Burning to be Understood
South Africa is a place of re.
Fynbos, a wondrously diverse type of vegetation indigenous to the
Western Cape region of South Africa, needs re to thrive. The roaring
heat and fragrant smoke of a fynbos re trigger seeds to germinate. After
a re, minerals in the ash return to the soil, nourishing fynbos regrowth.
Fire, smoke, ash: phoenix. Without regular exposure to re, fynbos loses
its competitive edge against thicket. But when it burns too frequently,
fynbos can’t establish itself for long enough to mature. It’s a delicate life
cycle between persisting and perishing.
In the early days of apartheid, state foresters suppressed burning,
ignoring research that showed the ecological benets of fynbos re.
Mace pagoda, a magnicent owering species previously found in the
mountains behind my cottage, was brought to the brink of extinction as
a result of re suppression. Then an accidental re roared through the
area, reactivating underground seed banks that had been dormant for
decades. The protea is the most well-known fynbos ower with its bold
beauty, but it is the delicate re lily that pushes through the ruins within
days of a re, appearing scarlet against the blackened ground.
I experience three sources of heat in South Africa. There is the re
within, visible in raised emotional temperatures and desire for change,
now. There is the re outside, the hot drought of recent years, the increas-
ing tempo of fynbos res. And there is the re between us, evident in our
relationships across race, producing plenty of heated exchanges. I know
something about the re within. I was born in England and moved to
apartheid South Africa in . A seven-year-old with the sensitive skin
of one born to the low, grey skies of northern England. The South African
sun blistered my skin. The emotional temperature of racial injustice
created a slower burn inside. By the age of my response to the racism
that dened my experience of school and neighbourhood life had
billowed into full-blown rage. I also know something about the re out-
dark mountain · issue 15
side, having had my cottage engulfed, but not consumed, by a fynbos re
in . But it’s the res between us that create the liveliest sparks for me.
Colonialism and apartheid were predicated on treating black South
Africans as less than human. Spatial apartheid meant that black and
white South Africans encountered each other rarely, and only under such
bizarre and articial circumstances that any meaningful conversation
was unlikely. Racism stymied what little chance there was to understand
each other across racial barriers. Racism continues to stymie understand-
ing years after apartheid ofcially ended. Black South Africans are
burning to speak, burning to have their experiences heard, burning to be
A few years ago, I joined a group of South African professionals
committed to dialogue. We met regularly over a two-year period. We
were all middle class, most of us mid-career. Two thirds of us were white
and one third black. We talked, compulsively, about race and racial injus-
tice past and present. We couldn’t focus on anything else. Many moments
are seared into my memory. Here are three:
Zanele stands up and immediately lls the room with her presence.
She’s a successful career woman and mother to three children.
There’s something compelling about Zanele’s presence; she strikes
me as deeply self-loving. And when she gets angry, words pour
from her like lava from a volcano. A red-hot molten river of words.
Her poise in those moments is exquisite. The ow of words and her
concentrated anger immerse me in her world of being dismissed,
denied and derailed at every turn as a black woman in South
Africa. She’s angry with us as white people and I can’t help but get
it. I had thought that my activist parents and my hatred of racism
had inoculated me. But it hadn’t. I was and am implicated in a
system of racism that benets me at the expense of black South
On another occasion, we’re in the midst of a robust conversation
when Nomfundo leaps up. Usually a reserved woman in the group,
she shouts: ‘Why can’t you white people see how central you are?
Right now!’ The room goes quiet. There’s simply no denying it.
I had thought I understood white centrality, and I had thought that
as an introvert who tends to stay on the periphery of group dia-
logues, I was less guilty of it. But Nomfundo has made me rethink.
It’s not just how much I speak, it’s a sense of entitlement to shared
space and how my occupation of that space marginalises and
silences black people.
During one of our nal meetings, Mandla puts his head in his hands
and his shoulders start to heave. It’s shocking. This man was born,
and indeed trained, to ght. Hard as it can be to face him when he’s
angry, it’s more painful to see him weep. And he doesn’t stop. The
grief below the anger knows no bounds.
The black people in the group had a tolerance for heat. They could stay
with strong expressions of anger, conict and grief – which is what was
needed. We white people wilted.
Nelson Mandela’s extraordinary personal capacity for reconciliation
with his oppressors and jailers had the effect of letting white people,
generally, off the hook. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC)
created an important space in the late s for the telling of stories of
violence, torture and murder by the apartheid state. But too few people
received a chance to testify and the very limited lifespan of the TRC
revealed only a glimpse of the suffering. The average black South
African’s anger and grief has still not been publicly spoken, heard or un-
Around the same time, failure to implement prescribed block-burning
of fynbos – now largely for economic reasons in a country trying to redis-
tribute resources – resulted in a massive increase in wildres. I remember
that hot summer’s day in January when wildres broke out in
the Western Cape.
