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The African Spirit of Sustainability

Author: Nicola Robins - Founder of Raindance and Associate of incite Sustainability

( Article Type: Sustainable Development )

People walk across this land singing songs to the spirits that animate the rocks and caves, the rivers and the hills. In response the spirits allow the people access to a web of stories that tells of the linkages, the dialogues that exist between all parts of the Earth. The whispers have grown increasingly faint, drowned out not only by the hammering of miners’ drills, the roar of traffic and cell-mast signals, but simply by the hum of conviction that by doing more, faster, we will find the solutions we seek.

The paradox of sustainability

Sustainability embodies a paradox. The term suggests something sustained, held stable and yet living intelligently with the Earth requires flexibility, constant transformation and an ability to survive change by changing. Sustainability, now appearing on corporate scorecards, stock exchange indices and claims to brand superiority, carries within it the chortle of spirits that shared the song of the Earth with the first people.

Ticking the box labelled ‘sustainability’ will challenge all claims to integrity, for it is neither manageable nor controllable. It cannot be predicted and is understandable only in the most general terms as it is an emergent property, arising from the complex interactions of the whole, not merely the sum of its parts. The term, which was coined in the 1990s, may confer a sense of manageability and control, but the spirit it seeks to evoke does not.

The paradigm of sustainability management

Definitions that hint at ‘long-run competitive advantage’, ‘sustained profits’ or ‘sustainable growth’ are part of a paradigm we could call Sustainability Management. It undoubtedly has its uses, particularly in bringing the language of sustainability closer to that of business. From within this paradigm, for example, the environment may be conceived as a pyramid of at least five capital stocks: uppermost and arising from the interactions of people and nature are financial and manufactured capital, in the middle of the pyramid is a combination of human and social capital, and at the base, in support of them all, natural capital. The latter comprises all natural resources and the processes that are needed to maintain life and deliver ecological goods and services. Traditionally, business has focused on building financial and manufactured capital whilst ‘externalising’ (not paying for) the associated costs of depleted human, social and natural capital. The long-term implication of this approach is the erosion of the base on which everything depends. Externalised costs do not disappear; they are borne by the Earth and its communities as extinction, unemployment, poverty, soil loss, toxic dumps and climate change. Over the past century, the labour movement, the green movement and, most recently, the development movement have arisen to encourage business to internalise the costs borne by human, natural and social systems respectively. Taken together with the imperative of profitability, these form the triplebottom- line of 21st-century business management.

 The problem with the management paradigm

While these disparate movements have had some measure of success and even support from enlightened sectors of the business community, a sustainable society appears more remote today than it did 50 years ago. Activist movements have adopted strategies largely from within the paradigm they seek to change and although persuading companies to internalise costs may be useful, it is clearly not sufficient. Declaring new paradigms has become terribly commonplace. However, I would suggest that buried deep within the management paradigm is the seed of something that has been overlooked and will no doubt be ridiculed for some time yet. This I have called the spirit of sustainability, and I believe it holds the key to addressing the failure of this paradigm. Seen from an appreciation of spirit, the emergence of sustainability depends not only on the host of actions or investments to support the triple bottom line, but on the energies that lie between the actions – the dynamic interactions or relationships – and the capacity of business, government or communities to focus and direct them. The greatest challenge to our sustainability is neither technical nor financial; it is emotional and spiritual. It is less about our ability to find solutions as it is about our ability to agree on them. More than anything, the spirit of sustainability is about relating.

The split at our core

When we work on increasing our awareness of interaction (emotional and spiritual intelligence), we are brought to a difficult truth of Western society: we struggle with relationship. In fact, most of us discover at our core a split; we are dissociated, cut off from community and alienated from the Earth. In the information age, despite the connectivity of the worldwide web, this split has become an epidemic. It is not particularly our fault: it is simply the time in which we live. Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield writes: ‘We are born into this world with the song in our ears; yet we may first come to know it by its absence.’

Addressing the split

Although it has by no means abated, this destruction has been only partially successful in South Africa. And ironically it is possible that surviving fragments of African traditions, might offer a means of coming to terms with the underlying emotional and spiritual crises that impede our movement towards sustainability. Older African thought patterns appear to lack the neurotic edge of individualism and to be more comfortable with paradox. It is these qualities that are required for relating and hence, as much as technical and managerial prowess, for the emergence of sustainability. I suggested at the outset that sustainability embodies a paradox wherein to sustain our future we need to change. Typically, the more we are called to change, the more we resist. Just as our egos resist change, so do our business systems. In fact, faced with the complexity and relentlessness of change in the 21st century, many of our business systems and processes become increasingly dysfunctional. The systemic link between strategic planning and actual outcome appears at best to be tenuous, correlating directly – I suspect – with the spiralling levels of stress and burnout inherent in the corporate world. If this has something to do with our loss of connection to community and nature (our loss of spirit), it may be useful to ask how we might learn from communities who appear to have moved towards balance a little more successfully. Sangoma: Addressing imbalance and ‘stuckness’ The trajectory from hunter-gatherer through to the industrial age is one of an increasingly sedentary community gaining increasing control (over protein sources, women and self-expression to name the obvious few). Greater control tends to bolster the ego’s belief that it does not have to change, increasing resistance and the potential for ‘stuckness’ in the community. One reason for the emergence of spiritual practice is to work with this resistance, reestablishing flow and a balanced connection with Nature. Over millennia, the diverse Sangoma traditions have developed sophisticated ways of doing this.

