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Radical Transformation – We Have No Other Choice

Radical transformation is the new buzzword. It means everything and nothing. It is about a state of radical uncertainty. It requires us to strip layer after layer of ego, thinking, habits and attachments to the comfort zone of the past. But it is a gift – finding the courage and conviction to face our shadow as a country and as individual citizens.

Living in a knowledge society is knowing that knowledge is not stagnant. It is constantly evolving, changing, improving towards wisdom. It today shapes society far beyond the reach of financial capital and technology. How do we co-create and then co-activate such a new paradigm?

Millennials today have different ideas. They think inter-generationally. They are concerned about the environment, women’s rights, ending child labour, hunger and an improvement in living conditions and wages for all. They want to see qualitative as opposed to just quantitative growth.

Non-financial indicators are as important to them as profitability and market share. They see the need for intelligent co-operation to replace competitive individualism. Holding on to human talent needs more than throwing money at them. They want to explore the deeper meaning of life and what their purpose is in broader society.

The wounds of our past are deep. We have to find the courage to build a shared understanding and identity, which is the basis of building a nation. And there are no shortcuts. It needs a painstaking and authentic conversation, not an off-the-shelf, one-size-fits-all discussion in every space.

Our world is going through dramatic changes today. Old systems are dying. Old institutions are losing their legitimacy. Just as we transitioned through great upheaval from an agrarian to an industrial economy and from an industrial to technological age. We are facing a radical new transition to a knowledge-based life-sustaining economy. It will shape our values, our education systems, arts and every aspect of our lives. But many of us are stuck in old paradigms. And these do not provide many answers to the future.

Peter Drucker, one of the most widely known and influential thinkers on management, had this to say: “If you want something new, you have to stop doing something old. Management is doing things right. Leadership is doing the right thing.” He continues: “The most important thing in business is hearing what is not been said. One’s rank should not confer power. It should impose responsibility.” To listen with the heart.

Drucker talked about the four pillars of good leadership, entrepreneurialism and economy:“Competence, character, compassion and community.” Without this DNA we become a deep abyss of desires and wither away our humanity.

So what is the vision that should lead this transformation within the workplace, corporate, government, civil society and even the personal and in the family? Everything is open. As a new level of consciousness rises it is going to tackle patriarchy and hierarchically driven entities. As the feminine energy grows in society we will get to a more nurturing and responsive culture that will be based on human values and a commitment to social change. To make a positive difference.

Therefore boasting a portrait of Nelson Mandela in your board room or having a transformation charter does not stop the rage of exclusion that festers in the lack of transformation. Each generation born into the oblivion of joblessness, poverty and growing inequality is growing more impatient and angry.

We failed to do the hard work of transformation because we swept it under the carpet in a fervour of RainbowismClearly, what was missed of the Mandela spirit is his deep sense of solidarity, of listening with his heart, to the other side. He consistently chose love and compassion over hate, peace and harmony over conflict and war. And it was a principled, not a sell-out position.

The recent beach sagas in Cape Town demonstrate how far we are apart on so many things. Often these public spats rage back and forth across issues of history, culture, privilege and exclusion. A plethora of opinions clog the media, much of it tone deaf and mostly adding fuel to the fire.
Clearly, a transformation is urgently required, and soon. But saying so, and achieving it, are two very different things. South Africans face the fact that business, as usual, is not an option. A lot has to change, and fast.

The damage done to all our people by apartheid will take far more than economic growth to repair. Radical social transformation is needed too. Pretty much every aspect of human activity in our society faces a transformation imperative. And herein lies the challenge. We are a highly diverse nation across race, gender, age, sexual orientation, education, religion, health, wealth and almost any other category.

Oscar van Heerden, head of internationalisation at the University of Johannesburg, recently wrote in Daily Maverick: “Whites share a particular narrative that they are now at the receiving end of racism in South Africa; and, hence, whites are becoming more emboldened and arrogant. The question must be asked as to why now?”

He goes on to question the lack of imagination and action in averting what by now is a looming crisis, confronting us with clear and present danger.

In the same week, Max du Preez, journalist and commentator, said: “…wouldn’t it be dishonest and racist in its own way to treat black people differently from white people? Well, that’s our reality in South Africa right now. After a quarter of a century, since political power had been transferred from the white minority to the black majority, many or most of us are still trying to figure out how to deal with race”.

Perspective is an important step in becoming more conscious. Can the perspective – “my” position – somehow be loosened or even dissolved? Binary thinking – “I’m right, you’re wrong… shut up” – explodes into conflict because channels of communication are closed. We are left with a feeling of the lack of power, emptiness, anger and helplessness.

We focus on the quantitative in the sense of policies dealing with BBBEEE, Employment Equity, affirmative action, gender parity, social grants and so on. In short, quotas. Whereas qualitative transformation is the “messy” stuff… human dynamics as emotion, identity, culture, diversity, modern-day exclusion, fairness versus equality.

So, what about: If time and money were no object, what would you do? Can we talk about this question and move towards an inclusive future? How do we deal with perspectives of meritocracy — “I made it on my own” which encompasses blind spots around the social background, race, rank and power?

Facilitating such a shift within the root perspectives of people represents a quantum leap and requires a dialogue around deep democracy. Deep democracy is a framework for building the relationships among individuals within society at large, for qualitative transformational change which supports collective governance. It is a belief that all viewpoints have value. It includes rational views, but also emotion and intuition.

It welcomes inner voices. Makes use of diversity and existing social tensions. It accesses subjectivity and vision, as well as tangible results. It promotes a feeling of shared compassion and develops awareness of social issues such as racism. It facilitates the support of all sides in a conflict and deals with the real politics of inequality in the world. Ultimately, it teaches us that every conversation is the beginning of the next conversation. We can dissolve the boundaries between perceived threats and actual threats.

The twin factors of resistance and resentment have, hitherto, bedevilled our attempts at reconciliation. South Africans still come from divided spaces that are unequally resourced and culturally different. While people may end up sharing learning and common spaces later in their lives, very little prepares them for navigating and being effective in these environments. This speaks to what is at the heart of our national challenge:

  • Belonging — connection with others or sense of self.
  • Security — the ability to maintain control in one’s life.
  • Diversity — wanting and having more variety.
  • Recognition — opportunity to achieve and to grow.
  • Achievement — the need to make progress in life.
  • Challenge — the opportunity to stretch one’s abilities.
  • Excellence — self-satisfaction and pride in one’s actions.
  • Responsibility — the need to contribute to society.

At a time when the political space is severely contested, the private sector presents us an opportunity. But, why would business get involved? Well, for the first time in living memory, young people believe that their standard of living will be no better, or even worse, than that of their parents. How would business leaders have a meaningful dialogue with the rising pressures from below in their organisations?

“No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it,” Einstein wisely said.

The bottom line is that business can do well by doing good. The transformation may feel like all is falling apart. But in reality, it is coming together for the greater good. We have to evolve out of our comfort zone so that we can realise the true potential of what we birthed in 1994. 

Jay Naidoo is founding General Secretary of Cosatu, former Minister in Mandela Government and former Chair of GAIN, a Global Foundation Fighting malnutrition in the World.

OPINION: Jay Naidoo