From Africa bleeds to Africa Leads

Nick and I recently attended the Globally Responsible Leadership Initiative (GRLI) General Assembly at Stellenbosch in South Africa. A founder member of the GRLI, Oasis is one of a pioneering group of 60 business schools/learning institutions and companies representing five continents, over 300,000 students and 1,000,000 employees who are engaged in developing the next generation of globally responsible leaders.

The GRLI was initiated and is supported by the United Nations Global Compact and the European Foundation for Management Development (EFMD). The GRLI’s mission is to act as a catalyst to develop the next generation of globally responsible leaders. In so doing, it challenges the issues of business for the 21st century, the mission of business schools/learning institutions and the process for cultural change in organisations.

The GRLI believes that business schools and learning organisations should focus on educating the whole person to develop change agents, leaders and corporate statesmen and women. Leadership, in this instance, is considered to be ‘the art of motivating, communicating, empowering and convincing people to accept a new vision of sustainable development.’ (A Call for Action: 2008)

Nick was there in is his capacity as Senior Advisor to the GRLI and as a key note speaker. I went as a representative of Oasis and we accompanied Mary Godfrey, Creative and Communications Director withBettys and Taylors Group, a client of Oasis, a business partner with the GRLI and the third in our quartet of presenters at a well attended and very well received business seminar on Globally Responsible Leadership in practice. The fourth person, Professor Peggy Cunningham, Dean of the Faculty of Management at Dalhousie University, Canada was a much appreciated and respected collaborator in an important phase of the Bettys and Taylors whole organisational intervention, of which Nick is Lead Consultant.

Within the glorious surroundings of the ecologically designed Spier Wine Farm, we were able to explore the thinking, beliefs and concerns affecting the concepts and practice of sustainable leadership on a global scale, to hear globally acknowledged speakers and academics outlining their current findings, hopes and beliefs and meet the next generation of leaders whilst, and not to disappoint those who know me, drinking  a very good Chenin Blanc!

Whilst I am keen that the learning and opportunities afforded by the General Assembly should not be lost and am very open to sharing more of the content,  I must admit that my thoughts and heart were also full with the enormous contrast between the Cape Town that I had previously visited in 1985 and the same city in 2012. 1985 saw apartheid at its height following the Soweto ‘uprising’ of 1976.  The South Africa I visited was home to pass laws, to curfews and to censorship of films, television and books, particularly those that showed black people in positions of authority over white people. (Pride and Prejudice was also banned and, given the mono-ethnicity of the content, I never could find out why).

Fascination  was related to what I can only describe as  my sense  of a  relatively short term, whole human and societal shift that has taken place on a huge scale and which would have seemed  to many in the 1980s  as  immovable and to some, almost a natural or God given order.

Please do not think for one moment that I’ve lost sight of the deprivation, poverty and need which is easily apparent from the comfort of an air conditioned car. The Learning Journey organised by Stellenbosch University and which I was fortunate to take part in was supposed to take place in Kayamandi, a Township just outside Stellenbosch, but our visit there was curtailed because of the threat of violence following the shooting of miners at Marikana earlier in the year.  The unrest from Marikana had transferred to agricultural workers and it was considered unsafe and possibly inflammatory for us to visit Kayamandi.

Instead people from Kayamandi came to Spier, (a move which I welcomed) and a group of us were able to hear the inspired stories of a teacher, a young entrepreneur and a lawyer, Jan Viviers, who, with his family, has lived in Kayamandi for over fifteen years, struggling daily with the conundrums, joys, challenges and ethical dilemmas raised by being white, being favoured and being significantly better off than all his neighbours but still finding it better to be on the inside looking out.

The grouping from Kayamandi talked in depth about the limitations and indeed sometimes the difficulties associated with NGO assistance and the need instead for local solutions to local issues. Strength came it would seem from building communities of hope, from finding like minded others and together taking small steps towards a desired change, concentrating not upon the obstacles but upon the possibilities. They also talked in depth about the need to honour the past but not to be held in hostage to it, something which seemed at a fundamental level to be hard for the white South Africans to hear and/or to accept. A number of the liberal, middle class academics talked of the shame they felt about what had happened and their apparent inability to take action when things were tough.

One of the changes that I was most struck by was the acceptance of a black African past and the issue of slavery being much more explicit and publicly acknowledged. In 1985, in Johannesburg the Museum of African History started with Die Groot Trek, when the Africaaner pioneers  first settled within South Africa. There was no mention of a black beginning, a black history; a  Stalinist approach in that all mention of an alternative had been eradicated.

In the centre of Cape Town there is now a building which as been restored as a Slave Lodge, a place where thousands of people began their journey into slavery. Spier Wine Farm, rather than hiding or dismantling the Slave Bell which ordered the beginnings and endings of the working day, have left it standing with a touching and, I believe, historically accurate account of life as an unfree worker. Nick told me about his own Learning Journey and the pride with which a young person talked about their relatives being Bush People, a fact that historically would have felt like an admission.

Of course there is so much more that needs to be done, so much that is still unsaid, unspoken and shameful. There are significant and well founded concerns about governance and a real fear about the corroding consequences of poor governance and corruption.  However, there is also a real experience of making explicit and living with the realities of the past and a shared experience of living through changes that released people from 20th century slavery. Being so close to political, ideological and philosophical change gave me real hope for the future, for the work we do in organisations and also a renewed sense of how important it is to support, promote and protect the pillars of accountable governance.