New thinking from South Africa, the cradle of humanity


The thing that has really struck me this week as I’ve conducted a speaking tour of this fascinating country is how what one day seems as solid as a rock can suddenly turn to sand.

When I present on the Great Disruption around the world I describe the enormous change we will soon see in human society and behaviour. The question I am most often asked in response is along the lines of “I agree that we need to change and I accept that we will face a crisis if we don’t, but how can we possibly expect such a shift in human behaviour? Surely people won’t accept dramatic life style changes?”

Leave aside the fact that we will have no choice but to change and adapt, I will after my visit here be using this country as an example of what’s possible. My host here is Peter Willis from the Cambridge University’s Program for Sustainability Leadership. Peter told me that a common joke after the first free elections in 1994 was that you suddenly couldn’t find anyone who had supported apartheid. This was despite the fact that right up till the elections themselves a large number of white South Africans certainly had supported it. Indeed they were thoroughly convinced that if majority rule came in, the country would certainly descend into chaos, violence and economic ruin.

Now just 15 years later, with its third freely elected President, the country has a vibrant democracy, a free media and slowly but surely improving conditions for its people. It certainly has many deep and continuing social and economic challenges and plenty of racial tension, but the point is that the people are now largely working together on addressing them within a strong democratic framework.

So change that goes to the core of whatever our current beliefs are is definitely possible. Change that leaves us amazed at how what previously seemed solid and immovable can suddenly vaporise and be replaced by new thinking. I find it fascinating to see such thinking emerging here in the cradle of human civilisation from where we all emerged.

One of the best “new thinking” stories I’ve heard here was from Dr Andrew Venter of the Wildlands Conservation Trust. This innovative group has a program Indigenous Trees for Life that develops “tree-preneurs” amongst local people, including children. These people gather seeds or are given seedlings of indigenous trees and are then asked to nurture them until they get to a certain height. Wildlands then buys the small trees back for credits, which the tree-preneurs take to “tree stores” and exchange for bicycles, clothing, blankets and food. They can even save them up and use them for water tanks and university fees. So while for them money doesn’t grow on trees, food, clothing and bicycles do.

Wildlands Trust then plants these trees in urban greening and forest restoration programs, generating carbon sinks and further local employment. With over 400,000 trees planted and 2,500 “tree-preneurs” in 23 communities, the program is now rapidly expanding across South Africa addressing urgent social and environmental needs in a beautifully practical and engaging way.  You can read more about this program here.

This is a great story of how people with passion can break through seemingly intractable issues using their minds and hearts to find creative solutions.

So never doubt how much people can change, nor that their fear and resistance to doing so can rapidly evaporate.

In our future, change will be forced upon us, but I am convinced that communities and people will respond to these emerging circumstances creatively and cleverly to find ways forward that makes us all, like people in South Africa, look back and wonder why we waited so long.

2 thoughts on “New thinking from South Africa, the cradle of humanity

  1. Hi Paul – was a great conference. It was great to be exposed not only to some incredible international thinking, but also to see the ingenuity of South African spirit – incredible minds, fervent passion in between lots of realism!!! PS – Have already enquired about getting a tree-prenuers prgramme going in my local area – it is such a great and real idea!!

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