/ 12 December 2023

If we really want change, we must be prepared to feel uncomfortable

A Young Man Making A Mistake By Self Sabotaging Himself.

In writing a recent book chapter on how to bring about greater equity in South Africa through greater self-awareness, I decided to start my reflection with a moment in time when humans are not really known for being too aware of who they are or what they believe: childhood.

I was about six or seven when I first met Nandi (not her real name). It was circa 1988 and although apartheid was approaching its official expiration date, it was still very much an everyday reality. Nandi was the first African girl who had joined my pre-school of overwhelmingly Indian make-up (‘Indian’ being misleading shorthand for a broad assembly of creeds and languages).

She was teary-eyed on this first day as an outsider in a strange world. I approached her with the innocence of a six-year-old, and we would become firm friends.

But more than just becoming my friend, Nandi would change how I looked at the world. Years later in high school, I would watch the proceedings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) with both anger and despair as I began to understand what divisions had been wrought among people. I also began to interpret the words and actions of my schoolmates and community through a new lens — the language we used to describe our African compatriots, for instance.

Nandi would make me appreciate how privileged I’d been. My two-parent family with an adult breadwinner; food, shelter, water and education within reach — these were far removed from the realities of many other children in South Africa.

The more things change, the wider the gap grows

The divide between South Africans seems to widen by the day. Less than half (46%) claim to have personally experienced reconciliation since the end of apartheid, reports the 2021 SA Reconciliation Barometer, a public-opinion survey conducted regularly by the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation for what the organisation says is the longest-running reconciliation barometer anywhere in the world.

There is among respondents a strong yearning for a unified national identity. However, only a small majority (52%) believe that South Africans have made progress in reconciling. Overall, 72% believe that South Africans still need reconciliation.

What’s worrying is that nearly 30 years after the first democratic election and the birth of the rainbow nation, South Africans still do not trust each other. Only about a third of respondents say they have trust in people from other languages (33%) and other race groups (31%).

The most common sources of division, says the report, are those between rich and poor, and the division between South Africans of different race groups. The results of the report suggest that there is popular support for a united national identity, but that there are material and historical divisions to overcome before this vision can be realised.

How can knowing yourself aid reconciliation – and equity?

The TRC was, despite the criticism levelled at it, an attempt to get the country to do the inner work that was necessary to deal with the trauma, pain and suffering inflicted over apartheid. Many resisted that call to reflection then, and I would argue that many resist it still. If we had equality after 1994, we sadly still fall short of equity. Which, for our purposes here, means the necessary levelling of the opportunities that allow us to compete fairly and on equal standing — best represented I think by the famous diagram of the adult man and two young (shorter) children trying to watch a baseball match over a fence. Equality means everyone gets a box to stand on, but that leaves some unable to see over the fence. Equity means that some get boxes, while others who no longer need it don’t get any, but in this way, all can look over the fence.

It’s a conversation South Africans remain uncomfortable with. We have a knee-jerk reaction to the idea of giving others what we have, even if we don’t need it. We need to question why we respond like this.

I recall the fears and doubts I had to overcome, with the help of amazing businesspeople, when I first entered the corporate world. I had to dig deep as well when I started my MBA at Henley Business School, a programme that uniquely demands greater self-awareness alongside elevation of thinking and capacity to lead organisations. This is something I see every day as I coach MBA students at Henley Business School Africa, too. You have to understand how you respond to triggers and situations, and why you respond the way you do. I was aided in improving my self-awareness through the programme and readings I did on what happens at the neurological level — right there in the brain — when we feel uncomfortable, when our most sacred and ingrained beliefs and truths are being challenged.

But it is in this process of inner work that we develop the ability to embrace equity meaningfully. It is only through this greater knowledge of self that we can begin to relate to others. Through this process we can dismantle the “built-in” biases we walk around with and become aware of our blind spots. It is then that we begin to understand how our choices are shaped by the mental models and narratives that built the lens through which we see the world and others.

Meeting and befriending Nandi was only the beginning of a process that would take me decades to make sense of. By speaking to her — and later watching the painful proceedings of the TRC — I became aware of a world beyond my own home and community. In time, I became more aware of our faults, the language we used for and towards other racial groups, and our part in continuing the inequities inflicted on so many.

This is not always a pain-free exercise. I had to question myself daily and was on the opposing side in many instances with family and my community. But in the light of the troubles our country still faces, the deep inequities and the deeper divides, it may be the only way to set our nation right.

Arthi Rabikrisson is an award-winning leadership coach and strategy adviser, and author of the book Redefining the Rules: Incredible Women On How to Embrace Equity, recently published by KeyNote Women Speakers. She is founder and managing director of Prerna Advisory, a coaching, consulting and capital introduction firm. Arthi has an MBA and Post-graduate Certificate in Coaching and Behavioural Change from Henley Business School Africa, and tutors current MBA candidates at the business school.