A New Basis From Which To Think And Act

In the midst of this I recently had the great privilege of meeting a woman named Edri Myburgh. I was taken aback and humbled by Edri, her husband Henk and their family’s experience. They are so full of life and so optimistic about South Africa when they have every reason to be angry, resentful, fearful and filled with hate.

Edri, her mother-in-law, Anna Myburgh and domestic worker Paulina Moiana, were violently attacked in 2009 in Bronkhorstspruit. Anna was tortured with a hot iron and shot in the head. Edri’s face was severely damaged when she was shot in the mouth. Paulina was critically injured after the car they had been forced into and driven around in, crashed. Fortunately she recovered. Anna never fully recovered from her injuries, and passed away about a year later.

Edri and her husband Henk’s three children were aged 6, 2 and nine months at the time.

One of the two attackers, Daniel Motshwarateu, had worked as a gardener for the family, and the assault had followed an argument between him and Edri’s father-in-law. The attackers were caught, tried and given long-term sentences in Zonderwater Prison in Cullinan.

Edri had to undergo multiple operations to her face, and she and Henk spoke about leaving South Africa, but they decided this is home; this is where we want to live.

Then last year, Edri was contacted by a social worker from the prison saying that Daniel had asked whether she would come and see him, as he wanted to say sorry for what he had done.

Remarkably, Edri agreed to see him in the company of Henk and their pastor.

Henk explained that he was extremely uncomfortable about going to the prison but Edri had said this was something that she needed to do.

The two met and Henk said it was an incredible exchange, during which they spoke deeply, embraced and Edri told him that he had her forgiveness. When they walked away from the prison the pastor had turned to Edri and said: ‘I am sure that I have never saved a soul, but today I know that you have!’ Daniel has since become a counselor to his fellow inmates and assumed a leadership role.

I am certainly not condoning violence in any way, quite the opposite, but this story highlighted Edri’s open will and deep ability for personal leadership, which led her to step forward and forgive her attacker. The story also highlighted Daniel’s personal sense of leadership in requesting the meeting and the incredible leadership role of the social workers.

I don’t think we sufficiently acknowledge our country’s social workers, who practise in extremely difficult environments and play a pivotal healing role. Without them the fabric of our society would be torn apart even more than it already is.

What happened to Edri can never be undone. Taking this further, what has happened in South Africa can never be undone. But somehow we have to stop shouting at each other, stop racially insulting and inciting each other and stop hurting each other. Somehow, each one of us needs to start engaging in ‘generative dialogue’.

I was introduced to the concept by a good friend of mine, Martin Scholtz, who is the former CEO of The President’s Award for Youth Empowerment Programme, and is amongst other things, assisting for a couple of mornings a week at the Assumption Development Centre (ADC) in Joza Township in Makana (formerly Grahamstown). The ADC, which is linked to Rhodes University’s Community Engagement initiatives, offers skills training, support and mentorship for local entrepreneurs and small businesses.

Generative dialogue is explored in the work of William Isaacs who authored a book titled: ‘Dialogue and the art of thinking together: a pioneering approach to communicating in business and in life’.

He explains it as “a way of taking the energy of our differences and channeling it toward something that has never been created before. It lifts us out of polarisation and into a greater common sense, and is thereby a means for accessing the intelligence and coordinated power of groups of people. Its intention is to reach a new understanding and, in doing so, to form a totally new basis from which to think and act.”

What we are seeing in South Africa today is too little generative dialogue and too much so-called debating where everyone is taking a polarised position and trying to win the debate, without having the will or heart to change. The lack of generative dialogue has led to a meaning vacuum where physical and verbal violence has become the ‘natural way’ to respond.

Edri is an incredible example of someone who was prepared to respond with an open will and engage in generative dialogue despite the circumstance. South Africa has many examples of people from diverse backgrounds who have done the same in many different ways.

It requires a letting go of our entrenched beliefs and positions, and a willingness to transform and develop an appreciation of the complexity of other people’s lives and backgrounds. It requires us to face deeply challenging scenarios and people who, in many different ways, take us far from our comfort zones and all the experiences we have ever encountered.

We are living in difficult times but South Africa can and should be inspired by the Edri Myburghs and social workers in our world. They show us that it is possible to form a totally new basis from which to think and act.

This article appeared in Leadership, Edition 369, April, 2016. It is reproduced with their permission.