In early 1999 I was travelling from Johannesburg to Cape Town by plane and was privileged to find myself sitting next to Alfred Baphethuxolo Nzo, who was Foreign Minister in Mandela’s first Cabinet, from when Mandela was first elected President in 1994. We talked of the recent history of South Africa and the changes that were coming about. He told me how he would stand down as a Minister and a politician at the forthcoming election. But soon Mr Nzo turned the conversation to families. He proudly showed me pictures of his children and grandchildren. I said: “well once you are retired you will have more time to spend with your grandchildren.” He looked at me sternly and said: “Life is different in our culture; we do not retire. Once you step down as a leader, you become an Elder. An Elder has their own responsibilities. One of which is to hold the Leadership to account. The leaders have to answer to the Elders for what they do, and we must support and nurture them.”
Immediately I felt a sadness and a lack within my own life and that of my culture. The personal lack I had explored many times in psychotherapy, in workshops with Robert Bly, and with my spiritual teachers. I had searched out and been blessed to have some great Mentors. But the cultural lack of Eldership in our Politics, Professions and Communities was a new awareness that I would pursue. So, when I first met Trevor in 2003, I discovered a shared quest and was enriched by the conversations we had prior to him writing his book “To Plant a Walnut Tree” and was honoured that Trevor included a number of the stories from our conversation.
Since that time, I have been a great admirer of the way that Trevor has continued to pursue this quest in a very committed and active way, developing leadership programmes for young leaders in communities across Africa. He develops leadership in others, not by knowing better, but by constantly discovering through collaborative inquiry with the young people, what is needed in their communities, and what needs affirming in them, so they can step up and respond.
Just recently I watched a video from Trevor’s work, of a young black female community leader in Africa, saying: “Please stop talking about us as tomorrow’s leader’s, our societies cannot wait that long. In Africa, we are today’s leaders.”
As I write this, I have just been watching the speeches of the young people’s gathering in Spain, prior to COP26 Climate Conference that will be held in Glasgow October 2021. Impressive young leaders from around the world, who are desperately trying to hold the politicians of the world to account for the lack of turning their rhetoric into committed action and for the horrific legacy they, and we, are leaving for their generation to contend with. I despaired as I then listened to the patronising empty rhetoric of the older politician’s responses. Where, I thought, are we Elders who have a role to play, not in adding more words, but in helping the powerful leaders really listen, emotionally feel and take on board what the young leaders are telling them. We need to help the political leaders have the humility to ask young people for their help. Where are the Elders who are needed to facilitate a true generative dialogue between the generations and between the rich, early industrialised, nations that have caused the bulk of the greenhouse gasses, directly or indirectly, and the economically poorer countries who disproportionally will suffer the consequences. There are some, but far too few.
Sadly, Mr Nzo died later in the year I met him, so was not able to fulfil the Eldership role he spoke of. However, as Trevor shows, Nelson Mandela did live long enough to show us how it is possible to move from Leadership to Eldership. You become an Elder when you give up on personal ambition and attachment to specific outcomes, but can do what is necessary to be done, without seeking reward or recognition. When you can respond to life’s challenges non-reactively, drawing on wisdom, not knowledge or expertise. I have written about Eldership in a number of my books and other writings, but still daily struggle to give up leadership and respond as an Elder.
My best teachers have been my grandchildren. There is a lovely Welsh saying: “Pure love arrives with the first grandchild.” This is because the deep love that you had for your own children, comes around again, but this time you are not so psychologically entangled. You can love them for who they are and are becoming, without expectations, or the same anxieties, fears and replication of your own previous family patterns.
As I write this the first Autumn leaves are being blown by the wind and rain, past my window and I am grateful that several weeks ago we managed to get the hay into our barns just in time. Also grateful for the many fruits and vegetables from our garden which is sitting in the covered area outside our kitchen. I remember the harvest festivals I have attended over the years, when we sang with thanks for what we had received from the rich earth and nature around us. I am reminded of a recent conversation with colleagues with whom I am editing a book on how coaching can make its contribution to the climate emergency and how we discussed how important practices of gratitude are. I found myself saying: “But we must not stop at gratitude, appreciating the enormous amount we receive by grace from the wider ecology every moment of everyday. At harvest festivals (which could be celebrated daily) in all the different religions and indigenous ceremonies that I know of, after we have given thanks, we move into offering.” As Robin Wall Kimmerer, writes in her beautiful and wise book “Braiding Sweetgrass” (2020: p115): “Cultures of gratitude must also be cultures of reciprocity.” And she beautiful describes First Nation Americans’ ceremonies where everyone puts into the collective collection what they do not need and takes out what is necessary for them.
When I was young, I thought privilege was something you strived for and earnt and that it bought you freedom. Only now in my seventies I can look back and realise I was always, and will always, be privileged and that the more privilege you have, the more it brings you, not freedom, but responsibility. I now believe this is what Mr Nzo was trying to teach me. To still be alive with our health, our faculties and a family, is to be greatly privileged. With that privilege comes greater responsibility.
Thank you, Trevor, for being a role-model and sharing your wisdom and inquiries and active experiments into how we become responsible Elders and Ancestors.