Mary Tiseo

South Africa Partners: Helping South Africans Deliver On the Promises of Their New Democracy


Mary Tiseo, co-founder and Executive Director of South Africa Partners, says that 15 years of partnerships have knit the United States and South Africa together in rich and exciting ways.

Back in 1994, several of us who would go on to co-found South Africa Partners met with the new South African Ambassador to the United States. What we heard over and over again was that while money is important it’s not the most important thing. What we heard was, “We’re the government now, and what we lack are skills and capacity to actually deliver on our promises.”

For over fifteen years, South Africa Partners has focused on helping the country deliver on the promises of its new democracy. We are focused on building capacity among managers in South Africa — both in government and in non-governmental organizations — who have taken on the task of implementing the country’s major health and education initiatives.

Our goal is to support South Africans as they grow as managers and as they design implementation strategies to achieve the aspirations of public policies. Our goal is not to solve problems. Our goal is to support our South African colleagues as they solve problems.

aw-barnes-school-31_tpWhat’s unique about South Africa Partners is that word “partnership.” Good partnerships are mutually beneficial. Everyone involved goes in understanding that they’re going to learn and benefit from the relationship. Partners in the U.S. will gain different skills and knowledge than the partners in South Africa.

Many of our partnerships involve identifying existing best practices and skills in the U.S. and other countries, helping South Africans figure out the best ways to localize the practices and then helping to roll out programs to broader communities. There is no reason that South Africa has to reinvent the wheel. They need programs that function in rural areas, in under-resourced communities, in the townships, in areas where there has been conflict.

Translating beautifully written policy documents into programs that function in these different areas — that challenge is enormous and requires a great deal of skill on the part of the managers who are responsible for that implementation. And that’s the group that we work with.

Those people are on the front lines figuring out how you implement an HIV program that will result in fewer people getting infected. Those people who are infected getting onto medication quicker so that they are able to have a better survival rate. A woman in a township who has started a preschool program and needs to figure out how, even in her resource-constrained environment, to offer a quality education.

These are the people that we work with. These frontline managers who are working in their communities to take the aspirations of the new South Africa and make them real.

One of the things that makes us different from other organizations contributing to progress in South Africa is that we only work there. We grew out of the anti-apartheid movement and so we have connections to South Africa that are broad and deep. We know the country really well. We have a strong network there of advisors and supporters. So our work is supported by a network of people who are looking over our shoulder and will tell us if we are making a misstep. And we welcome that. That’s what we want from them.

We build partnerships with purpose.