The Kgotla – group decision making in Africa

P1000029I recently returned from the ‘Solution Focused Safari’ conference in Johannesburg, South Africa. It was a marvellous event, the first large-scale international SF meeting there, with presenters from all over the world and a good contingent of South Africans eager to learn and join in. One particular workshop which stood out was my good friend and colleague Stanus Cloete (pictured on the right during a trip to Soweto along with his wife Riekie and my wife Jenny) presenting on his experience with the Kgotla.

The Kgotla – pronounced ‘hotla’ to our Western ears (the K is silent) – is a form of participative leadership process developed by African tribal groups. It has survived in some places, particularly in Botswana, and it’s this example which Stanus presented to us. If there is a question concerning the whole community, then a Kgotla may be called. Stanus started from the African concept of ubuntu – “I am who I am because of who we all are”. This stance is about the importance of connection and social process, and sits very well alongside a host leadership perspective.

The Kgotla is a group meeting to which the whole community is invited. (OK, so in the traditional form only the men are invited, but this is about learning from ancient wisdom rather than criticising it. (Nowadays woman also partake though there is still some criticism about the role of women in the Botswana community.) There are five key principles for a Kgotla:

1. Neutral ground – it’s held in the open air, and is open to all, with an expectation of mutual honesty.
2. No time limit – any one may speak, but everyone has a chance to speak before the same person can speak again. All points of view are listened to.
3. Focus on the now and the future – the discussion is about where we are and how to move forward helpfully, rather than a recounting of the past (as seen in western legal courts, for example). The focus is on reconciliation, restorative justice and reintegration.
4. Collective responsibility – the focus is on how to do things together rather than separately, building consensus and compromise.
5. Proverbs – there are some wonderful sayings which help to connect and understand the way of the Kgotla which are used as reminders for those present, including:

• All words spoken at the Kgotla are beautiful
• Everyone is entitled to their own views no matter what they are
• The king is king by the grace of the people
• The chief is the shepherd of the people
• The chief is a tree branch on which every bird seats (sic – not sits. This gives a different meaning)
• The wealth of the king is in the affections of his subjects.

One important aspect is that the chief and elders sit somewhat outside the discussion. Their role is not to speak in the first instance – it is to listen and understand. When all has been said (and remember, that can take a while) then the chief and elders will come forward to summarise what has been said. Then, they reach a conclusion, in front of everyone, about what might happen next

From a host leadership perspective, there are a number of interesting aspects to the Kgotla.

  • Attendance is invited rather than compulsory and is open to all. This means that those with an interest are free to come, rather than only certain representatives.
  • Everyone can speak, and there are mechanisms for allowing all voices to be heard.
  • The neutral ground also reinforces that the process is open to all.
  • The proverbs set an atmosphere and expectation of constructive and future focused contributions.
  • The role of the chief and elders is most interesting. Rather than chair or lead the discussion, they are expected to listen and then summarise. This means that any summary must be seen to be a fair reflection by those present, which itself brings the need for appreciative and constructive listening from the elders.

It would certainly be interesting to use this form of dialogue in difficult and confrontational situations here. There are echoes of circle practices (with everyone given the opportunity to speak) and also reflecting teams (with the chief and elders listening to the whole discussion before responding). I hope that Stanus can continue to share and develop the ideas of the Kgotla more widely in South Africa and beyond.

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