The moon is something we see almost every day and we’re so familiar with its face that we forget that we never get to see its far side. We could apply this analogy to South Africa’s challenges. South Africa is a small country, many of its problems have been analysed to death – at least through the lenses that we typically use. We know every crater on this side of the moon, and what needs to happen to fill it.

We know that many craters on this side of the moon require heavy government and corporate machinery to improve the economy, infrastructure and social services.  The many public protests in South Africa are about much more than making demands and showing discontent about specifics – at its core these protests reflect a sense of isolation, a lack of real and imminent possibility in life. It’s the national psyche and the country’s social fabric, both of which are so damaged, that now warrant much attention.

We need to look at the same old problems differently – with the fresh eyes we would use to study the far side of the moon. For instance, we know that high-risk behavior is prevalent in life circumstances characterised by poverty and poor social conditions. In the short term, we may not be able to change life circumstances, but we can change response to circumstance, by helping to create the conditions allowing people to have a sense of real and imminent possibility in life. Drawing on Interactive Decision Theory, here are some suggestions to help you think differently about familiar problems in 2017:

Interactive Decision Theory (also called Game Theory), recognises the incentives and interests that shape social outcomes. It implies that we need to identify and change the inputs that shape the situation (the role-players, information and actions available to different role-players, and the potential payoffs in decision-making). What is interesting is that we don’t need to change every cog in the system to effect change, we do however, need to understand what inputs could result in a situation that is closer to our ultimate desired outcome.  Here are some things to think about:

  • Are there new role-players who can be introduced to the situation? For example, through the Collaboration Schools concept, non-profit management has been introduced into public school settings. Read more about the Collaboration School Project here.
  • Is it possible to modify the range of options available to those involved or affected? For example, by making available a simple playgroup model which provides support, structure and standardisation, day mothers are given the option to turn their child minding activities into early childhood development opportunities and a small income. Read more about SmartStart here.
  • How can changes that would lead to greater access to information improve things? For example, if we improve young people’s access to information that can help them plan for a career, find employment opportunities and access to job readiness training, we can increase their sense of opportunity – which in turn mitigates high-risk behavior and contributes to positive living. Read more about JobStarter here.
  • Can we change the likely payoffs for those involved? For example, in India, where there is little cultural incentive for parents to allow their daughters to complete school, there are initiatives that provide financial incentives to parents who allow their daughters to complete school (read more here).

Of course you can also start somewhere else altogether – you can start by analyzing your own thinking.  The American novelist, Toni Morrison once said: “Definitions belong to the definers, not the defined.” If each of us start to critically, and with great honesty, examine how the definitions we hold shape our experiences and responses to situations and people; if we choose to see our definitions as ever-changing perspectives and not as the one and only unchangeable truth; if we take the trouble to sincerely seek-out and empathetically engage with the perspectives of others – we will be making great strides in terms of thinking differently.  On the surface, this change in thinking might seem subtle, but it is very powerful and has a strong multiplier effect:

Empathy is a skill that strengthens with practice and encourages people to both give and receive it often. By receiving empathy, not only do we understand how good it feels to be heard and accepted, we also come to better understand the strength and courage it takes to be vulnerable and share that need for empathy in the first place”  – Brené Brown,  researcher and author at the University of Houston.  [Watch this great little animation explaining the difference between empathy and sympathy].

Empathy is the only way that we can create a more caring, compassionate and collaborative South Africa. It is key not only to improving the country’s national psyche and social fabric, but also to create the political economy that will allow us to reduce inequality once social and economic development have enabled the economic growth we need to reduce poverty.

In 2017 let’s look with ‘new eyes’ at the social landscape we have created and let’s find the new opportunities – or those critical cogs that can change the ways in which the machine operates.  Let’s be critical, but not only about systems, processes and government, let’s also be critical about our own thinking and let us make plenty of space to really ‘hear’ the perspectives of others and allow what we hear to subtly change our own horizon.  And may 2017 bring us ever closer to our ideal of a South Africa where each person has the opportunity to fulfill his or her  potential!