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South Africa is at an inflection point – will our crisis response be fight, flight or freeze?

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Jon Foster-Pedley is dean and director of Henley Business School Africa.

When we are faced with crises, our natural response is to revert to the atavistic basics of fight, flight or freeze. Mostly it’s flight or freeze. If we allow ourselves to be dragged into the crisis, we lose perspective in the process. We panic. We run away (flight) or we lash back (fight). Both should be a last resort.

As South Africa appeared to teeter on the brink of its much-prophesied descent into failed nation status in the third week of July, many people were starting to ask questions of themselves. Wall-to-wall coverage of civil unrest and widespread looting on top of a third wave of a pandemic that has already taken a considerable toll, had business leaders and managers despairing.

Who could blame them?

This year, and the one before it, has been a greater test than any of us could ever have foreseen. The omens weren’t that good beforehand; a sluggish, undiversified and deindustrialising economy teetering on the edge of a recession, perilously high unemployment and a weakened power grid with capricious load shedding schedules. A national lockdown to stop the spread of the Covid-19 infection seriously stress-tested all of this – and then in July a chain of events that at one stage looked like South Africa was staring into the Molotov cocktail of its own African Spring. But it doesn’t have to go that way.

When we are faced with crises, especially those that involve an imminent threat to body, life and property rather than the more esoteric threat of death by an unseen virus, our natural response is to revert to the atavistic basics of fight, flight or freeze. Mostly it’s flight or freeze.

If we allow ourselves to be dragged into the crisis, we lose perspective in the process. We panic. We run away (flight) or we lash back (fight). Both should be a last resort, because if you freak out at what’s in front of you, you’ve lost. If you allow yourself to be sucked into what you perceive is happening – especially if it has been orchestrated – then you’ve allowed yourself to be gamed by whoever that opponent is.

On the Sunday of the weekend that the unrest began with the torching of trucks on the N3 Toll Plaza in KwaZulu-Natal, there were two sporting events that proved this point precisely. The first was the men’s final at Wimbledon where Novak Djokovic lost the first set – and his composure – but came back to win the trophy. Later that day, England scored the first goal in the first minutes of the Euros finals against Italy to the raptures of the home crowd, but Italy regrouped, came back into the game, equalised in the second half and went on to win on penalties. Either match could have ended differently. It didn’t because the ultimate winners were able to control the fear, use the feedback of what they were experiencing to get back on track.

In Scotland and in the Arctic there is a phenomenon of fires burning unseen under the peat bogs – the only sign is whiffs of smoke. “Zombie fires” they are called. If you go in blindly and dig it up, you risk adding oxygen and creating a conflagration. Surface water just runs off. The answer instead is adding a chemical to reduce surface tension of the water so it penetrates, to make a number of smaller holes to expose the fire and successfully douse it.

It’s the same with civil unrest – we need to reduce the surface tension of our responses – something we need no reminding of in this country with our brutal and violent past and incredible inequality. The problem is that we don’t see the bigger picture – often because very few of us want to as it can seem scary. When that happens, we pay the price. To reduce the surface tension of our fear, we need to stay calm, stay centred and react appropriately.

Many years ago, I headed a school governing body at a preschool. There was an incident where one of the children fell from the balcony and fractured her skull. What had happened was that one of the two teachers had gone out to get something and the other teacher was overwhelmed by all the demands for her attention and didn’t see the girl who fell. Immediately there was a clamour among the parents, many of whom said they had “always known this would happen” because the area was unsafe. They had never spoken out at the time though, thinking it was always someone else’s responsibility.

That’s perhaps the first lesson of crisis; there is no them, only us. We are all responsible. What we did at the school afterwards was to implement a policy where if you observed something that you thought was unsafe, you were obliged to report it. Once it was reported, the school management was obliged to investigate it. Once it was investigated, there had to be feedback.

It’s a critical loop: mutual responsibility, identification of problems, resolution and communication. All too often we fail to tick all the boxes, which leads to the breakdown of the system where it’s always someone else’s problem – or ignored – until catastrophe strikes.

Our other natural impulse, if we don’t flee or fight, is to freeze – to hide or pretend it isn’t happening. There’s only one thing worse – panicking. If you panic when a crisis hits, that’s when things go pear shaped quickly. Panic sparks fear in everyone else, which spreads even faster than the Delta variant of Covid-19. Leaders and managers must be calm, or at least maintain that illusion – even if they’re like ducks paddling like hell under water to stay still against the invisible current. They must lean into the fear and address the problem, methodically and calmly. 

All too often we do the opposite, we race into trying to resolve the issue using one tactic, normally the most obvious one, to address the most pressing symptom of the problem – and we make it worse. But in the process we’ve tired ourselves out, used up valuable resources and achieved very little, if anything. We have lost perspective and thus, the initiative. If, through disinformation or fear, you can make your opponent act rashly or erratically, to narrow their vision, you have won half the battle. We all see the tactics in the battle, but we rarely see the strategy that wins the war.  

Most problems need multiple solutions because there are often multiple, systemic causes. There isn’t a single silver bullet; and that’s tough to realise, too, especially when we are spurred to anger. It all comes down to situational awareness; actively listening to the people you work with. Involve them so that you can be better placed to lead them. Communicate with them continually, learn from them and let them learn for you.

You need to be dispassionate to see the big picture and to hold your fear. You need to think systemically and see the whole pattern, not just the bit that is obvious. You need to be able to visualise outcomes and think in terms of scenarios, and you need intent, passion and purpose to act. That way you can get ahead of the crisis together before it becomes a disaster – and hopefully put in the necessary policies and strategies to prevent it from recurring.

We are at an inflection point in the story of our country right now. How we react, what we learn and what we apply, how we come together, how we prepare and plan, will determine precisely whether or not the light at the end of the tunnel is one of many oncoming trains or the light of a true new dawn. DM

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  • Whilst we can do much at a civil society level, until the ANC recognises the immediate need to roll back the business unfriendly polices including BEE, we will have no way in getting ourselves out of this mess and creating a future for all South Africans but especially the poor.