Sebabatso Manoeli is about to end six months as the prestigious Machel-Mandela intern at the Brenthurst Foundation in Joburg.

Unlike those pushy New York drama students in that 1980s musical Fame, Sebabatso Manoeli does not demand that we remember her name.

But it might not be a bad idea to keep it in mind anyway, because she is systematically putting in place the building blocks of what promises to be a memorable career.

She is about to end six months as the prestigious Machel-Mandela intern at the Brenthurst Foundation in Joburg.

Its aim is to nurture future leaders and she seems to be well on that road.

Next month she will take up a Rhodes Scholarship at Oxford University, studying for a Master’s degree in African studies.

She then plans to do a doctorate in politics or a master’s in public policy there.

Before the internship she graduated in May last year from the elite Amherst College in Massachusetts, in political science, and black and African studies, on the Mandela Scholarship.

The first-Machel-Mandela intern at the Brenthurst Foundation, founded by the Oppenheimer family and run by international relations expert Greg Mills, last year was Masana Mulaudzi, who has since become a Master of Philosophy at UCT and has just left SA for the London School of Economics to study politics and economics on a Chevening Scholarship provided by the UK government.

Manoeli, 23, won the second internship, for this year, against hundreds of applicants.

She was a natural choice for a foundation that is dedicated to realising Africa’s potential. As the foundation says on its website, Manoeli “developed a passion for democratic transformation and social justice from an early age”.

This showed in many ways, from representing SA at the International Debate Exchange Programme in the US during her high school years, through volunteering at homeless shelters while at Amherst and spending a semester at the American University in Cairo, learning about regional integration in the Arab League and in Africa where she also learnt Arabic.

“The Machel-Mandela Internship is just such a tremendous opportunity for myself as a young person who is interested in African issues,” says Manoeli.

“The foundation itself focuses on strengthening Africa’s economic performance.”

She has been especially impressed at how the foundation brings together academics and practitioners to do that.

“It’s been tremendously beneficial to see those two roads meeting – researcher, academic scholarship that can sometimes be a little distant from the realities on the ground, and matching that with presidents, prime ministers, the works, who are making those difficult decisions.

“That kind of exposure has been just tremendous.”

She recently saw that engagement when Malawian President Joyce Banda revealed that one of the foundation’s Tswalu Dialogues earlier this year, when she was still vice-president, had probably saved her presidency and Malawi’s constitutional integrity.

Malawi’s defence chief accompanied her to that meeting, and was impressed by the message delivered there about the importance of constitutional governance.

And just after that, when President Bingu wa Mutharika died, that officer played a crucial role in thwarting a plot by Mutharika’s clique to subvert the constitution and install his brother instead of her in the presidency, she said.

“So I just appreciate that there’s a lot of personal development involved.

“The foundation does invest quite a lot in the intern,” Manoeli says.

“Their aim is to make it the most prestigious internship in Africa and they’re not too far from that goal.”

She commends the foundation’s high investment in its interns.

She has special praise for her mentor at Brenthurst, deputy director Terry McNamee, who has taught her much and encouraged her when her confidence lagged.

“So I think I will be well prepared to go off into my next degree with a lot of skills.”

Once she is armed with the clutch of Oxford degrees she is about to tackle, Manoeli hopes to apply all the knowledge and skills she would then have accumulated for the betterment of Africa – in effect combining the academic and the practical in one person.

“I would love to become a practitioner. I’m very passionate about [Africa] and development issues, reimagining politics on the continent.

“This is a very interesting time where we are seeing the idea of the state changing. And I’d like to be part of that process of redefining and trying to figure out the kind of political institutions that will match the global era we are in.”

Whether Africa needs bigger states, such as the federal Africa-wide state the AU is aiming at, or smaller states, such as South Sudan, which seceded from Sudan last year, are among the issues.

And she wants to pursue stronger rights for women, children and marginalised groups.

But she faces a big dilemma about where to work.

“You see I was born in Lesotho. And I moved to SA when I was seven.

“So I have dual citizenship.”

Sometimes she feels more South African, as when she represented the country abroad in that big debate exchange programme in the US.

At other times she feels more Basotho.

“My grandfather was the minister of trade and industry in Lesotho.

“He passed away in 1992 when I was only four years old. So I have this imagined legacy.

“So the issue of national identity has been a bit of a tension in my own heart, trying to figure out which place is home.

“And I guess part of the reason I am so pro-Africa and interested in the continent at large is because being African is an identity that allows for many identities under one umbrella.”

Nonetheless, the Brenthurst internship has revived her fading Basotho identity because her main project was to fathom what Lesotho could do to grow its economy and reduce its vast poverty and unemployment.

She examined the prospects for future industrialisation of Lesotho in the light of uncertainty about the continuation of a preferential trade agreement that Lesotho has heavily relied on, the African Growth and Opportunity Act (Agoa), which allows preferential, duty-free and quota-free access to the rich US market for most African exports.

It is due to expire in 2015 if the US Congress doesn’t renew it.

“The entire textile industry boom in Lesotho has been built on the back of Agoa. It has contributed billions of rand to Lesotho’s national revenues,” Manoeli says.

Her report, Lesotho After Agoa, just published, adds that the textile industry is Lesotho’s largest employer, providing almost half of its formal jobs.

“So it would be catastrophic for that to end.”

Yet her report faults Lesotho’s leaders for failing to capitalise on the textile industry and on the last decade-plus of Agoa benefits, to build a stronger, more diversified industrial base, less reliant on US help.

And she also blames the government for doing so little to empower local people, lamenting that not a single Lesotho citizen yet owns a textile factory.

“It’s all been Chinese…”

Such leadership deficits across the continent dismay but also challenge her.

The key to unlocking Africa’s potential “is governance and political will and foresight and that service mentality that earnestly seeks to serve the people rather than personal agendas”.

“We have such a lack of that kind of leadership,” she says.

“I really believe in the power of one, the power that one person can exert. Look at people like Tendai Biti in Zimbabwe, the finance minister, hoping that with his drive and focus he can do something in that place, despite the institutional limitations and challenges.

“And I think individuals can change institutions.

“I think of Nelson Mandela and what he’s done… the decisions that one person made had enormous repercussions for generations of South Africans across the racial divide.”

It’s conventional wisdom that Africa suffers from too much personality politics and, conversely, weak political institutions.

But Manoeli typically sees the bright side.

“I think the opportunity for a leader who does have the right ideas, the earnest desire to serve the people well rather than himself… the potential they have to change is so much greater because they don’t have institutional limitations.

“One person with ideas that can promote foreign investment, a strong national economy, can actually have a greater change effect here than, say, in the US where there are all these other checks and balances.

“I think there is a way personality politics can be redeemed while we are still pursuing institutional maturity.

“You see examples in how the Tiger economies developed off the back of that.”

Perhaps she herself will one day bring just that kind of “earnest desire to serve the people” into a high leadership position and so help to unlock the potential of Africa.

Foreign Service