Scale of Ambition and Appetite for Change

by Amanda Harding


Describing the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg as awesome, astonishing, mind-blowing has to be the "normal" response after a tour of this intense walk through these dark years of South Africa's history. Certainly not a surprising reaction to a museum purpose built to tell a story of such immense injustice, struggle and transformation. Stepping into the museum you immediately find yourself in a colour-sensitive role-play – gimmicky maybe but midway through this chronologically organised journey feeling battered, exhausted, searching for a happy ending but still riveted to the photos violence and humiliation, you're pulled in through both your emotions and your intellect. The museum makes brilliant use of a combination of still and moving images, interviews and narrative, music and visuals. It makes no apologies for taking a strong position on the side of justice and freedom, not giving in to the politically correct watered down language we're want to use in 2014. The language of the liberation struggle beautifully blasts its way through.

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A few weeks on from my visit and I’m still aware of the exhilaration I experienced. I could take a critical look at the “show”, take it down for its one-sidedness, confusing layout, inaccuracies … I could go on. But what still strikes me, and has grown ever stronger, is the scale of change this museum recounts. And behind that the scale of ambition for change that was passed down through generations, maintained, nourished and achieved. It looks back (a long way – to man’s first presence in the region), recognises the local, the different, the unique nature of each individual, each event, each locality and then pulls the pieces together to weave a story that looks forward and points to a potential for ongoing collective change.

How often do we ask “can you scale it up … scale it out … replicate?” We talk incessantly about knowledge sharing, knowledge generation, lesson learning. We describe, analyse and may even recommend. Why don’t you do this? You could do that? I think it would be best if … And then we stop and retreat inwards. We’re more comfortable to pass on our good ideas to others, to facilitate and enable a process, to point to the challenges and bottlenecks, recognize the power dynamics in play, indicate the issues of leadership, capacities, the enabling (or more likely disabling) environment. This question of scale of ambition is as true on a personal level as it is of the institutional and collective. Asking a group of collectively influential and powerful people where their appetite for change lies recently I saw how destabilized they were. Focusing on the short term, the quick wins and concrete actions seemed easier and certainly less threatening. Clearly, much will be achieved and the very fact that this group, more commonly on opposite sides of the table, continue to talk and reach for commonalities is positive. However, they, as we all do, self-limit. They are unsure how far they can go, if the big bosses will follow and even where their real value lies. This timidity may lead them to simply missing the boat and wasting the potential for change at scale that they represent. That potential is enormous.

Alan Fowler, a self confessed prac-ademic, points to collaborative competencies and questions how far these are even considered let alone recognized. As backbone organization there seems to be more chance of moving beyond facilitation, enabling and this fashionable concept of the honest broker. Taking a position and transparently leading and accompanying change - at any level - takes real guts and a certain amount of risk taking. As much of the business community has long understood, this may also entail moment of conflict and confrontation. Not the quick-fix consensus objective that often produces pragmatic, lowest-common-demoninator solutions.

Appetite for change is recognizable. Appetite for change at scale is rare, astonishing and little understood. Whether on an individual level or as a collective. Where South Africa inspires the list is long of countries, peoples and organizations, of processes, agenda and challenges that disappoint.