Springbok Victory: More than a moment?

“...maddest of all; to see life as it is and not as it ought to be” - Cervantes

The Springboks are home, the victory parades are over and the Webb Ellis trophy is safely under lock and key. By now, the players are getting some well-earned rest with their families. They’ll need it: one can only imagine the force with which the opposition will come at us now...

It’s back to reality for the rest of us too. Soon though, if we’re not very careful, the “Miracle of November 2nd” could become a point of nostalgia rather than a national call to action. Assuming the Springboks really are the catalytic heroes everybody says they are, how are we to steward their amazing achievements? We find ourselves on the horns of a dilemma: on the one hand, we have spectacular evidence that South Africans, regardless of race, can in fact cooperate. On the other, there’s a national paralysis in the face of what sociologists call our “wicked problems”, the type of obstacles for which our knowledge is either incomplete or contradictory and where dialogue is fraught with multiple (and often antagonistic) opinions.

American social psychologist Jonathan Haidt sheds light on this quandary. The brain, writes Haidt, is like an elephant and its rider. The rider’s strength is his ability to direct and orientate his mount. The elephant, pure heart and heft, provides momentum. But each has an Achilles Heel. A surplus of information lures the rider into over-analysing the problem. While what he discovers may be true, it lacks the teeth to inspire and direct the elephant. Thus, starved of the requisite guidance, the elephant blunders at will or remains inert.

The recent flush of victory has goaded our elephants into a frenzy of patriotic zeal. Our riders, meanwhile, are all too often knee-deep in the “true but useless”. For example, I recently reviewed a non-profit’s strategic document for rural development in KZN. As a diagnosis of the current reality, it was magisterial. As a playbook, it was, quite literally, hopeless. It’s reports like this that mislead our riders into thinking that unless we have a solution to match the scale of our diagnosis, we must go deeper into the data until we do. But it’s a catch 22…the more we see the world through the cataract of data and information, the more suppressed our faculties to inspire and direct action. So how do we break this deadlock?

By making a conscious and informed decision to start somewhere.

Research by organisational theorist Karl Weick writing on the power of “small starts” draws a startling conclusion: “there is often a clear asymmetry between the scale of the problem and the scale of the solution”. For Weick, a small start is any concrete outcome which on its own may seem only modestly related to the desired destination but which is nonetheless sufficient to crank the flywheel of success. Once turning, this flywheel “attracts allies, deters opponents and lowers resistance to subsequent proposals”.

As a case in point, look no further than the town of Howard in Miner County, South Dakota. For decades, Howard experienced gradual declines in employment, property prices and population. Few young people at the local high school had plans to stay there once they had graduated. But then, a motivated team of learners went looking for answers. Given the complexity (or “wickedness”) of the problem, it was an ambitious assignment. But then, a survey uncovered a gem of insight: more than half of Howard’s economically active residents did their shopping beyond the county lines in the bigger, more glamorous town of Sioux Falls. It wasn’t for lack of stores in Howard, it was simply the allure of brighter lights in a bigger city. This, indeed, was something students could act on. With the battle cry of “keep Miner dollars in Miner county”, the students held stakeholder gatherings across the region, sharing the simple truth that just a 10% increase in local spending would boost the local economy by $7 million. Just one year later, the revenue authority revealed that spending had increased by nearly $16 million - more than twice the target. Change began to snowball. Higher tax collections meant more money was available to fund new and more ambitious projects. The growing momentum soon triggered some $6 million in private grants from entities who were impressed by what they saw. In time, Howard would become a seedbed of innovation in both agriculture and sustainable energy. Nothing succeeds like success.

A plaque outside my high school reminds learners that “the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step”. With that in mind, two final examples...

At an informal settlement north of Tongaat KZN, the simple and relatively inexpensive decision to pour a slab and erect a tin roof overhead catalysed an astonishing renewal. Children in the adjoining creche - normally confined to a dank and dimly lit container - now had a place to play. Soon, the shelter would birth a feeding scheme for HIV/AIDS sufferers and, on Sundays, the faithful assembled there to receive spiritual guidance. Six months later, fresh funding from as far afield as Norway had enabled walls, a fully serviced kitchen and a playground.

And, in Apartheid’s darkest hour, a Xhosa church deacon named Dan Qeqe began building, at first with his own hands, a rugby field in Zwide township. It was here where thousands of young black people would fall in love with rugby. One was Siya Kolisi, the current Springbok captain.

Someone had to make a start.

So how do we steward the “Miracle of November 2?” With thousands of opportunistic small starts. That, and courage. Because, as Mandela reminds us, “It always seems impossible until it’s done.”


Switch: How to change when change is tough. Dan and Chip Heath

Karl Weick: Redefining the scale of social problems

The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom. Jonathan Haidt

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