Sangoma (‘people of the song’) is a diviner-healer tradition of agro-pastoral origins. There are some 200 000 Sangomas in South Africa who are consulted on issues of personal, social, business and spiritual concern. An apprentice Sangoma enters a period of personal development and training in response to a sickness called Ukuthwasa. The term refers to ‘emergence or change (of the moon, or personal state)’, which initiates a process of coming to fullness. The sickness occurs in individuals who are sensitive enough to reflect a state of imbalance and disconnection (their own and that of the community) in an array of specific physical and/or mental symptoms. The ritual that cures this sickness is about ‘bringing forth that which is within you’ – in African terms, possessing spirits. These spirits tend to denote aspects of our shadow: our archetypal ‘dark side’. They are things our ego would not readily wish to expose or embrace, yet like our shadow, remain attached. 

The shadow of business

The shadow of business is equally real, existing alongside the all-too-sugary claims of corporate social investment departments. Any social or environmental cost that is externalised will comprise the shadow of a company. Some examples include solid, liquid or gaseous waste, carbon emissions, destructive levels of stress, dysfunctional hierarchies and gross income disparities.. Just as thwasa brings forth that which is within the individual in order to build strength, so the spirit of sustainability requires that a company bring forth their shadows as a critical aspect of relating to their stakeholders and the Earth. If brand reputation and philanthropic image are the primary reasons for a company’s sustainability drive, the likelihood of this occurring is fairly slim. In Sangoma terms, the potential for business to transform and gain its strength is directly dependent on its ability to recognise its dis-ease and to find the courage to embrace its shadow. What lessons are offered from the Sangoma tradition that might help a corporation change more gracefully? Seven lessons for working with resistant systems t is important to remember that complex systems (like people and their organisations) are self-organising, non-linear feedback mechanisms and are inherently unpredictable. As the late Donella Meadows pointed out, ‘Although the future cannot be predicted, it can be envisioned and brought lovingly into being. We can’t impose our will upon a system, but we can listen to what it tells us and discover how its properties and our values can work together to bring forth something much better than could ever be produced by our will alone.’ Here, in brief, are some of the tools Sangomas use to achieve this ‘bringing forth’.


  • Lesson 1: Amadlosi / Honour the Ancestors. Listen to the wisdom of the system. Learn its history. Discover where the roots of imbalance lie for therein lies guidance for the future. Before you fiddle with anything, be sure to locate those forces and structures that help the system run itself. 
  • Lesson 2: Gita / Dance. Find the rhythm or resonance of the system. Get the beat. Watch how it behaves and learn the facts by getting involved, not just by reading theory, annual reports and published statistics. 
  • Lesson 3: Patla / Communicate. Clear the lines of communication and keep talking. Most of what goes wrong in systems is a result of miscommunication or missing information. 
  • Lesson 4: Laola / Divination. Listen to what is important, not just to what is quantifiable. Learn to integrate different kinds of information: sensory, rational, psychic, intuitive, counter-intuitive and to bring it together in a coherent story. 
  • Lesson 5: Vumisa / Truthtelling. Have the courage to expose your thoughts and mental models. Allow things to be shot down and laughed at, then let go of things that are not useful. 
  • Lesson 6: Muthi / Medicine. Learn to find energy in the system and direct it to where it is needed. 
  • Lesson 7: Moya / Trance. Expand time and thought horizons. See the system from outside, from another perspective. Don’t get caught in the little picture. Don’t get attached to the bigger one. 


If we do these things with integrity, we cannot help but notice the diversity around us. A magnificent unity dawns when we develop the compassion to celebrate this diversity. An appreciation for paradox re-emerges when we are able to see the relationships between our incongruities. In the Sangoma community, this seeing is celebrated by dancing and feasting; in business, we’ll tick the box called ‘transformation’.

Unleashing the spirit of sustainability

As we reclaim the capacity to work with paradox, we develop our ability to see the energies of relationship and interaction between parts of the system, we are able to see how things are connected because we are connected. In business terms, being able to focus and direct these energies (before others have noticed them) is the essential difference between management and leadership. Given its emergence from complex interactions, sustainability will require visionary leadership in our companies, governments and communities. The contention of this article is that the shift needed to supply this level of leadership is primarily spiritual. Our greatest challenge may be the humility required to acknowledge that living intelligently with the Earth is based as much on emotional and spiritual intelligence as anything else; that profound lessons are available, not only from the spirits of mountains and rivers themselves, but from communities who have retained an ability to work with them despite the continued destruction of their traditional practices. Ecopsychologist Theodore Roszak writes: ‘In four centuries of taking wealth and comfort from the body of the Earth, modern science has not troubled to produce a single rite or ritual, not even a minor prayer, that asks pardon or gives thanks.’ Let us hope that we find the courage to act on that absence before too very long.