Lessons Learned from South Africa that We Can All Apply to Bridge Our Divisions

We seem more divided today than ever before. Most people are afraid to approach divisive topics for fear of damaging a relationship or embarrassing themselves. We only consider what could go wrong with a conversation versus what could go right. So we don’t try, allowing assumptions, biases and stereotypes to fester. But it doesn’t have to be this way.

I lived in South Africa from 1996 to 1998. It was two years after the end of apartheid, after Nelson Mandala was released from prison and became president. I got to experience what it was like for a country to transition from a deeply divided apartheid state to a unified democracy.

Much of this was made possible through the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which was founded in the belief that truth was the only means by which South Africa could come to a shared understanding of their past in order to forge a new identity in the future. The commission, led by Desmond Tutu, held hearings across the country in churches and community centers, where victims of crimes under apartheid and perpetrators of crimes could come forward and share their stories in the spirit of seeking understanding and healing. 

The stories were aired on TV every Sunday, which helped spark a spirit of listening, learning and relationship-building across the country. I saw before my eyes how an intentional effort to uncover and understand the human experience common among all of us beyond race, culture and political affiliation healed an entire country.

With that experience in mind, I am making a conscious effort to never walk away from the opportunity to find common ground through conversation even when it seems impossible. So far, I have not regretted any of my attempts and am amazed at how a single conversation can replace biases and assumptions with empathy and understanding. And the good news is, I’m not alone. I’m having more conversations with people about having conversations with people lately! If we keep it up, I think we can make the workplace (and the world) a whole lot better…one conversation at a time!

View the inspiring interviews with people who are leaning into challenging conversations over a host of sensitive topics – race, politics, religion and more. And download my Bridging Differences Through Dialog Playbook for simple tips on how to have productive conversations across differences.

In these difficult times, honest dialog is at least a small positive step we can all take in the right direction.  If you are inspired to bridge differences through dialog or have your own story to share, join in!

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Beth Ridley is a former corporate executive turned organizational transformation consultant, speaker and author. Beth combines 25 years of global leadership and management consulting experience with expertise in diversity and inclusion and positive psychology to partner with leaders to transform workplace cultures to better achieve their vision and goals. Beth’s work is featured in national publications and she frequently delivers keynotes and workshops at events around the world. Beth lives with her husband and three children in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

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