Picture: THE HERALD/MIKE HOLMES
Picture: THE HERALD/MIKE HOLMES

In 2017 the Indlulamithi SA 2030 scenarios were created with a clear purpose: to help unite the nation in creating a society where all people experience a sense of belonging and solidarity. But can a simple storytelling exercise accomplish such a goal? How much influence do scenarios really have in driving a social compact?

To answer these questions let us look back at the history of scenario use in SA. Scenarios are not new to the country. Some people may be familiar with the “high road” and “low road” scenarios led by Clem Sunter in the 1980s. More may remember the Mont Fleur scenarios of the 1990s, or the Dinokeng scenarios of 2008.

Scenarios are imaginings of possible future situations. We use them in their simplest forms in our everyday lives, when we imagine different ways a conversation or meeting will pan out. By assessing the possibilities we are better prepared for various outcomes — and can even influence the outcomes if we know what triggers to avoid or pursue. At a higher level, this is what makes them a powerful strategic tool.

The Mont Fleur scenarios were created at a significant and tense time — at the height of the country’s transition to democracy. The goal was to influence economic policy, specifically to move the country towards a market-led economy. By telling four relevant and logical stories of what SA could look like under different policy paths, the project hoped to mobilise people into avoiding the worst possible outcome.

And it succeeded. The scenarios were discussed and debated by members of society, to the point where the most desirable scenario wasn’t just preferred but pursued. The scenarios played such a recognisable role in influencing the new democratic order of SA that they are considered a landmark of success in the scenario world, and are still studied today.

But how did the scenarios achieve this? As Mont Fleur facilitator Adam Kahane said, the scenarios didn’t outline the solution to the crisis. Nor did they intend to, as a direct solution could have caused resistance and rigidity. What they did was approach the problem indirectly — using storytelling to build shared understandings, relationships and intentions, among people with different perspectives and backgrounds.

By getting people to engage with four plausible versions of the future, the scenarios nurtured a common vocabulary and mutual understanding. People discussed “lame duck”, “Icarus” and “flight of the flamingos” in church sermons and on rural radio stations. Instead of focusing on the past and present, attention turned to future possibilities of what could happen.

People then began asking, “how do we avoid the worst scenario?” They began to recognise that the future wasn’t inevitable, that everyone had choice, influence and a role to play. They internalised the scenarios, recognising what they can and must do to achieve a future everyone finds desirable.

In his book Transformative Scenario Planning: Working Together to Change the Future, Kahane explains that transforming understandings, relationships and intentions in this way enables people to transform their actions — and thereby their situation. It encourages people to work cooperatively and creatively to get unstuck and move forward.

We are at another important point in SA’s history. As we stand, there are urgent calls to develop a new social compact — an agreement between members of society to co-operate in overcoming decades of unacceptable economic stagnation, inequality and unemployment.

The Indlulamithi SA scenarios 2030 are here to help start and nurture the discussions and relationships that culminate in this social compact — much like the Mont Fleur scenarios did all those years ago. We are inviting every member of society —labour, government, business, civil society, youth, women and the unemployed — to engage with the scenarios (all achievable by 2030), which are:

  • “Gwara Gwara” — a demoralised land of disorder and decay.
  • iSbhujwa” — an SA nation torn by deepening social divides, daily protests and cynical self-interest.
  • Nayi le Walk” — a nation in step with itself, where growing social cohesion, economic expansion, and a renewed spirit of constitutionalism get SA going.

Each scenario shows the impact — political, economic and social — of differing levels of social cohesion. They are accompanied by an annual barometer, which monitors levels of social cohesion to determine which scenario the country is tracking towards (now the worst-case Gwara Gwara).

As people from all walks of life engage with the scenarios, it is our hope that South Africans will unite in asking: “how do we avoid Gwara Gwara?” It is our hope to build a common vocabulary and mutual understanding, where every member of society understands their role and responsibilities, and the trade-offs needed to move towards Nayi le Walk.

The time to get started is now. The last two annual barometers show that SA is progressing deeper into Gwara Gwara. As we look to build back better after the global pandemic, SA faces stark choices and important decisions which cannot be delayed any further.

• Sangqu is an independent nonexecutive director of Tongaat Hulett and PSG Consult, and executive in residence at the Gordon Institute of Business Science. He is a former executive of Anglo American SA, Impala Platinum and Glencore Xstrata SA, and served as a director of Business Leadership SA and as vice- president of the Minerals Council SA and deputy chair of the Nepad Business Foundation.

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