Community Transformation

A short meditation on community and transformation

Undine Whande

Recently my friend Tania reminded me of an insight shared with us by Goethean scientist Craig Holdredge:

When you plant a seed there are two ways to look at the developmental process that unfolds:

  1. The plant begins to grow out of the seed. This is point-centred thinking. Of this process, everything is generated from a centre. The intent rays out into the world, penetrating it with its purpose.
  2. The world becomes this plant. It is the world around the seed that allows the plant to become what it is. The world envelopes the seed and makes space for the potential of becoming that is then filled out by the plant emerging.

What does this means for living and working in communities in South Africa at this moment in time? What are the implications for the developmental trajectory that most of us remain bound by working in community development, which is mostly about ‘making change’ rather than attending to it, being awake to it?

My colleague Kindiza at the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation who has worked with communities on conflict transformation initiatives for at least 18 years offered the following reflection: ‘In South Africa there are two ways of perceiving the world and its evolution. One way of seeing the world rests on the premise ‘I think therefore I am’. The mind seeks to enter the world and through action shape it, mould it, ‘make change’ happen. Another way of seeing, he suggested, is based on the idea that ‘I am because of the society/community I matured in’. The community around me has allowed me to grow into the shape that I am in, with all my beauties, odd ends and perhaps deformities, not unlike the world envelops the plant in its movement of becoming.

As I ponder the many initiatives I have been part of over the years and what we actually have achieved, there are a few observations that stand out. One is that communities develop and evolve, with or without the experts of community development. Another insight has been how much conflict – and often destructive conflict – is unleashed when we want to not only ‘make change’ but accelerate its pace. It almost as if by not seeing, we disrupt and impede some of the critical shifts that are already taking place. What we seek is change while transformation is based on potentials perhaps planted decades ago, in a previous generation. Conflict simply points out that we need to be awake to a change that is already underway but not attended to. Hence we need to be present to it so that a deeper shift can happen and something new takes root. Instead we treat conflict as something that should not be there (missing its calling); and we treat transformation as something that we can ‘make happen’ (presuming we can claim to be originators in the immediate, since we have to prove results results results now now now).

Attentional Violence and Intentional Presence

I remembered another quote this morning as I was reflecting on the story a colleague told me about a difficult encounter with a participant at a recent workshop she facilitated:

‘When those who have the power to name and to socially construct reality choose not to see you or hear you….when someone with the authority of a teacher, say, describes the world and you are not in it, there is a moment of psychic disequilibrium, as if you looked in the mirror and saw nothing. It takes some strength of soul—and not just individual strength but collective understanding—to resist this void, this non-being, into which you are thrust, and to stand up, demanding to be seen and heard. (Adrienne Rich)

This non-seeing is a familiar experience to the majority of people in this world with a darker shade of skin. Domestic workers in homes, administrators in organsations, those with seemingly little power can offered vivid descriptions of the experience of being in a room as ‘invisibles’ while their employers and bosses attend to their lives as if there was no other person in the room. To some extent we all know the violence inherent in this ‘not seeing’. Otto Scharmer calls it Attentional Violence and has this to say about it:

‘Attentional violence is to not to be seen and recognized in terms of who you really are–in terms of your highest future possibility. Instead you are only seen in terms of your journey of the past, that is, in terms of the circumstances of the past, in terms of who you happen to be today. People are blind or ignorant of that aspect of your self, that isn’t (fully) born or manifest as of yet. Who is the victim of such attentional violence? It’s our highest future possibility, our essential or authentic Self.’[1]

In South Africa on its own healing journey, it seems important to note that attentional violence is an exacerbated experience for all living under the shadow of an authoritarian imagination of the human.

Such an imagination of how things should be, of how the human should be, impose the task (usually in early childhood) to fashion the self according to those directives from the outside. With the help of the ego then a crust can be made to represent a self that the outside world can recognise. The ‘crust’ is what it took to withstand the initial experience of being projected as a non-being, unseen. Thus it projects back a sense of ‘being’ even if false or skewed.

Reading and writing on the experiences of my generation in Germany, the 3rd post Holocaust generation, there is a clear sense of just how violent the fascist imagination of the human was in its drive for ‘perfection’. Our elders, our teachers in Germany were often unable to connect to us. They were either holding on to the perverted imagination of the human (I recall a few die-hard Nazis among my teachers, among them the sports educationist who took a perverted pleasure in driving us to sheer exhaustion). Few were able to show us the extent of their doubt or share the crushing realisation of their failure to withstand the totalitarian shadow of this imagination.

The sense I have when working with communities and groups in South Africa is equally of such a crust, seemingly holding that wounded self together that was fashioned in order to survive, at a young age. Crusted selves. What is the remedy to attentional violence? I suppose it is intentional presence. Being present to. Making witness to. To the I and the You and the possibility of a We.

So what is the task? Probably once more to let be, so the crust, in its own time, can crumble or dissolve or withstand and persist, we don’t know. Not to force the crust of and leave the nakedness of the wound. That was one experience in my work with the process of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in the 1990s. Working with the TRC process, attending hearing after hearing did much to make me see both the horrors of the past and dismantle the privilege of my ignorance. Working with the Healing of Memories process confronted me with the near unbearable task of staying awake and bearing witness to each story, each individual experience. Yet it also brought a sense of the resilience and beauty of the human spirit, its ability to remake, repair, re-dream, every day. It is perhaps that many of us thought the pain should go away after that and it has not. Or that staying awake to that pain would get easier. It has not.

