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On blind spots and losing one’s vision

Wednesday, 17 January 2018 14:10

During December 2016 I lost my vision. Perhaps it happened slowly and unnoticed prior to that December morning when I woke up with darkness shrouding my left eye and my right eye not quite able to focus as well as it did the day before. Perhaps I should have taken the symptoms experienced for several months leading up to that December morning more seriously instead of just chucking them in the basket of “too many long hours in front of computer screen, too many long-distance flights, not enough sleep”. Perhaps...

I can’t help but to draw parallels with sustainability issues that companies face as I reflect on my 2017 journey, which included not being allowed to travel and several eye operations, each operation bringing with it the hope that miraculously through the application of the latest medical science, the sight in my left eye will be restored.  Too often companies ignore the symptoms or the signs that something is amiss and too often it is only when there is an outcry, or a strike, or an outbreak of violence, that the issues are addressed. Like I did, many companies undergo several ‘operations’ to address the symptoms, using a variety of consultants to address the problems; and I am sure that like I sometimes wished I could gauge out my left eye and start from scratch, many companies wish they could start from scratch. Unfortunately that is not possible and one is forced to deal with the situation at hand in the best manner possible to yield the best possible result. 

Unfortunately my left eye remains unusable, but in the past four months I have put in an enormous effort in adapting and re-learning how to cope with those unexpected issues that appear when one (suddenly) only has one functioning eye, including discovering that one has no depth perception and if one does not want to stumble down slopes and stairs, one must learn other ways to deal with such limitations. And similarly companies can learn new skills and adjust to different ways of dealing with sustainability issues and even if the damage cannot be reversed, the application of the correct mitigation can result in an outcome that could be just as valuable as reversing the damage, and sometimes the outcome can be even more sustainable than the original state of affairs. All that is required is the will to do it and a corporate culture that is not tone deaf and one that is willing to embrace change.

Blind spots also plagued my beleaguered vision for a while. And when I read the following Facebook post late last year by a renowned and well-respected South African human rights lawyer, it made me think of how often we have blind spots when it comes to issues of power, patriarchy and institutional racism:

“I recognize the delicacy of the matter, but really.

Imagine I got very drunk in a hotel room with two female colleagues. Thus uninhibited and uninvited I undressed and masturbated in front of them.

In the sober light of day, I would be so ashamed and embarrassed I would be forced to emigrate.

Their scorn and laughter and that of their friends would be too much to bear.

Now imagine I was sober, I would not even have the excuse of drunkenness, I would be obliged to kill myself.

Louis C.K. is the person who comes across as a total doos. The women who were the witnesses to his shameful conduct as those who are doing the shaming.

I don’t understand the narrative of the spectators to his embarrassing and utterly inappropriate behavior as his victims.”


This professional works in the human rights arena in a country plagued with inequality, misogyny and racism, and yet appears not to understand (or perhaps he is unable to acknowledge?) the power relations that exist in industries, whether in Hollywood or at the Mining Indaba or on Capitol Hill.  Not to mention the victim blaming that is implicit (at least in my opinion) in his post.  If development and human rights professionals have such significant blind spots, what hope is there? And how does one address the situation? 

A medical procedure and several different eye-drops inserted several times a day for several weeks effectively dealt with my blind spots, and thus I would imagine that awareness-raising, calling out by others, and serious self-reflection would be a good start when it comes to addressing blind spots in the development fraternity. And as I had to unlearn and re-imagine my habits in order to adapt to my altered vision, whether when driving, walking or reading, hope rests on the belief that as development and human rights professionals we can also unlearn old habits and re-imagine what the world would be like without the blind spots that allow for patriarchy, misogyny, homophobia and racism to continue.  We, who find ourselves in this position of building careers on the back of the poor, the vulnerable and the oppressed, should certainly lead the charge to affect real change and to obliterate these blind spots.

After 11 months off field work, I returned to work full-steam and with enthusiasm a few weeks ago.  I have learned that an old dog can indeed learn new tricks, and that I have the ability to adjust and be even better at most tasks than before I lost the vision in my left eye, mainly because (I think) I am now acutely aware of the blessings that come with one’s ability to see, hear, smell, walk, talk, jump, run and apply one’s mind. And also because I needed to prove to myself that I can indeed still be an asset to society and hopefully be a catalyst for change in the future. 

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This article was originally posted on LinkedIn on 23 June 2017:

 This Facebook post from June 20th, 2017 made its way into my inbox this morning:

“When I do Stakeholder Engagement training, one of the sections is on the use of technical language when communicating with stakeholders. The easiest example we use is when technical people talk of the underground "aquifer" to non-technical audiences. We suggest they call it an underground body of water or lake instead. The hon mayor of Cape Town just told the nation on television that there is an "equifire" below Table Mountain and another "equifire" underneath the Theewaterskloof dam. My work here on earth is not yet done.”

The person who forwarded it to me wanted to know what I thought of it considering that the post's author is someone who describes themselves as a ‘public participation specialist’ and who works primarily as a stakeholder engagement trainer in South Africa and other African countries.

The contents of the post raises several different issues that one could ruminate on, for example the reason for the terrible drought that has Cape Town and the western regions of South Africa in its grip, the reckless wastage of water that has brought the area to its knees, climate change, and so forth; but it is the shaming of an accent that jumps out the most at me, and which I find the most offensive, specifically in the light that the author is training companies on how to engage with their stakeholders on a population diverse continent. Whilst the post starts off quite reasonably it degenerates into making fun of Ms Patricia de Lille, the mayor of Cape Town’s, accent. From the post is clear that Ms de Lille understands what an aquifer is, and she uses the term correctly, thus the first three sentences of the post does not link in any meaningful way to the last two sentences, except to display the author’s prejudice. What stands out very clearly is that the author assumes, despite evidence to the contrary, that Ms de Lille does not know what an aquifer is just because she does not pronounce it in the same way the author does, or what the author expects to be a ‘correct’ or ‘proper’ pronunciation.  

This type of accent shaming is rife in South Africa, especially if the person whose accent is deemed to be unacceptable is not white, but I have also heard Eastern Europeans degraded because they speak ‘funny’ and thus assumed to be ignorant. This despite the fact that the speaker is fluent in English. It is of course not without irony that one must point out that these persons engaging in shaming do not speak any indigenous languages, except perhaps Afrikaans. Perhaps if they did, they might understand that one’s accent does not correlate with one’s intelligence, level of education nor level of knowledge.

Those of us who claim to be stakeholder engagement practitioners, and those of us who also train others to engage with stakeholders, should be hyper-aware of our own prejudices. This is especially important when we work in countries with a diverse population, such as South Africa, where there is not one common ‘accent’; and in countries where our clients will most likely not be a local company but rather a foreign entity trying to deal with local customs, cultures, norms and accents. We should reflect on how our own prejudices and beliefs can be transferred through our training and how it can really befuddle our clients and students’ efforts after we leave.  

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