South Africa is currently in a race for hope. After the glory and expectations of 1994 and how we all collectively reached for the elusive dream of a Rainbow Nation, it’s painful to watch the overwhelming negativity and sense of hopelessness that has infused the hearts and minds of many South Africans.

The press and social media are dominated by endless negative reports of corruption, incompetence and mismanagement, and confidence in the economy seems to be at an all-time low. Businessmen and women are losing hope of a sustainable economy; the employed are losing hope of keeping their jobs; and the unemployed are losing hope of surviving this crisis.

To further exacerbate matters, the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting increase in the already unacceptable levels of unemployment, has added fuel to the fire and highlighted the massive inequalities in South Africa. Racial polarisation and antagonism, the scourge of our country, has permeated every aspect of our society, our culture, and our economy. There is virtually nothing in South Africa that is not touched, in some way, by race.

We didn’t get here by accident, and it will require hard work to overcome the challenges we face

If part of you is pushing back on me right now, it’s worth reminding ourselves that prejudice, discrimination and racism are not only prevalent in our society, they are deeply engrained. This is what apartheid so successfully set out to do. We all have unconscious biases that are shaped by many years of systemic racism and social engineering and which now determine our thinking and our behaviour.

The large majority of our people now suffer from a disease of the mind called ‘paradigm paralysis,’ which means that they are absolutely stuck in their beliefs. The net result is that very few people of all race groups are willing or able to change their beliefs or to open their minds to a different point of view. The failure of white people to understand the extent of the racial problem in South Africa and the degree to which it pervades every aspect of our lives is the underlying root cause of our problems as a nation.

I don’t share these thoughts to add to the hopelessness that we are all feeling. Instead, I believe we can revive a level of hopefulness. It’s going to be uncomfortable. We’re all going to have to become vulnerable and take a long hard look at ourselves and each other. But as we all know, the things most valuable in life take hard work and even pain to achieve.

To continue along this path of hopelessness, doom and despair is surely an incredible waste of energy? Ongoing racial tensions and paradigm paralysis will do nothing but perpetuate the massive inequality gap and lead to a future that is too ghastly to contemplate. Our negative and depressing mindsets are suppressing any attempt to build a prosperous South Africa with a rosy future.

Freeing our hearts and minds

We must reverse this state of hopelessness by freeing the hearts and minds of our people. The narrative must change from endless moaning and whining, tireless blame-mongering, and a doomsday attitude to one of deep compromise, positive acceptance, hopefulness and a win-win state of mind. We all have an obligation to help rebuild a broken nation and it starts with every person going on a journey of self-awareness and discovery.

The journey starts by exposing the realities of systemic racism and helping people to understand and overcome both their conscious and unconscious biases. White people must learn to accept and acknowledge their privilege and come to terms with the need to redress the inequalities of the past. They must learn to share the wealth and make compromises in the name of a prosperous and peaceful country.

Businesses can lead this change

Most of what I’m saying isn’t new. We know this. We just don’t want to face it, and most of us don’t know what to do about it.

Many businesses have already realised that we can’t wait for government to solve this for us. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, as well as new laws and codes, can only take us so far. As South Africans we now need to take control of our futures – it is time for business to have its own Truth and Reconciliation process.

This goes beyond diversity and inclusion training, which has become popular in recent years. The intention behind this type of training is good, and there is certainly a place for it, but right now we need to go much deeper. We need surgery, not stitches.

By freeing our hearts and minds of the poisonous paradigms that have been infused into our psyche, we can begin to build bridges across the racial divide and rekindle the flames of hope for the future of our country. We need hope like the land needs rain.

Whilst we wait for the government to create a supportive environment for the rebirth of hope, business leaders must start shifting their own paradigms. They must seize the opportunity to create as many jobs as possible and create cultures of inclusion and belonging. They must become champions of hope.

It’s time to get real

These uncomfortable conversations need to be happening in the boardroom amongst leadership teams and then throughout organisations. In this way, businesses can make a meaningful change to our country.

Remember, change will never take place from a position of comfort. It only ever happens when discomfort forces people to re-examine their own paradigms and belief systems.

We need to talk openly about white superiority, the impact of our history on the minds of South African people, the difference between prejudice, discrimination, and racism, white privilege, unconscious bias, BEE, whether black people can be racist and colour blindness.

We need to challenge our views and uncover our unconscious biases. And then, one person at a time, we will begin shifting mindsets. We need to make urgent shifts if we want to recapture the hope of what this nation can – and must – become.

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