“There is nothing wrong with competition,” said Roelf Meyer to the Guyanese politicians. “But if the only space you have is a competitive space, you are in trouble.” Meyer was the De Klerk government’s chief negotiator during South Africa’s transition to democracy in the early 90’s. “You need to carve out parallel spaces where you can collaborate instead of compete,” he advised.
As I listened to him I imagined these parallel spaces as transformative green spaces where people change the way they see each other, and competition spaces as red-hot spaces, capable of destroying creativity and new life.
Guyana, where I worked as a peace and development advisor for the United Nations from 2003 to 2006, suffered from a toxic political culture which fed on people’s fears. Descendants from African slaves and Indian indentured labourers found themselves in different political camps. Humiliation and blaming each other’s past and present political leaders for the current socioeconomic situation was the favourite ping-pong style of interaction. The governing party, which was the favourite party of East Indians, came to power in 1991. Most Indians were still bitter about ‘the period of discrimination and abuse’ under an African-dominated administration which allegedly rigged the elections for 28 years prior to 1991. Fed up with ethnic politics, two MPs, one Indian and one African defected from the two major parties and formed a new political party, the Alliance for Change, to lead Guyana towards a non-racial, just and equitable society.
The situation was bleak. People were leaving the country in droves. The economy was suffering and the business community was also split along political lines. Guyana suffered from red space symptoms.
Competition, in theory, is meant to motivate us to achieve levels of unprecedented excellence in business, sport and academia. In practice, however, it often brings out the worst in us, especially when political, economic and societal tensions and stakes are high.
Red space interaction is mostly heated and adversarial. People argue, debate, attack and defend. They get distracted and focus on the wrong set of questions: Who is right? Who has power over others? Who is the strongest? Why shouldn’t the opposition be trusted? Who is to blame? Mistrust becomes a tool for survival; justifying your position as the silver bullet. Hard negotiations are a sign of strength; vulnerability and compassion are signs of weakness. Relationships are important only insofar as they serve self-interest. Winners don’t share. Losers don’t cry. The ruling party rules. The opposition opposes. The spiral heads downward.
Politicians, and certain types of economic actors and activists thrive in this adrenalin-filled environment, which, predictably, does not create new meaning and life. In fact, it just “reproduces patterns of the past”, as Otto Scharmer
Guyana was stuck in such a deep red space. The government was looking to the United Nations (UN) for assistance.
We – the UN and its local partner, the Ethnic Relations Commission (ERC) – carefully chose ap-propriate terminology and strategies. We could not talk about mediation, dialogue or facilitation, because memories of failed political dialogue attempts were still too fresh and painful. The UN undertook to assist Guyanese to “explore ways to take Guyana forward”. Our strategy was a green space strategy. It was an attempt to change the setting, the mode of interaction and the questions and topics so that Guyanese could generate new energy to heal the nation.
Green spaces are very different from red spaces. The ground rules are completely different. The mode of communication is dialogue – not debate. Dialogue is not an event. It is a process. It is not only about the physical act of talking. It is also about “minds and relationships unfolding so that people can find real freedom through collaboration”(1). Dialogue is “respectful interaction through which human beings listen to each other deeply enough to be changed by what they learn”(2). William Isaacs says that “dialogue … is a conversation with a centre, not sides. It is a way of taking the energy of our differences and channeling it toward something that has never been created before”. The aim of dialogue, as Louise Diamond and others explain, is not so much to talk, but to listen; not so much to convince, but to explore; not to blame, but to affirm; not to prove a point, but to build common understanding; not to have power over others, but power with others; not to create winners and losers, but winning solutions for all.
While details and specifics matter, in dialogue the focus is more on understanding the system than on nit-picking. Dialogue partners focus on arriving at a strategy in order to reverse a dysfunctional system that distracts and keeps us from answering the most important questions of our time: What does the future ask of us? What are the elements of a vision we see for our country? What do we need to understand together? What do we most want others to understand about what is important to us? What are the key driving factors that reinforce the red space-type interactions and systemic problems? What can we do together to break patterns of resistance to change? What do we collectively need to do more of and less of? What do we need to start doing and stop doing?
Green spaces make positive shifts in relationships possible. People change because they discover a common humanity, common values and intentions, which are the basis from which common action can be undertaken to overcome the challenges, says Adam Kahane.
Effective green spaces are safe spaces. This does not mean that green spaces are kumbaya-type ‘soft spaces’ where ‘soft skills’ are needed and where the hard issues are avoided. It is a popular myth that listening, affirming human dignity and respectful communication are soft skills. It is much harder and much more uncomfortable to engage ‘the other’ face to face than to shout or shoot at an adversary from a distance.
In green spaces, there is no limit to how deeply and widely issues are explored. What is absent is not the quest for truth and honesty, but the desire to defend one’s own point of view at all costs. As Otto Scharmer
says, we come with “an open mind, open heart and open will”. We suspend our strongly held beliefs to generate understanding, solutions and actions that could not have been developed by the individuals alone. Joseph Jaworski calls this “creating collective intelligence”. This is hard work in uncomfortable safe spaces.
After 18 months of careful preparation Guyanese political, business and civil society leaders attended a two-day conflict transformation workshop, as equals. Mistrust and apprehension were, of course, present at the start, but towards the end the need to attack and defend disappeared as participants explored ways to lead Guyana towards a better future. Positions, status and egos mattered less than discovering one another as Guyanese who wanted to see the best for their country.
Inspired by the power of genuine interaction, this gathering gave the ERC a mandate to organise nation-wide multistakeholder conversations. The 30-odd Guyanese whom we had trained as facilitators were immediately available to facilitate 143 green spaces in a period of three months all over the country at local, regional and national level.
A couple of months later Guyana experienced its first violence-free elections in 50 years. The cycle of election violence had been broken. Two more violence-free elections followed. A new coalition of seven opposition parties won the latest elections in May 2015 by only 5 000 votes. They campaigned on a platform of “a government of national unity” and promised to help Guyana “truly live up to its motto of ‘One People, One Nation, One Destiny”. The Ministry for Social Cohesion – the first such ministry in the world, as far as we know – has now been established. I was thrilled to accept an invitation to attend the first national round table in September 2015 to help develop a strategic framework for implementing Guyana’s social cohesion five-year plan.
Guyana’s leaders chose to stay in the green space. As a South African, I’m jealous.
I keep wondering about what it would take for South Africa to rediscover the value of green spaces. We set the example of going green when we negotiated a new South Africa. We participated and witnessed the fruits of the National Peace Accord structures at regional and local levels. We have in our hands Vision 2030 and an imperfect but very important National Development Plan that asks green space-type questions.
We also know that staying in a red-space mentality has produced Marikana, Nkandla, injustice, unemployment, poverty and inequality. We witness destructive confrontations and violence in parliament and on the streets of our cities and towns. We seem to be stuck in a red space mentality.
What we need is leaders who understand that if we only have red spaces, we are in trouble. It is time for ordinary citizens to step into the middle to convene and facilitate dialogue spaces. All of us have to go green!
(1) Mark Gerzon, Strategic Outlook on Dialogue, internal UNDP report (June 2005).
(2) Hal Saunders, A Public Peace Process: Sustained Dialogue to Transform Racial and Ethnic
Conflicts, New York: Palgrave (1999) 22.
Chris Spies, founder and director of Dynamic Stability Pty Ltd is an independent conflict transformation practitioner with extensive international and local experience. He specialises in dialogue design and facilitation. He is also a senior research fellow at the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation in Cape Town.