where he was raised singlehandedly by his mother, a health worker for the local community. Batandwa recalls a happy childhood herding animals and playing games with friends on the unspoilt Wild Coast. At the age five, he moved back to Cape Town to attend primary school. Leaving his home affected Batandwa to such an extent that for many years he would not speak Xhosa – the vernacular language of the Transkei – as the act of speaking his childhood language resuscitated too many painful memories. Batandwa notes this as the beginning of his ongoing soul-searching journey, where he began to challenge the environment around him and the constraints of modern society.
Batandwa attended Observatory Junior School, where he enjoyed the diversity of the classes offered as well as the open and experiential teaching style. After a few years, he transferred to another primary school which was at the other end of the education spectrum; the classes were restrictive, the teaching style structured and conservative, and Batandwa was disappointed to find that racism was still rife outside the confines of the classroom. However, he believes that exposure to these vastly different approaches was educational and played an integral role in shaping his identity.
Batandwa attended Westerford High School, which he found to be an ideal compromise between the looser, open teaching style of his first primary school and the structured, disciplined approach of the second, and he enjoyed his time there. After matriculating, he enrolled in Business Science (Economics) at the University of Cape Town (UCT). He based this decision to study Business Science on the fact that he was from a “struggle family”, and he believed business to be the new battleground for freedom fighting. He also felt that by studying the economics of business, he would gain a deeper understanding of society. However, he soon began to doubt his decision as he found himself to be more interested in the arts.
It was during this turbulent time that Batandwa first came across the Allan Gray Orbis Foundation Fellowship. Batandwa admits: “I was confused about my career path and went to the UCT Career Guidance Centre to seek advice, where I came across an invitation to apply for a Fellowship through the Allan Gray Orbis Foundation. I refused to apply for any of the other Business Science scholarships because they all tied you into a working contract – which I didn’t want. The Allan Gray Orbis Foundation opportunity had ‘no strings attached’ as you were not obligated to work for a particular company for a stipulated time period. The Fellowship also differed from other scholarship opportunities I had investigated as it had a strong focus on developing high-impact entrepreneurs, and not just providing financial support. I had a dream of becoming an entrepreneur and thus this ‘entrepreneurship scholarship’ appealed to me.”
Although Batandwa made it through the initial series of tests he almost didn’t partake in the final stage of the process, the Fellows Selection Camp. There was a party on that weekend that he wanted to attend, but at the last minute he decided to rather go on the Selection Camp. He is glad he did.
“The camp was exciting and nerve-wracking, but it was a fantastic adrenaline rush. I enjoyed it thoroughly,” he says. Upon successfully conquering the challenges presented to him at the camp, Batandwa found that he had been selected as an Allan Gray Fellow – a pivotal moment which was to alter the trajectory of his journey.
Whilst completing his Honours in Economics, Batandwa realised that econometrics and the science of economics did not provide the insight into human psychology that he craved. As a result, once he graduated Batandwa felt lost and confused as to what career path he should take. Batandwa consulted on a freelance basis for a short while, writing business plans for the Umsobomvu Youth Fund beneficiaries. During this time, he did a six-month Fellowship-In-Residence programme at the Allan Gray Orbis Foundation. As part of the programme, he was given the opportunity to do a small communication project which he enjoyed to such an extent that he found himself investigating the communications industry as a potential career path. After a month of research, he was convinced that he wanted to follow a career in advertising, and landed a job as a strategist at one of Cape Town’s most well-respected agencies: the Jupiter Drawing Room. It was there that he was able to combine his creative instincts with his strategic and analytical business mind. “I was drawn to the communications industry because I find it challenging and stimulating, and because it has the power to influence society,” he says.
In his role as strategist for the Jupiter Drawing Room, Batandwa was responsible for the conceptualisation and implementation of “Constructus”, an initiative by the advertising agency in collaboration with several other partners which offers support to black creative entrepreneurs with the aim of transforming Cape Town’s creative industry.
Batandwa strives to unite the creative influences in our country to re-establish the glory of Africa, through mobilising a new generation of young South Africans to lead a more independent and prosperous life. “All the projects I work on need to have an element of direct social value as a result of their activity – not merely an afterthought,” he says.
Batandwa’s dream is to launch a creative project involving the mass production of fresh food in the urban and rural areas of Africa. “I cannot predict the future; I just try to make the best decisions I can and keep my mind and soul open to the best possible path ahead,” he concludes.