Lessons From South Africa on Systemic Coaching

Updated: Nov 5, 2018

I am writing this post from South Africa – a country I first visited as a 17-year old.  It was shortly after the Soweto Student Uprising; a key moment in the fight against Apartheid.  Traveling here, I entered a society so different from my own that all of my senses were alert to the nuance of each interaction.  There was a vibrant edge, being in a country on the brink of change.  I missed that when I returned home to my familiar and seemingly, more stable culture.

Being back in South Africa now reminds me of the importance of context.  In fact, while I know it’s overdoing it, I want to suggest that in coaching context is everything.   If we – and our clients – don’t understand the cultural context, we’re in big trouble.  At some point we are likely to wake up with a start, because what we took for granted has landed us in trouble.

However, most of us grow accustomed to familiar contexts.  We take our circumstances for granted and we don’t even think about them.

At an individual level, we don’t consciously notice the external influences that cue us about who we are and what we are capable of.  We merge with the dominant forces in our environments, and internalize their messages.  By unconsciously taking on their norms and expectations about how we should behave and what is possible, we split off from our own potential.

In a society with a history of war or racial divide, the consequences of systemic influences and messaging, which most people were born into is especially worrying.  Some of those messages can be crippling – for individuals and for the society.

In South Africa there is a recognition that it may take several generations of conscious effort to undo the damage.  My colleague Zed Xaba is one of those people committed to ensuring that ‘the work’ is done.  The focus of her race work lies in exploring the dynamics of internal oppression with black South Africans.  Zed’s colleague, Caroline Hopkins, works with white South Africans to understand and re-evaluate the expectations, attitudes and assumptions they internalised while growing up.  These women are doing foundational work that will result in healing for individuals and the society.

We don’t often speak about coaching and healing in the one sentence, but to my way of thinking their work is a fine example of the healing and transformative power of coaching.

Despite the great commitment to building unity within South Africa, trying to plaster over the difference would be naïve.  Pushing inequity and social tensions underground is dangerous, and usually leads to conflict. Most South Africans I speak with feel the tension and the risk their society faces at the present time.   In some regions the work of transformation and healing has gone deep.  However, there are pockets within the country where the white privileges of the Apartheid era are still entrenched.

Researcher and coach Val Tapela works with community development practitioners in the Western Cape region. Typically organisational coaching practice might focus on leadership, capacity building or career planning.  However Val coaches her clients to understand the cultural difference between Johannesburg and the Cape.   She works with her clients to build resilience and help them last in their profession.  She has found it most important to help newly-arrived practitioners understand and find ways to deal with the subtle and not so subtle race dynamics in their new environment.

Of course, South Africa is not the only environment in which context matters. All of our coaching clients operate in distinct contexts which have an influence on them and which we, like Zed, Clair and Val have an opportunity to influence.

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