Lessons From South Africa on Systemic Coaching

I’m writing this post from South Africa – a country I first visited shortly after the Soweto Student Uprising; a key moment in the fight against Apartheid.  As a young 17-year old leaving Australia for the first time, I found myself in a society so different from my own that my senses were alert to the nuance of each interaction.

There was a vibrant edge, being in a country on the brink of change.  I missed that sense of aliveness and vitality terribly, when a year later I returned home to my familiar and seemingly homogenenous community.

Waking Up To Our Environment

Being back in South Africa now reminds me of the importance of context.  While I know it’s probably overdoing it, I want to suggest that in coaching, context is everything.

If we – and our clients – don’t understand the power of cultural context, we’re in big trouble.  At some point we are likely to wake up with a start, because what we took for granted has landed us in trouble.

Recognising Our Privileges

However, most of us grow accustomed to our familiar environments and take our circumstances, including our privileges for granted. We navigate our organisations and societies without ever thinking much about them. Or at least I do. The townships outside Cape Town have confronted me again – with the extremes of poverty and the courage, desperation and dignity of those who live there.

Few of us consciously notice the external influences that shape our beliefs about who we are and what we are capable of.  We tend to internalise the cues given by the dominant forces in our society. We internalize their messages.  I had grown up in a white community, enjoying white privilege – which I still take for granted. In my own country I have learnt to filter out the stories of our own racism and genocide.

In a society with a history of war or racial divide, the consequences of systemic racism and the messaging people are subjected to from birth, is highlighted.  It is more recogniseable.

Many of those messages are crippling – for individuals and for the society.

In South Africa there is a recognition that it may take several generations of conscious effort to undo the damage caused by negative stereotypes about the fundamental human value, talent and potential of people of color. These things erode a person’s sense of personhood and potential.

My colleague Zed Xaba is one of those people committed to ensuring that ‘the work’ is done.  The focus of her race work lies in exploring the dynamics of internal oppression among black South Africans.  Zed’s colleague, Caroline Hopkins, works with white South Africans to understand and re-evaluate the expectations, attitudes and assumptions they internalised while growing up.  These women are doing foundational work that will result in healing for individuals and the society.

By unconsciously taking on social norms and expectations about how we should behave and what is possible, we split off from our own potential. As a white woman n South Africa in the late 70’s, the impact of apartheid on Black, Colored and Indian communities was evident. What I hadn’t expected was the impact within white communities – the sexism, the bulimia, the post-traumatic stress of young soldiers and the numbing impacts of living in a society which was deeply unwell.

However it’s work that we all need to do. While South Africa for many years was the poster child for racism and white supremacy, these forces are endemic globally.

We don’t often speak about coaching and healing in the one sentence, but to my way of thinking Zed and Caroline’s work is a fine example of the healing and transformative power of coaching. Despite the great commitment to building unity within South Africa, trying to plaster over the difference would be naïve.  Pushing inequity and social tensions underground is dangerous, and usually leads to conflict. Most South Africans I speak with feel the tension and the risk their society faces at the present time.   In some regions, the work of transformation and healing has gone deep.  However, there are many pockets within the country where the intergenerational privileges of the Apartheid era are still entrenched.

Researcher and coach Val Tapela works with community development practitioners in the Western Cape region. Typically organisational coaching practice might focus on leadership, capacity building or career planning.  However Val coaches her clients to understand the cultural difference between Johannesburg and the Cape.   She works with her clients to build resilience and help them to last in their profession.  She has found it most important to help newly-arrived practitioners understand and find ways to deal with the subtle and not so subtle race dynamics in their new environment.

Of course, South Africa is not the only environment in which context matters. All of our coaching clients operate in distinct contexts, which exert a profound influence on them and which we, like Zed, Clair and Val have an opportunity to influence.

Join our global community of coaches who share a commitment to social change and are ‘doing the work’ to understand power and diversity in coaching.

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