Authentic, meaningful and sustainable transformation is rooted within---in our hearts and our actions, not in policies. While there is collusion and pretending that all is well, the impact of transformation on the psyche has not been fully acknowledged. Beneath the surface of our South African transformation culture is a real experience of unspeakable psychological drama, a warfare, where truth and emotional wounds are silenced and accountability is lost.
Thandi has recently been employed as Chief Operating Officer, and is aware she is an affirmative action appointee. She feels transformation is a form of acknowledgement, making the memory of oppression and injustice real and known on a community level. She knows she is competent and can add value towards the performance of the business. She is against a tokenist approach to transformation, which she feels can be psychologically degrading when one knows they were given employment not because of credentials, but to fill some quota or to satisfy appearances. For her transformation offers the potential of hope, restoration and healing.
Despite her flourishing hope, Thandi experiences that negative emotions continue to rage within her. Oppression was a human act on a human soul and its impact in the form of fear, pain, shame and despair were inescapable and unsharable. The truth and memory of the past is without a narrative in business settings and on an individual level. Silence renders one to solitude, loneliness, and emotional suffering. These emotions cannot be silenced. They linger on as infinite grief, even if one chooses to forget. For Thandi, this past presents itself as an ongoing psychological burden---the sense of loneliness; fear of failure; pressure to succeed; self-doubt and inadequacy, “Am I good enough?” “Even though I know I am competent, I find myself overwhelmed with feelings of inadequacy and always second-guessing myself.” These stories of emotional suffering are without a narrative in the corporate environment where one is judged negatively for expressing their vulnerability. Frightened yet resilient, Thandi remains aware of these disturbing fear impulses, and she continues to sustain the hope that difficulties will be overcome.
John, did not get his much-desired job as Chief Financial Officer, due to affirmative action priorities. This external event is given meaning internally in his mind. He ascribes his experience as an attack on self and a torture, a catastrophe, an abandonment, cruelty, a betrayal of trust. For John, previously advantaged, transformation has a potential to precipitate internal disorganisation, considerable pain, despair and shame. It is also experienced as a traumatic loss in symbolic and literal terms. The loss cuts deep---it is both tangible and intangible, a loss of role and status, identity, choice, dignity and a deep sense of failure.
Like a hemorrhage, his mind goes through a sense of overwhelm, massive anxiety and anger rage within, all thought and understanding cease to exist. In this state, inner resilience and the capacity to mourn break down, leaving him weak and afraid. The goodness within turns to badness. Trust and hope that goodness will prevail are shattered. Unable to meaningfully process reality, John maintains the belief that transformation is unfair and is reverse discrimination and he resents that transformation implicates him to take responsibility for things he did not do. This denial and dissociation deadens awareness and transformative action on his part. The truth about the past undergoes extinction in his mind.
The true history of the past is a warfare of the mind and emotions: it is hard and soft, inner and outer, known and unknown, rational and emotional. The rational mind accepts affirmative action decisions, however, the emotional psyche is preoccupied with survival. Professor Justin J. Kennedy, a specialist in neurological research, explains this breakdown between thinking and feeling as a neurological problem as explained in the Nobel prize winning Prospect Theory proposed by Daniel Khanerman and Amon Tversky. Khanerman furthered this work and explained it extremely well in his book: Thinking Fast and Slow. A core theme is that the emotional process precedes the rational thought process (by 0.8 seconds). The Limbic System’s area known as the amygdala, causes the outflow of stress hormones like cortisol and neuro-epinephrine, which cause us not to have enough ‘’head space’’ in our pre-frontal cortex to have lucid cognition to find resolve. Basically, if you feel fear you cannot think or problem solve as rationally as you could if you were calm and focused.
Beneath the surface of transformation, there is a neuro-psychological darkness of a divided nation, alienated and unable to engage in continuous dialogue, unable to reflect. There is need for a safe and healthy platforms where dialogue can offer authentic human engagement, containment, hearing and being heard. Dialogue promotes turning away from self, toward the other. It promotes interdependence as opposed to loneliness and alienation. It turns fear to courage and hatred to acceptance.
The transformation agenda is enforced, as apartheid was. The question is whether it is possible for the transformation agenda to demonstrate a different moral agenda than a discriminatory agenda? Often transformation policies silence the expression of the truth, voices and emotions. If transformation is capable of breeding negative emotional reactions in humans, it is therefore capable of reproducing the cycle of destructiveness, that which it seeks to destroy. It is time to act towards the realisation of authentic transformation in our country.
Regardless of knowing or not knowing the truth about the past and necessity for transformation, we require empathy and simultaneous recognition of each other’s emotions. Empathy connects us to someone who can acknowledge that you are not alone in this experience. We need mutual influence and respectful recognition for the human existence of each other. We cannot afford to implement transformation in a remote and heartless fashion, without consciousness and authenticity within each and every one of us. Transformation needs to attend to the psychological battle people are experiencing.
Transformation is not cheap and needs to be taken seriously. It is not a pose but an act of mutual compassion for the other. Transformation must be internalised by all, not as entitlement, but as a gift of extraordinary humanity, as a mutual embrace to liberate all from the unspeakable emotional wounds of the past.
But why is our country transforming so slowly? There are a number of factors that endanger Transformation. Some pay lip service to democracy, by trying to defend a status quo predicated on inequality. They undermine or obstruct the transformation agenda.There are those who for instrumental, selfish or ideological reasons pursue transformative laws in a way that threatens the very wellbeing of the democratic agenda, including finding all kinds of reasons not to implement transformation polices.
Corruption is a terrible cancer of South African transformation. We all must take responsibility to end this disease. Transformation seeds offer hope. Hope is appreciation and expectation of possibility. The hope that it can offer is healing and freedom from shame and guilt. The attributes we possess inside us when we are hopeful are tolerance and ability to reflect. We can bear to think. It holds promise for all to reclaim their humanity and goodness, to atone and heal. Truth must be mutually acknowledged, told and made visible.
Authentic transformation starts with authentic presence and mindfulness, with moral courage, integrity and humanness. We need to reach out for each other and sincerely reflect on the past and anticipate the future together. We need platforms that will allow all to own their stories, narrate them and mourn the losses, without the fear of being judged. Transformation can transform our contaminated minds and hearts and transform the truth to wisdom and excellence.
Dialogue can promote ‘a mouth that can speak, eyes that can see and ears that can hear’. It will promote turning away from the emotional self toward healthy discussions with other professionals. We need to be real and support each other to turn fear into courage, so that we can experience an observable transformation of our minds and hearts. Coaching can also offer a safe space for one to process the destructive elements of transformation.
(Lindiwe Mkhondo is an Executive Coach and Psychologist at Change Partners - Lindiwemkhondo@change.co.za)