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Don’t waste a crisis – It’s an opportunity for partnerships and change

21 November 2016

It was mid-November and Gauteng has been declared a disaster area. Heavy rains and flash floods in the preceding week had created chaos, loss of life and extensive damage to property and infrastructure. Amidst the horrific reports of children swept away by the floods and families tirelessly searching for missing loved ones, one story went viral. It is the story of the human chain – a group of South Africans risked their lives to form a human chain to help stranded motorists in Johannesburg.

In this crisis, they just did what they had to do. There was no time to think twice. No time to think about what usually divides us – class, race, gender, historical injustice… They were in the moment, they were alive with possibility and they made the impossible happen.

A human chain gives hope

This remarkable display of humanity, compassion and taking ownership of a solution went viral within a few days – the video of it soon had more than 370,000 views. The comments that streamed in showered praise and showed pride in this demonstration of what South Africans are capable of. In a way, this video is a glimpse of what is possible. It inspired messages of hope for the future and calls to stand together as a nation.

A month before the floods, the Zenex Foundation hosted the “Conversations with Zenex Trustees” reflecting on partnerships in education. This event was another example of people coming together across boundaries, to collaborate for the greater good of the country. This time it was about education. The event was a panel discussion facilitated by social commentator and talk show host, Eusebius McKaiser.

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What emerged in this discussion was in sharp contrast with the often violent protests and destruction of property on campuses across the country at the time. A key theme in this discussion was: “If we do not waste the crisis, there is an opportunity for partnerships.” From this perspective, the current crisis in tertiary education is an opportunity for government to think differently about education, like a flash flood was an opportunity for people to connect and help a stranger.

Robust but constructive engagement takes us further

The Zenex Foundation has chosen a path of robust but constructive engagement with government regarding the improvement of education in the country. It is evident that the relationship with government, and particularly the education department is a healthy adult-to-adult relationship where the partners do not always agree, but continue to engage and work together. One of the panelists described the Zenex Foundation as “a critical friend”.

Various speakers emphasized the importance of active citizenship, of holding government accountable and to work with government to overcome the immense challenges in education.

Common threads between the human chain and the Zenex conversation

  1. Ownership: Ordinary people decided that something had to be done, and proceeded to do it.
  2. Active citizenship: The focus is not on what others and the government should do – it is on what “I” can do, right where I am and with the means at my disposal at that specific time.
  3. Focus on the present: Focusing on the facts and the reality of the current situation, and dealing with it in a way that has a chance of creating a positive outcome.
  4. Respectful engagement: Getting involved with others who may be different from us (or who may have different opinions), and finding a mutually acceptable mode of engagement.
  5. Building on what is well-developed: Making the best of what already exists and building on that to create a better future.

For the greater good

One can only hope that there are enough inspirational stories to keep hope up in difficult times, and to motivate us to create our own stories of engagement, creating new and better outcomes that serve the interests of the country as a whole.

Each day presents us with many opportunities to engage either in connecting or separating behaviour. Let us make the best possible use of these opportunities to connect, build cohesion and strength. Ultimately, it is us, the ordinary citizens of this country, who have to stand up where we are and start to create the future that we aspire to.

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