When the foundation’s work in Southern Africa began in 1953, South Africa’s apartheid system, in place for five years, was increasing the marginalization of the majority of people in a colonially dominated region. We began by providing fellowships for scholars, funding research that rigorously documented and exposed the devastating impact of South Africa’s racial policies, and supporting initiatives that gave progressive people the space to discuss the future of their country.


In the 1960s, with the rest of the region being freed from colonial rule, South Africa’s isolation deepened and our grantees kept a spotlight on repressive policies and enabled dissenting voices to be heard. As part of these efforts, we invested in ensuring substantive contact between Americans and South Africans and between diverse communities within the region.


During the 1970s, the foundation broadened the scope of its activity. Ford was instrumental in setting up pioneering public interest law centers in Namibia, Zimbabwe, and South Africa. Our grantees provided legal assistance to citizens grappling with new postcolonial challenges in the first two countries and to South Africans detained on political charges. The centers helped set groundbreaking legal precedent on industrial health, access to unemployment insurance, and restrictions on blacks under the repressive “pass law” system that limited their movement and tenure. Ford also worked throughout this period to improve educational opportunities for black South Africans and participated in major, collaborative efforts to strengthen universities across Southern Africa and the wider continent.


In the post-apartheid era, the foundation continued to fund projects that advanced education and public interest law while also expanding into other areas, including gender rights, community development, and public policy research. To support this broadened scope of work, we opened an office in Johannesburg in 1993.


In the following two decades we helped the new democracy grow by supporting rural development, arts and expression, and comprehensive responses to the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Ford was instrumental in promoting African philanthropy and building the infrastructure of African philanthropic networks.