South Africa Sensing Journey

Lunch with people from Bakgafela tribe

Lunch with people from Bakgafela tribe

Editor’s Note: In this post, Global Wellbeing Lab participants who took a sensing journey in South Africa reflect on what they saw and experienced.

Lab 2.0 co-facilitator Marian Goodman gives us an introduction to the South Africa sensing journey:

The group from South Africa identified a number of places and people of interest, in our quest to uncover evidence of “Ubuntu” (a Nguni word conveying a worldview that recognizes the essential interconnected humanity that underlies all we are and do). Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu has said “Ubuntu is very difficult to render into a Western language…It is to say. ‘My humanity is caught up, is inextricably bound up, in what is yours’…[1]

Our sensing journeys took place over a week, and had us visiting various projects and communities in one’s, two’s and finally as a whole group joined by Lab 1 participant Katherine Trebeck from Oxfam GB.

The visits ranged from a project delivering solar power to [shantytown] shack dwellers; an eco-village of mixed-income and mixed-race families; a project mapping local enterprise assets and introducing an alternative currency; a world-class children’s hospital which is only the 3rd in Africa, a ground-breaking cross-sector collaboration of non-profit, private, and government sectors; and a 32-village tribal community located in a platinum-rich mining area.

Lab 2.0 participant Lorenzo Fioramonti is Professor of Political Economy at the University of Pretoria in South Africa where he directs the Centre for the Study of Governance Innovation. He offered this reflection on the South Africa sensing journey:

Traveling across South Africa is always a unique experience. Meeting wonderful people and seeing the beauty of these ecosystems reminds me that a better society is not only possible, but it’s what we all aspire to (albeit we may not be aware of it). Interacting with the dynamic team of young ‘leaders’ at FLOW reinforced my conviction that changing the way in which the money system works may very well be one of the most promising strategies to bring about radical change through apparently technical micro-level shifts. Indeed, as money is a governance tool, that is, it informs how we organize our societies and behave as a collective entity, it is the ultimate instrument for social change. Local currencies, if enabled to connect with each other through a cooperative web of socially-controlled money systems, would do a great deal to address poverty, inequality as well as the destruction caused by a financial system the majority of human beings are not in control of.

After FLOW, our encounter with self-organized tribes in the north has reinforced my conviction that we may find allies for change in unconventional structures, including dynamic monarchies. The Bakgatla-Ba-Kgafela, a monarchic tribe inhabiting a beautiful rural territory north of Johannesburg, is committed to bringing ‘development’ to its people, but it’s increasingly doubtful about what this actually means in practice. Mixing traditional knowledge with some ad-hoc approaches to social change, the community is now struggling with a coherent vision for the future and appears to be interested in alternative views. De facto led by a bunch of energetic women, it may very well be a fertile terrain for radical experimentation.

Building site of Nelson Mandela Children's Hospital

Building site of Nelson Mandela Children’s Hospital

Lab 2.0 participant Mary-Jane Morifi is currently the Global Capital Campaign Lead for the Nelson Mandela Children’s Hospital Trust. Nelson Mandela Children’s Hospital is a ground-breaking multi-sector collaboration of non-profit, for-profit and government currently being built in Johannesburg. Mary-Jane has extensive experience in mining and extractive industries, having worked with BP for 15 years in South Africa and internationally and most recently with Anglo American Platinum for 6 years.

Her passion lies in finding innovative approaches to integrated sustainable community development solutions for poor communities. As a participant in the Lab, she is seeking answers to questions such as: What needs to be true for mining companies to be able to say they have left communities better off than they were prior to mining? What does it mean to position poor mining communities for “life beyond the life of the mine”? For Mary-Jane, the regional sensing journey in South Africa allowed her to reflect more on these questions.

Bakgatla is a small tribal community in the North West province in South Africa.  They are a 350,000 strong community located in 32 villages ruled by a Chief and sub chiefs who look after the villages.  They have the good fortune or curse, depending on how one looks at it, of living on Platinum-rich grounds. They are trying to work out how they can use the financial resources brought by Platinum for the benefit of the community.

They seem to have chosen visible development, investing in infrastructure and capital projects that they can point to show their people how money is being spent. Their rich cultural heritage and indigenous knowledge may indeed offer seedlings of development beyond the shopping malls, roads, stadiums, in a way that can instill pride and cultural identity.

One thing is for sure, the Matriarch, the 84 year old Rakgadi Meitjie certainly has enough energy, passion to drive development and she has chosen to do this through the involvement of the women, building on the saying that “if you develop a woman you develop a nation”.

The area is clearly worth follow up visit to see how the Bakgatla will drive their development beyond mining.

