The Flanagan Journey

By Julienne du Toit

Pics by Chris Marais and supplied

In late 2019, Rhodes University’s Research Office approached us to collaborate on a very unusual book.

Daily Maverick journalist Rebecca Davis did her Masters at the University of Oxford.

What Director Jaine Roberts and Postgraduate Funding Manager John Gillam had in mind were the profiles of 46 women who had been awarded a scholarship between 1985 and 2020.

The Patrick and Margaret Flanagan Trust bursary was for women only, specifically those who wanted to do postgraduate studies at a major overseas university like Oxford, Cambridge or Edinburgh. Other than that, and being bright English-speaking academics, they had little in common.

The result is a book published by Rhodes University in mid-2021, called The Flanagan Journey: Extraordinary South African Women.

These Flanagans, as we began to call them, had pursued studies in medicine, history, economics, musicology, business, various aspects of law, psychology, English literature, virology, plant genomics, statistics and physics.

They came from universities all over South Africa and went on to do their Masters or Doctoral studies at institutions like Oxford, Cambridge, Edinburgh, Cornell, St Andrews and the London School of Economics. Others had opted for Global South universities – Peking University in Beijing, the University of Dar es Salaam or the Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi, India.

Professor Ameena Goga,now a unit director at the SA Medical Research Council, was awarded the Flanagan in 1995.

Some had made a life for themselves overseas. Most had returned to South Africa.

The Number One Flanagan Detective Agency

There was one big problem. Records were out of date, and alas, women often change their surnames when marrying.

We started with those who were straightforward to find, simply because they have fairly high profiles.

Locating Rebecca Davis of the Daily Maverick online newspaper, and Yvonne Beyers, editor of Huisgenoot magazine, was trouble-free. So too Professor Ameena Goga of the SA Medical Research Council, who has come into prominence because of her work on HIV and COVID. Isobel Dixon, a well-known book agent representing many South African authors (including Deon Meyer) in London, was easy to contact.

Isobel Dixon, the Flanagan awardee of 1993, is now Head of Books and MD of the Blake Friedmann Literary Agency in London.

No matter her profession, Dr Zosa de Sas Kropiwnicki-Gruber was always going to be a doddle, thanks to her distinctive name. Dr Thando Njovane was lecturing at Rhodes University, so contacting her was no problem either. Quite a few were still overseas studying, having gone on to doctorates or Postdoctoral Research Fellowships. John Gillam could help us track them, usually via their families.

But some Flanagans seemed to have vanished without a trace. For weeks, sometimes months, we followed up leads, Googled like mad and still came up empty handed. Then we had a breakthrough, and another, and another and eventually we started calling ourselves the Number One Flanagan Detective Agency.

Carla Schier was one of the most elusive. She had done her Masters in Environmental History at St Andrews University, came back and started work at The Citizen newspaper and then, after two years, apparently disappeared into thin air.

It turned out she had gone to America, studied and practised midwifery, and had then fallen under the spell of professional cake-making. She was living happily ever after in Seattle, having changed her surname twice.

One Flanagan, now on a farm in Portugal, had changed her first name and her sexual orientation. Pheiffer Sutherland was only found because we were complaining bitterly about this particular vanishing act to Simon Pamphilon, the book’s designer. He happened to have good friends in the Linguistics department at Rhodes University, where this missing Flanagan had studied. He made some enquiries, we followed up on his lead, and voila, another Flanagan was in the bag. At which point Simon became an honorary branch officer of the Number One Flanagan Detective Agency.

In the end we tracked down 45 out of 46 of the Flanagans. One, Leanne Peiser, is still in the wind.

Zooming and Skypeing

Dr Nadine Cronje spent her Flanagan year studying viruses at the University of Cambridge in 2012.

Chris and I managed to have face to face interviews with those living or working in Makhanda (Grahamstown) and Cape Town before COVID-19 locked down the country. Then from April 2020, while everyone else was learning to bake  sourdough bread and brew pineapple beer, we were having long and fascinating Skype and Zoom interviews with women living all over South Africa and overseas.

During these interviews and research into their fields, Chris and I gained insights into financial derivatives, the inner life of plants, night duty for paediatricians, the world of book agents, music therapy, developmental psychology, Zapatistas, speculative fiction, macro-economics, the grammar of transgender, film studies, HIV activism, the weird world of viruses, the partition of Africa, collective self-deception, public health, public law, the Naxalite communists, the National Credit Act and the intriguing genre of black horror.

We also learnt about a phenomenon called the Impostor Syndrome, which beset many of these young academics. Development psychologist Dr Lauren Wild of the University of Cape Town (and one of the Flanagans) explained:

It’s the “voice that says ‘I don’t really belong here, they made a mistake’. As South Africans we have a tendency to put ourselves down and think we’re not as good as they are overseas.”

She added (as many did) that it was pleasant to discover that South African academics hold their own at international institutions.

Highs and Lows

Asafika Mpako, the Flanagan awardee of 2017, studied at Peking University in Beijing before heading to the London School of Economics.

We heard about the amazing breakthroughs, encounters, experiences, friendships and insights the Flanagans gained, all their highs and many of their lows. A few of these included living in shared or tiny quarters, episodes of loneliness, being homesick, feeling unsure.

Asafika Mpako, who used her Flanagan year to study at Peking University before being accepted at the London School of Economics, initially struggled to adjust to Chinese people constantly wanting pictures of her. She coped by turning the camera on them.

Cheree Olivier battled to adjust to the cold and rain of the Netherlands, and found comfort in pancakes and chocolates while studying public international law at the University of Leiden. She dropped the weight when she returned.

Amy Langston headed off to study statistics at the University of Glasgow a few months before COVID-19 shuttered everything in 2020. She was cloistered away in shared accommodation and wrote her exams online before coming back and starting to lecture at Rhodes University.

Thanks to Margaret Flanagan

The awardees told us how they grew academically and personally from their experiences. Many of the Flanagans mentioned how grateful they were to their benefactor, who had died in 1982 leaving a bequest to send young women overseas to study.

Nonjabulo Mlangeni, awardee of 2016, went to study at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA).

In her Last Will and Testament, Margaret Flanagan wrote:

“My underlying intention in making provision for the award of scholarships is my belief that the future of any country is, to an important extent, dependent on the women of that country being educated.”

Jaine Roberts of Rhodes University’s Research Office sums up her legacy in the Foreword.

The book, she says, “is a testament and tribute to the achievements of all the scholarship awardees and to what Margaret Flanagan’s bequest, carefully invested and managed by Rhodes University, has been able to support to date, and will continue to support in perpetuity.”

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