Saturday, March 3, 2007

Revisiting Change in South Africa

I am continuing on my quest to comprehending contemporary South Africa. Still I am in the Cape Province, the second day of my fourth visit to the country. I spend lot of time to talk to my friends and colleagues over here in order to understand the changes the country went through and is still going through. I hear a lot of heartbreaking stories of how people fought for a better and just society back in the eighties.

In order not to forget the historical moment of change I revisited history. On 18th of March, 1992, the majority of the (white) population of South Africa voted Yes for the total abolishment of the Apartheid system (watch a BBC feature on this event in Real Player). We all know that the subsequent release of Nelson Mandela and his appointment as the first black president of the country allowed, in a very short period of time, the largely non-violent transition from one of the most oppressive regimes in the world to a model of modern inter-racial relationship.

Talking to my friends, who were all in open or covert opposition against the Apartheid regime back then, I realize that a typical post-transition phenomenon has caught the minds and hearts of people here: the frustration that not enough has happened since the revolution and more could have been done. You find this post-change trauma in all societies that have been deeply reformed over the last 20 years. Look at Ukraine, where the enthusiasm on the orange revolution dsisolved quicker than it actually took to overturn the old regime. We had the same in Germany in 1998, when a center-left baby boomer Government took over after 16 years of conservative stand still. Depression about the expected change not happening was just next door. This post-change trauma is paired with the illusion that Governments can bring economic prosperity to a country in a few years (the only example I know from recent history is the Republic of Ireland, but this is a different story).

You find the same in organizations where new processes are installed, or new CEOs are appointed. The expectations people have for change are rarely met. And, in a way, we as change facilitators often do not have the means for sustaining and accelerating the change once it has been initiated.

Yes, my dear South African friends: your world is far from being perfect, it could be better than it is. But you shouldn't forget what you have achieved. Think back of your leaden times, only 20 years ago, when the national surveillance system was creeping into every tiny bit of your privacy. A time when you risked to be taken to jail, or beaten up (or killed, particularly if you had the wrong skin colour). Your Truth and Reconciliation Commission (chaired by Archbishop Desmond Tutu) was an unprecedented mechanism to heal deep wounds.

The world is still looking at your laboratory of change with lots of sympathy and admiration. You want to leave the country, while many of my fellow German citizens want to live here. There have been few political changes in recent history that have been that radical. So, be proud, and think of that your country is a great place to be, and it will.

Political change will follow the change of minds and hearts.

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