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Flight of the Flamingos

Sunday, 22 July 2012 - 11:47am IST | Place: Ahmedabad | Agency: dna

It is 1991 and we are in South Africa. President De Klerk has recently released Nelson Mandela from jail after 27 years, and has declared that passing of power from White to Black hands is on the cards.

It is 1991 and we are in South Africa. President De Klerk has recently released Nelson Mandela from jail after 27 years, and has declared that passing of power from White to Black hands is on the cards. Many political parties have come into the open, some married to violence (One White One Bullet was the slogan of the Pan Africanist Party) but most determined to negotiate a peaceful handing over. The big question was, how?

Pieter Le Roux, a professor at the left wing Black University of the Western Cape thought it might be crucial to set up a situation where opposition parties could create scenarios for future South Africa. He asked the head of Shell, a company that had an entire department to create future scenarios, for help in putting together strategies for the transition of power. Adam Kahane was sent to Cape Town to help facilitate the scenario workshop and provide methodological help.

Le Roux had assembled 22 people representing the entire opposition – The ANC, PAC, Mineworkers, the communists and their adversaries of years, the Whites in government and business. This was a group that till recently were willing to kill each other.

They were, in fact a microcosm of what the new South Africa had to be. For three days, they were to cohabit at the Mont Fleur Convention Centre outside Cape Town and learn to work together to imagine the new country. Could this work?

Divided into four groups, the participants were asked to create scenarios of what could happen to the country once a Black government took over. Not what they wanted to or feared would happen. But what could. The participants though had one thing in common. They were deeply disaffected by the stalemate and wanted change.

The group got to work, long hours – after hours were spent with earlier adversaries listening to the other point of view first hand, for the first time ever. The first round produced thirty scenarios that were combined and whittled to nine. The groups were told to flesh out these in the months before the next session, in terms of economic, social, political and international dimensions. By the end of the second meeting, the nine scenarios had been narrowed to four: Ostrich, in which the current White government sticks its head into the sand and refuses a peaceful transition; Lame Duck in which there is a long transition in an attempt to satisfy all, thereby satisfying no one; Icarus in which a popular Black government embarks on a huge and unsustainable public works programme, and crashes the economy; and Flight of the Flamingos, where all the building blocks are in place and everyone rises slowly but together.

The first three prophecies were downers, the last the only one to work towards.

Over the next year, the four scenarios were introduced to the public and hundreds of public hearings were conducted. Icarus got the most attention. Through debates all the parties changed their positions and policies and although not in a straight take from Mont Fleur, the ANC government’s policies were greatly influenced by the scenarios. In many ways, South Africa chose the path of the Flight of the Flamingos.

The Mont Fleur model has since been repeated in many emerging democracies and in varied disaster situations, most famously in Colombia, a country fraught with corruption, violence, class wars and greedy politicians.

And everywhere, to a lesser or greater degree, it has knit countries together by allowing policies to be discussed at all levels and by encouraging multi-stakeholder decision making. In our current state, perhaps we too need such a similar nation saving exercise.T

The writer is a noted danseuse and social activist

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