Riding the Blue Train to Innovation and Progress

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Howard Sackstein is a South Africa-based activist and entrepreneur, Honorary Life President of the South African Union of Jewish Students, former Vice-Chairperson of the World Union of Jewish Students and former Executive Director of South Africa's Independent Electoral Commission during its transition to democracy. He is also Chairperson of the SA Jewish Report Newspaper, Chair of the Jewish Achiever Awards and Trustee of the Afrika Tikkun Endowment Trust.

Howard reflects on his experiences at The Change Charter, a Schusterman Connection Point "in motion" to foster stimulating dialogue between the for-profit and nonprofit worlds to drive sustainable change in Africa. For the event, Howard traveled with 75 of his fellow attendees across South Africa on a moving train for three days of learning, discussion and collaboration.

There are few luxury train rides that have captured the imagination of the world. The Orient Express (made famous by Agatha Christie’s murder mystery novel), the Trans-Siberian Railroad and South Africa’s colonial-era Blue Train that traverses from Jacaranda city of Pretoria to the glistening white beaches and cascading flat-topped mountains of the tourist mecca of Cape Town.

On the Blue Train, white-gloved butlers scurry around the walnut-clad cabins serving 18 year old Scotch in crystal glasses while guest luxuriate in their private bubble baths, smoking Cuban cigars and watching the arid landscape of the Karoo desert pass them by. It is the luxury of a bygone era, an embodiment of a time long since extinct. It is Downton Abbey in the modern age.

But this would be no ordinary journey on the Blue Train. It was a journey of journeys. A journey that would move people and minds from past to future. A journey that would encompass all means of transport, foot, Tuk-Tuk, Commuter Rail and the lush boardroom tables of the Blue Train.

It would be most innovative Jewish conference ever held in Africa.

The concept was simple. Gather together 75 of the brightest young Jewish minds in South Africa, isolate them together on a train for 3 days and ensure they conceptualize projects to take the continent of Africa forward.

This was the brainchild of social entrepreneur Guy Lieberman, champion of South Africa’s Giant Flag tourism project, and tech entrepreneur Ryan Canin. Says Canin “I believe that those who can, should. And in Africa, many Jews can make a difference—so we simply should.”

Soon, the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation jumped on board as principal benefactors of this innovative “hack-a-thon.” The Schusterman Foundation are world leaders in supporting innovative projects which allow young Jews to connect together to change the world. Both Canin and Lieberman are members of the Schusterman Foundation's ROI Community.

The Change Charter, as the train became known, a Schusterman Connection Point, left the station. Jacaranda trees with their purple flowers in full bloom lined the tracks as the train chartered its way from the Pretoria station.

The South African Jewish community numbers approximately 80,000 and is highly influential in both business and social development. The community is close knit, and has prided itself on such international innovations such as The Shabbos Project, The Sinai Indaba and the Jewish Achiever Awards. Almost all Jewish kids receive a Jewish education and kosher restaurants can be found all over Johannesburg and Cape Town.

There is a glint in Guy Lieberman’s eye when he says, “There is strength in numbers and there is potency in collaboration. Add to that our own home culture of invention and resourcefulness, kindness and intelligence, skill and vision, and you have a formidable community.”

The Blue Train wandered through the Karoo like Moses through the deserts of Egypt. In Prince Albert, after days of debate and brainstorming, 75 Jews alighted for a silent meditative trek through the desolate moonscape of the Karoo. In the haunted colonial town of Matjiesfontein, where a lone bugler meets the train, they partied through the night in the village where Lord Randolph Churchill—father of Britain’s greatest Prime Minister—sent dispatches back home from the Boer War describing the beginning of the end of the colonial era.

It was also in the white-washed halls of Matjiesfontein that the great feminist, intellectual and anti-apartheid campaigner Olive Schreiner wrote her Story of an African Farm.

It was Schreiner who wrote, “Jews taught the world not to accept the world as it is, but to transform it.”

Under the guidance of eleven mentors, teams worked late into the night preparing and refining proposals. Innovation, technology, education, charity fundraising, anti-corruption, personal inspiration, healthcare….Over and over, the teams hacked away at idea after idea.

But when the Blue Train chugged into Cape Town, amidst its opulent splendor and 500-count Egyptian cotton linen, things suddenly changed. Down duvets were swapped for a local commuter train to Muizenberg, a place that had once housed a thriving Jewish community by the sea. Kosher guesthouses and delis are today boarded up and long closed down. On the commuter train, we found broken seats and crying babies, windows caked so thick with dirt that made it impossible to see the world outside. On both trains, the reality of Africa was hidden from view. 

In the Shul in Muizenberg, where Jewish history loomed large, seven teams pitched their ideas and competed for funding to seed their projects. Proposals ranged from developing investment platforms in order to breed endangered wildlife species to using automatic voice messaging to ensure compliance with drug therapy for tuberculosis.

The problems and potentials of Africa had not escaped the view of the delegates. Each proposal in its own right took the development of Africa one step forward.

“My personal highlight," says Canin, “was seeing the incredible quality in the final seven pitches and the passion behind the teams which delivered them.” Adds Lieberman: “The highlights were witnessing talented, creative, highly intelligent and caring Jews collaborating on issues that lay way beyond the Jewish community—these were folks looking to positively impact African society, economy and the environment.”

Though the journey has ended, the impact of Africa may well be felt for years to come. 

The Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation is proud to empower emerging leaders to explore their values, identity and new ways to strengthen their communities. We believe that as we work together to repair the world, it is important to share our diverse experiences and perspectives along the way. We encourage the expression of personal thoughts and reflections here on the Schusterman blog. Each post reflects solely the opinion of its author and does not necessarily represent the views of the Foundation, its partner organizations or all program participants.