In a recent organisation development process I facilitated, what touched me deeply were the key remedies that people identified to counter the impairing sense of loss and disintegration in the organisation. The strands identified were framed in this way:

Look again (inviting members of the organisation to reconsider their idea that they know each other even if they have worked together for year, giving that chance to meet afresh, each day)

I see you (paying attention to the many small human encounters in the organisation every day, meeting, greeting, chatting, etc)

Make the bond (allowing time for connection, informal time, reflection time and consciously seeking to be present to each other)

This, to me, held the seeds to the future of that organisation. Coming back to my colleague Kindiza – he shared with me a story of work done in the communities on the West Rand after the 2008 so-called xenophobic violence. As part of the Nelson Mandela dialogues that were held in communities, he engaged with some of the key instigators of the violence and eventually was able to engage one ‘warlord’ in a way that enabled the man to grow into a champion for peace and non-violence in his community. What did he do? What was the magic? He set out not to ‘change the man’ but simply to get to know him. He spent time with him and got to know him. And once he had won trust to have a real conversation, he asked good questions. That was all. Key question was: When all the Zimbabweans are dead or gone home, that means you will have employment and housing right? Through the questions the transformation that was already in the man could unfold and he started to ask his own questions. He told his life story and he could finally cry. Only then was there really any engagement between the two men; until that moment my colleague was simply present to him. After that, is became about walking the road together to share an essentially inner shift with a doubtful community, exploring together the possibilities of where the questions could lead.

In terms of enabling communities to thrive what seems needed is this intentional presence coupled with the permission to enter a collective mourning process as South Africans (and extends to the region). This need to mourn the losses of apartheid and attend to the costs of the brutal colonial quest comes only now. There was a sense of numbness in the first 20 post-war years in Germany before a re-surgence of national debate emerged on the continuities and breaks with the past. This was thrust upon society by the 1968 generation, the youth. In South Africa, the debates on the ‘Spear’ brought us a moment of revealing the wound when the advocate broke down in court crying. In a sense, there is need to be grateful for that as he gave permission to enter the conversation again about all that is unhealed and unattended to. While over the years I was often told that what was needed now was ‘development’ rather than healing, the recent weeks have brought in clear view all that is wanting to transform and heal. Marikana rattles and reminds of the task of mourning. Without walking back to face the pain and enabling the release of mourning, the cycles of violence persist. Hence those of us who can need to look and bear witness. Those who cannot need to be held and let be until able to awaken to the task, or else pass it on to the next generation.

Allowing Transformation

In closing two thoughts stand out on transformation. One is that transformation happens incessantly right in front of us, the question is: do we see it? Are we able to perceive clearly what is unfolding and what this unfolding is asking of me, the so-called development practitioner, perhaps also healer? How do I bear witness to this unfolding? How do I foremost recognise its resonance within myself? How can I attend to what transformation is at hand with my fullest presence, seems to me the task at hand. This asks an inward move of connecting to self before I rush out to try connect to others, or to connect others with each other (as we tend to try in the peace and conflict resolution industry). To whom am I already connected but may not be aware of it? Can I see this? How I can tune into that connection rather than assuming I have to forge (and thus force) it?

Chinese scholar Francois Julienne says:’ Why is it that that which occurs tirelessly in front of us and that functions in such an effective way remains always unseen?’ He illustrates how the Western mind struggles with the ‘trans’. The schooling I received was to perceive the formation, the form of things. We do not easily see the movement from one formation to another. Even as I am able to grow the quality of perception to discern this movement (through rigorous observation), the moment of transition still eludes me. It is sensed rather than seen. When in a group or community something has shifted we all know it afterwards. People speak of a different quality of interaction, of ‘something in the air’. They mention insights that came alive usually through a single person or a few, an inner movement they made, and then a change unfolded in the collective visible to all. We cannot quite put our finger on when and how this moment happened, yet all can describe a difference in experience, in atmosphere. This is the bottom of the U, the passing through source, the re-sourcing needed for transformation to unfold.

There is a critical link here to pain and the experience of woundedness. We live, in a sense, in the dreams of past generations. We breathe their nightmares, their bliss and their small and big inner transformations. Their ability to imagine a future different to the experiences of their time enables us later generations to realise this potential in actual form. In that process the patterns of pain recur as much as health and capacity for healing and repair can be created and passed on, to come to fruition in the future.

In a workshop process last week a group of Zimbabweans created an image for their experience of transformation – a story tree. The experiences of the present were bright orange fruits at the root of a baobab steeped in the waters of chaos and demise. The visions and dreams were in the branches. When the tree was turned around, it was evident the dreams had become the roots now and the experiences-as-fruit were now visibly hanging in the branches that were once roots. The waters of chaos had dissipated and become a cooling mist for the tree. It was clear that, as Zimbabwe is rooted currently in the mires of a blocked transformation seeking to unfold, it is already birthing the most wondrous and beautiful futures.

Nigerian author Ben Okri visited our city last week. He speaks about this task of attending to, bearing witness to transformation as a responsibility, even an imperative. He calls us to the task of ceaselessly re-dreaming our world in ways that future generations can inhabit:

‘The worst realities of our age are manufactured realities. It is therefore our task, as creative participants in the universe to re-dream our world. The fact of possessing imagination means that everything can be redreamed. Each reality has its alternative possibilities. Human beings are blessed with the necessity of transformation.’[2]

[1] For the full text of his blogpost on the theme see:

[2] From ‘A Way of Being Free’ Ben Okri 1997