Matie Voices

Cheri-Leigh Erasmus

Alumna of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences

“I hold justice and equity very dear, and these values have been huge motivators throughout my career.”

How do we change behaviour around corruption? How do we engage the most disenfranchised among us in decision-making processes? How do we create employment where it’s needed most? These are the kind of questions that excites Stellenbosch University (SU) alumna Cheri-Leigh Erasmus.

Cheri-Leigh, who graduated with a BA degree in international studies in 2006 and currently works for the Accountability Lab in Washington, DC, enjoys grappling with hard challenges.

“I’ve always been extremely socially conscious and aware of what it means to be a ‘have’ or a ‘have not’. I can attribute this to my upbringing and the impact of observing the changing dynamics in South Africa during the transition to democracy and beyond.

“Now, having seen a significant portion of the world, I cannot help but see the needs, but also the resilience in communities I interact with. These contrasts, these fault lines motivate me. I hold justice and equity very dear, and these values have been huge motivators throughout my career.”

Through a variety of programmes in Nepal, Pakistan, Mali, Nigeria, Liberia and South Africa, the Accountability Lab supports change-makers to develop and implement positive ideas in their communities, unleashing positive social and economic change. As the Accountability Lab’s programmes and learning manager, Cheri-Leigh’s role specifically relates to monitoring, evaluation and learning.

“I’m most concerned with understanding the impact of our work across countries and using adaptive learning in our decision-making processes to craft relevant programmes.”

Growing up in Robertson in the Breede Valley, Cheri-Leigh’s desire to see the world was largely shaped by photo essays in the magazine National Geographic.

“I knew that I wanted to combine my interest in current affairs and politics with this itch to see the world. My parents are both former teachers and I learned a lot from their immense leadership skills, humility, empathy and capacity for community engagement. Above all, that shaped how I relate to people in any situation.”

While at SU, Cheri-Leigh served two terms on the Student Representative Council (SRC), first as chair of the Societies Council and then as vice-chair of the SRC. She was also chairperson of UNASA (United Nations Association of South Africa).

Before accepting a position at the Accountability Lab, Cheri-Leigh was the executive director of the South Africa-Washington International Programme, an initiative she also participated in as a student.

SAWIP selects emerging leaders from five South African universities to participate in a leadership development and community engagement programme.

“My participation in SAWIP opened my eyes to the scope of international development opportunities and gave me critical international work exposure. I first started thinking about a career in the international nonprofit sector due to the programme.”

Despite living abroad, Cheri-Leigh’s identity is firmly rooted in South Africa.

“My hope is that more South Africans will engage in deep, meaningful and uncomfortable conversations across backgrounds. I think it’s going to be quite hard for South Africa to overcome its great divides if people don’t truly engage with curiosity, understanding, and a willingness to change.”

- By Pia Nänny -