Between an ostrich and a flamingo

Fifteen years ago, the Mail & Guardian carried a 16-page supplement reporting an unprecedented meeting in South Africa—an experience that might provide some lessons for Zimbabwe.

The Mont Fleur Scenario Exercise, an experiment in “future-forging”, brought together 25 South Africans over four intense, informal weekends at the Mont Fleur Conference Centre near Cape Town. They talked through what was happening in South Africa, what might happen, and what, in the light of these possible futures, could be done.

These days, I read the news from Zimbabwe with alarm and confusion. I observe a downward spiral of fear, mistrust and violence. I notice a narrow focus on the current crisis and its personalities, and widely differing perspectives on what has gone wrong. I wonder if Zimbabweans can jointly agree on what should be done about it. Then I think back to that meeting in Cape Town.

The process at Mont Fleur, which I facilitated, brought together a broad mix of South Africa’s political, business and civil society leaders. They came from the left and right, the opposition and the government—among them Dorothy Boesak, Rob Davies, Derek Keys, Pieter le Roux, Johann Liebenberg, Saki Macozoma, Mosebyane Malatsi, Trevor Manuel, Vincent Maphai, Tito Mboweni, Jayendra Naidoo, Brian O’Connell, Viviene Taylor, Sue van der Merwe and Christo Wiese. Leaders who, in different ways, have shaped how the future of South Africa actually unfolded.

All were committed in their own ways to building a better future for their country. From starkly different perspectives, they built a shared map of South African reality. Their M&G report, published in July 1992, summarised these discussions in the form of four stories. Each scenario imagined how events might unfold over the coming decade from 1992 to 2002.

Ostrich told the story of a non-representative white government, sticking its head in the sand to try (ultimately in vain) to avoid a negotiated settlement with the black majority. Lame Duck anticipated a prolonged transition under a weak government which, because it purports to respond to all, satisfies none. In Icarus, a constitutionally unconstrained black government comes to power on a wave of popular support and noble intentions and embarks on a huge, and unsustainable public spending programme, which crashes the economy. In Flight of the Flamingoes, the transition is successful, with everyone in the society rising slowly and together.

These stories may not be relevant to either South Africa or Zimbabwe in 2007, but they reflected key choices facing South Africa in 1992, with particular emphasis on the nature of the political settlement and the economic policies that would follow. Of the four scenarios, the path of South Africa since 1992 has been closest—although certainly not identical—to Flight of the Flamingoes. By rehearsing a variety of possible futures, in the minds of the participants and of M&G readers, I believe the Mont Fleur process made some contribution to this much-better-than-it-might-otherwise-have-turned-out result.

The more significant lesson, however, is not in the scenario stories themselves. The process itself is typical of one of the most important innovations of South Africa’s transition: the multi-stakeholder dialogue forum. From 1990 onwards, South Africans created—in parallel with the formal negotiating structures—hundreds of such informal forums.

These dealt with a variety of challenges—local development, health, education, security and constitutional reform. Some adopted the scenarios method. More importantly, all created a safe and open space in which the primary political, business and civil society actors could come together to chart a way forward.

The key concept here is “we”, an assumption of shared interests and identity which, at first, was often denied. The forums encouraged South Africans’ sense of being engaged in a shared national project. The old was not yet dead and the new had not yet been born, and in this interregnum the forums provided a space for the people with a stake in the future to create it together.

The sense of “we”—of incremental trust—was a foundation for the larger political settlement in 1994 and the transformation which followed. “There was a high degree of flux at that time,” Trevor Manuel recalled later. “That was a real strength. There was no paradigm, there was no precedent and there was nothing. We had to carve it and so perhaps we were more willing to listen.”

Since Mont Fleur, I have had the experience of facilitating similar future-carving processes in other conflicts. In Colombia during the civil war, in Guatemala after the genocide, in Argentina during the collapse, in Northern Ireland, Cyprus, Israel-Palestine, India and the Philippines, and in my homeland of Canada, with its own hidden deep differences.

Sometimes these processes work and sometimes they don’t; as Immanuel Kant said: “Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made.” When they are, it is always because there are a few people who are willing to take a stand — not for a particular interest, but for a process which is open-minded and open-hearted—for carving a better future.

I do not understand what is going on in Zimbabwe well enough to know if these experiences are relevant there. Do Zimbabweans have a sense of a common future, of a “we”? Do the primary actors from politics, business and civil society know that they need each other? Or that they need even their opponents to create a better future? Are there leaders able to design a safe, open space in which these actors can talk and listen?

What I do understand—and with certainty—is what happens if the answers to these questions are “no”. Because the only alternative then is that some or all of these actors will attempt to impose a future through force.

Adam Kahane is the author of Solving Tough Problems. He lives with his family in Boston and Cape Town

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