I am in my adopted country of South Africa escaping the northern winter. If ever there was a country that should understand change management it is this beautiful nation. The transition from white rule to democracy in the early 1990s has been much written about like its starring character, Nelson Mandela. The white leaders of apartheid South Africa came to understand that the case for change was irresistible and they succeeded in selling it to enough of their white constituency before time ran out. The transition was managed over several years and the feared for civil war did not manifest itself. Mandela and his colleagues in the African National Congress had a vision of a South Africa for all South Africans irrespective of race.
How is South Africa doing in its quest for a race blind society? The current consensus is that it is not going too well and there is plenty of material to feed the pessimism which is a characteristic of most South Africans. The ANC government led by Jacob Zuma is widely despised as corrupt and self serving. The hoped for improvements in living standards of the black population have been slow to come. Informal traders still eek out a living selling “flippen lekker Mangos” at the roadside. Domestic servants and gardeners earn meagre wages and live in separate communities just like the bad old days. Most of the wealth of the country remains in the hands of the white minority. Crime touches almost everyone. The first thing anyone tells you about a new acquaintance is their ethnicity. This is still an unequal society deeply concerned with race and racism is close to the surface in most aspects of life.
What has gone wrong? Maybe nothing. Maybe this is just the inevitable process of transition which may take generations and may encounter frequent bumps in the road. Or maybe the change management plan just did not comprehend the long slog that is fundamental societal transformation. The obvious things have been implemented. Universal franchise, access to education, better housing for some. Surely the rest will follow.
I think South Africa is a classic case of a change initiative which has stalled and run out of steam at least temporarily. The improvements are overshadowed by the failures and the unforeseen consequences of freedom without equality. Millennials are not that interested in the history of Apartheid which is already consigned to dry text books. Some older people have a tendency to be nostalgic even about the murderous police state of the cold war era. Madiba’s vision needs to be refreshed and energy injected into the next phase of the Rainbow Nation Project.
Where will the leadership for the next phase of South Africa’s transition come from? Politicians manage change on a 10 year horizon at best. They look for quick wins that translate into votes. A Change Manager is required here even more urgently than in Trump’s America and Brexit Britain. The Change Manager should ideally have an in-depth understanding of the country, her history and her complex cultural masala. The planning timeline needs to comprehend 20 years and consider scenarios that include things getting worse before they get better. Addressing the perceptions of the increasingly cynical minority groups who experience apartheid in reverse will be as important as setting realistic expectations within the majority of still deprived black africans.
Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika. Change is good.