Fixing South Africa

by Sunny Stout-Rostron: Performance Consultant & Executive Coach.
Perhaps the first thing to recognise is that South Africa is neither quite so unique nor as exceptional as we tend to think. Most other countries have problems too, some of them worse. The other crucial thing, which we often forget are the many positive and wonderful things in this country. It is not for nothing that Alan Paton coined the term, "Beloved Country." Of course, his 1948 novel was entitled "Cry, the Beloved Country," but we have in many ways moved beyond that. A good start would be to say, also: "Celebrate, the Beloved Country."

At the same time we must remain clear-sighted and realistic. One of the most noticeable trends in the last few years is the growing harshness and acrimony of public discourse. People on opposing sides barely listen to one another. Instead, they bellow, insult and demean. This is true not only in politics; disputes in business and sport are frequently accompanied by incredible rancour and unwarranted slurs. In the political realm, this is habitually reduced to stereotypes and accusatory rhetoric. Again, this is not unique to South Africa. As an American, I have been disturbed on recent visits to the USA to discover how verbally violent and intolerant political debate has become. Shouting has replaced argument; insults have replaced reason and mutual respect. Some on the extreme right resort to military and warlike terminology to demonise their opponents. You may remember one incident last year when a woman Senator was shot in Arizona and bystanders were killed. Words can have serious consequences, and so in South Africa we should be extremely worried about the escalating violence of language.

One reason for this angry rhetoric is because we do not listen closely enough to one another. In South Africa, with its painful history, there is a tendency to jump to untrue limiting assumptions. It often seems that South Africans not only talk past each other – but repeatedly assume that people who look different to themselves mean one thing when they have said quite the opposite. Brought up in a past that is dominated by racial and cultural stereotypes, we expect individuals to have certain views based purely on their pigment. Therefore, we hear only what we selectively expect to hear, rather than hearing what the person actually said.

A great thinker of our day, Nancy Kline, in her book Time to Think (1999/2004), says that “one of the most valuable things we can offer each other is the framework in which to think for ourselves”. This means knowing how to treat people, how to offer them the highest quality attention, how to ask questions to encourage others to express their thoughts and their opinions, and to recognise the strengths and achievements of others. We cannot think without emotion; it’s simply how our brains are hardwired. And when we consider our reactions and interpretation of everyday encounters, there is nothing that doesn’t have emotional impact. In other words, we need to constantly challenge our own assumptions, especially when listening to others who think and feel very differently from ourselves.

In my work with Nancy Kline’s Thinking Environment®, we work with attention, which means listening with “palpable respect and without interruption”. According to Kline, (1999/2004) this is a way of being with one another; it is an attitude driven by the assumption that the other person is inherently intelligent, can think well for themselves, and is better able to come up with ideas than we are at thinking for them. This kind of attention is undeniably “catalytic” for the “other”. The final characteristic of attention is how we show attention by being physically, mentally and emotionally present for the other.

Given South Africa's history, one way to begin to change the entrenched pattern of disrespectfully not listening to one another, is to encourage more humility, especially from those who have benefited from our unjust past. None of us has the solution to fix all of life’s problems. For white South Africans, a good place to start would be to learn that they are not always right. Too often I hear white people, privately and in business, adopt a superior tone. This implies that because of their education and status they must be right and everyone should listen to them. This is extremely patronising, and such individuals need to develop sufficient empathy to realise not only how this sounds to others, but enough humility to know that they do not have all the answers.

Nearly everyone agrees that education is a major problem. But the solution is not always connected with resources. For example, some years ago my husband and I created a trust to rebuild an overcrowded township school. Nelson Mandela came to launch this appeal and the project took off. But after a few years of major improvements, the dedicated principal died and a small group from the governing body tried to hi-jack the project for their own ends. There were financial irregularities and the appeal had to be closed down. The lesson, though bitter, seemed clear. The Department of Education can lack vision and even the courage to tackle corruption, but ultimately the solution lies in the hands of the community concerned. In that particular case, most parents resented the new so-called leaders but were frightened to take them on. The hard task, surely, is to empower people who have been so grievously disempowered. Nothing will change until enough individuals confidently stand up for themselves and claim their own rights. In the end, such self-belief can only come from within.

Self-confidence and self-respect: this is what an unjust past helped destroy. Now I believe that it is what South Africa needs to foster, both among the privileged as well as the impoverished. From that, much else will flow; from tackling violence to a dysfunctional educational system. Only with mutual respect will we be able to begin a fruitful national dialogue.

So perhaps the question itself leads us in the wrong direction. After three centuries of exploitation, and nearly half a century of systematic racial tyranny, there is not going to be an easy solution. One of our problems at present is that too many people are yelling from the roof tops, convinced they have the secret of a quick fix. There are many practical social and economic policies which could doubtless help speed the process. But, speaking as an executive coach, it seems to me that one of the most profound hurts is an enduring anger, and a lack of respect – which in many cases means a lack of self-respect. There is no quick fix; it's a work in progress. One way to start would be, in our own lives, to begin practising skills like civility, temperate language, humility, listening and catalytic attention.

Useful resources:
Manthano Institute of Learning
The business focus of Manthano Institute of Learning (Pty) Ltd is to help leaders and executives develop themselves and their organisations through experiential learning. To achieve this, we offer unique experiential individual and team coaching interventions. Our services also include facilitation, training and consulting.
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