Lab 2.0 participant Louise van Rhyn is CEO and Founder of Symphonia (South Africa). Her approach to change is shaped by 20 years of working as an Organizational Change practitioner. She holds a Doctorate in Complex Social Change and has founded several entrepreneurial organizations. In 2010 she started the School at the Centre of Community social change process and the Partners for Possibility leadership development and school principal support process: an innovative process to change education in South Africa through collaborative partnerships between business leaders and school principals.

It has taken me a while to write this as I have found myself continually reflecting on my experience. It continues to ‘work me’.

The main take-away from our sensing journeys had to do with the experience of stepping out of my normal role as a leader of a social enterprise. In my leadership role I find myself constantly advocating, arguing for, looking for networking opportunities and finding opportunities for collaborating. ‘My work’ is to mobilise active citizenship around education in South Africa. For the last 5 years I have been completely immersed in this ‘work’, rarely taking a breath or stepping out of the relentless role as leader of a start-up social enterprise with audacious goals, driven by a strong sense of urgency about a country at a cross-roads with a future at stake.

For the time of our sensing journey, I forced myself (as much as possible) to step out of my normal role and to just be genuinely curious and interested in the people and projects we visited. This was very liberating and definitely something I plan to integrate in my practice.

I really wanted to practice open-heartedness so I went into the process without any agenda other than to be interested and curious. It felt like a real privilege to not have to drive an agenda or achieve an outcome. I could just be genuinely interested and curious and appreciative of the work being done by the people we met.

There was so much to pay attention to: the specific projects and what they are trying to do (solar power for shack dwellers; an eco-village and mixed-income housing development; launching an alternative local currency; an NPO building a world-class hospital in a developing country; and a community committed to creating a prosperous future for themselves), the context of each of these projects, the leadership stories of the people involved in the projects, and all the factors that contribute to the project.

I found myself most interested in and drawn to the individual leadership stories – what made people want to act & take a leadership role from whatever ‘seat’ they have:

  • iShack (a student on a masters programme)
  • Lynedoch Eco-village (the new partner of one of the long-time members of the community)
  • FLOW (two people committed to work together and do something meangingful with the skills and knowledge they have).

In addition to these social entrepreneurs, we also met a wide variety of amazing women in the Bakgatla community (one was born into the Royal family and another married the king, some of the women were ordinary community members who saw a need, one woman was in a leadership position because the chief asked her to take up a role that she cared greatly about). All of these leaders are leading as best they can and all of the stories are inspirational in their own right. These are stories that deserve to be told, heard & appreciated.

I was particularly touched by the story of the FLOW initiative and all the relationships and experiences that contributed to this initiative. We so often just look at a project as a unit of time but we rarely pay much attention to all the pre-seeds that have contributed to the initiative (the 10-30 years of life experiences and relationships that made it possible for people to act in this way and respond like this to a particular need / opportunity / sense of possibility).

It struck me that none of the people we met had easy access to a variety of resources and yet they were doing amazing and important work. We saw great examples of ‘frugal innovation’ (getting stuff done with few resources).

What has been working me since the sensing journeys? A feeling that there is a field of potential energy to contribute to South Africa’s development agenda. I keep wondering what we can do to somehow connect the different change agents into a national movement of development and positive change.

It feels as if we started something that will continue. I look forward to visit the town of Piketberg in May for the launch of the FLOW Coin. I hope that we will get a chance to return to the Bakgatla community. I’m also looking forward to becoming aware (sometime in the future) of other seeds that have been planted by these visits.

Orphans & vulnerable children at play at a care centre in a Bakgatla village

Orphans & vulnerable children at play at a care centre in a Bakgatla village

Katherine Trebeck, Global Research Policy Adviser at Oxfam GB and participant in Lab 1.0, joined the South Africa learning journey and wrote a blog that highlights many of the innovations the group saw, including:

  • FLOW Africa (Fostering Local Wellbeing) initiative – with a local currency launching on 30th May which is seeking to revive small town economies by encouraging local circulation of spending and countering the current economy’s preference of all things ‘big’ and ‘competitive’;
  • The increasing installation of solar panels in very low income communities, as a response to lack of electrification and frequent power outages, and
  • The Khangezile Primary School in Springs, an hour’s drive from Johannesburg, where there is a climate change resilience and adaptation programme (developed by the local community in partnership with Oxfam, Gender CC Southern Africa, and EarthLife Africa) that involves harnessing scarce rainwater and installing biomass systems to use the scraps from the school’s kitchen to irrigate and fertilise plants in the school’s little vegetable garden.

Read more from Katherine here.

[1] (No Future Without Forgiveness: A Personal Overview of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission , Desmond Tutu, © 2000)

Categories: Blog


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