South Africa, June 2016: When student protests and related backlashes turned violent, a major South African university turned to ORSC-based systems coaches to facilitate dialogue amongst polarised academics, students, workers and political parties. After a full-day relationship systems coaching workshop, constructive workstreams were formed to address the key issues. After two months of independent work these diverse, inclusive teams were able to present viable action proposals at a second facilitated workshop.
“Can you help us? There have been so many interventions that have just exacerbated the situation” was the request from a university Vice-Chancellor to the #AccessThuto (access education) consortium earlier this year. The university protests linked to #FeesMustFall had taken on an increasingly polarised, politicised and violent character on this campus. They turned to national and global coach and facilitator Jabu Mashinini.
While the initial request was to chair a one-day Lekgotla involving 75 stakeholders from the Vice Chancellor to deans, heads of schools and departments, students, political party and social movement representatives – Jabu’s response was to draw in a trusted colleague, Julian Sonn of Visions Inc and coach the relationship system of the university rather than chairing another formal adversarial meeting. His focus was to hold this angry, hurting and divided group in such a way that they could both “express themselves clearly and directly, and really listen, and really hear each other” said Jabu. “This was an alignment coaching project – it’s different from getting agreement, it is about enabling very diverse and conflicting groups to build better relationships, and from there to find common interests and regain their ability to act positively.”
All voices heard
Jabu and Julian’s first step was simple and powerful: take all the people outdoors, away from the tables and classroom-like rows of chairs, and rearrange the chairs in circles. The first activity of the day was to facilitate this disparate group taking collective responsibility for the atmosphere, culture and conduct of the meeting – something that took hours, given the hard positions each group had brought with them to the meeting. Eventually they realised they had to listen to each other and create conducive conditions for people to be heard. Secondly, the facilitators designed a way for each interest group first to express its point of view succinctly and directly, and then send representatives to each other group with the express purpose of listening to understand their different points of view. The physical movement to get up and visit each other’s “lands” enabled much deeper internal shifts: “for the first time all constituents listened to each other instead of just fighting for their own positions.”
Stakeholders aligned for action
The energetic space had softened enough by the afternoon that the participants were able to agree on three workstreams addressing language policy, campus culture and curriculum transformation. “What was truly remarkable” said Jabu “was that two months later, these workstreams had advanced so far that they called me back to facilitate their bigger reportback, which in turn generated firm agreements on principles, intention and timing to be taken to the Senate for approval.”
In this way, two days of systems coaching enabled a deeply fractured group of South Africans to find common interest, get back in action, and take collective responsibility for solving the problems so powerfully highlighted by the student protests over the previous months.
More about the coaches and the project
For more information about this project and the coaches, please contact Jabu Mashinini at Leadership Pathways
More about #Access Thuto
The Nelson Mandela Foundation, the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation, BrandSA and former Constitutional Court Justice and Chairperson of the Social Cohesion Reference Group Yvonne Mokgoro have come together under the banner of #AccessThuto (meaning “access education”) to offer assistance to universities, students, parents and others who have a vested interest in contributing to restoring calm to our universities.
In 2016, #AccessThuto offered conflict resolution and mediation services. This was motivated by the evident mistrust between students and university administrations that had resulted in violent confrontation. It was #AccessThutho who responded to the Vice Chancellor’s request by introducing Jabu Mashinini, based on his global experience facilitating the Mandela Dialogues on Memory.