The intensity of heat between South Africans is in stark contrast to my
present reality as a PhD researcher in Germany. I’m working in an inter-
national team of natural and social scientists studying social-ecological
sustainability. A group of smart and hardworking people, my colleagues
are sincerely committed to social justice and social-ecological wellbeing.
But this South African nds the temperature of our collaboration too
cool. Where’s the re?
Every now and then, there is a lick of ame. A colleague sends out a
group email to the rest of our research team. It contains links to articles
about extinction crises precipitated by the death in Kenya of the last male
northern white rhino and by the collapse of bird populations in France.
The links are prexed by a scorching one-liner: ‘I am delighted to share
dark mountain · issue 15
my sources of motivation with you.’ Reading this line evokes an image of
eyes glittering above her keyboard.
Here, there is re. My scientic colleague is also burning to be under-
stood. But the response from the team is muted and the heat she feels
doesn’t visibly carry across to the collective.
It’s two years into our research collaboration and we have gathered for
a team meeting. An unexpectedly tense exchange is followed by a pro-
tracted pause. No one makes eye contact. The meeting convener says
‘perfect’ in a voice that only just escapes through clenched teeth. We
understand the meeting to be over. I open my mouth to say something, to
name the difculty, but people are already starting to troop towards the
door and I abandon the impulse.
There is potential for heat in this team but it’s being suppressed. This
isn’t a deliberate strategy; Simon Pooley’s characterisation of fynbos re
suppression in the old South Africa as a ‘failure of nerve’ is apt for our
research team. There is fear of re. As a result, frustrations remain largely
unspoken and therefore not fully heard or understood. Several people
have withdrawn their full presence, disappearing into their research with
their quiet disappointments. Our collective work is the poorer for it.
Harvard leadership scholars Heifetz and Laurie say that in teams ‘noth-
ing cooks without some heat.’
This isn’t surprising. Who wants strong emotion in the workplace,
especially in academia? But there is academic mileage to be gained from
inquiring into the sources of frustration and disappointment in collabo-
rative research experiences.
My research team also operates in a context that insulates it from
external sources of heat. Yes, the big picture issues are urgent, but the
immediate situation in Northwestern Europe is another kind of comfort
zone. Despite the latest predictions of the Intergovernmental Panel on
Climate Change (IPCC) and the fact that evidence of social-ecological
collapse appears in the team’s own research, it requires a vivid imagina-
tion to project oneself into these scenarios of climate crisis. The team is
young, with most members having been born at least years after the
end of World War II. There is no memory of how fast a seemingly stable
situation can deteriorate into brutality and hunger.
Why is the temperature of this research team cool? Could it be the
stereotypical rational coolness attributed to scientists? Or to men? Or to
Germans? Maybe these are factors. But my guess is that our privilege
helps to keep team temperatures low. Most of us come from backgrounds
that inoculated us against economic hardship or social discrimination.
All of us have enjoyed the kind of access to education and other oppor-
tunities that smoothed our paths to PhD level and beyond in a Western
I think of privilege as a form of centrality. Those of us with relative
privilege are accustomed to having our voices heard and our presence
welcomed in most social interactions. This produces an often-
unconscious sense of entitlement to being taken seriously, to being
central. Experiences of being on the margins are less familiar. Of course,
given the myriad identities that make each of us who we are, many of us
with privilege have also experienced prejudice in our lives. White women
or white gay men, for example. In fact we may be so strongly identied
with experiences of being displaced in the world of white, straight, able-
bodied men that we don’t recognise our own mainstream centrality and
how it displaces others.
Arnie Mindell was a Jungian analyst in Switzerland when he started
to transfer some of his ideas to groups. The Deep Democracy approach
to dialogue evolved from here. Deep Democracy welcomes the fuller
expression of our experience, to deepen our understanding of each other
and strengthen our relationships, whether personal or professional. This
includes the expression of conict and strong emotion. Mindell talks
about this as ‘sitting in the re’. Not just walking through re, but plant-
ing one’s posterior among the coals and staying. The implications are that
people working for social, or social-ecological, changes develop a toler-
ance for the heat that invariably comes with real change. To be less afraid
of immolation, to grow a skin that can withstand intense heat for the
sake of deep learning and deep change.
Deep Democracy works especially well where there is a power differ-
ential, because it takes seriously encounters between those at the centre
and those at the margins. Instead of trying to make conict or anger go
away for the sake of peaceful group relations, Deep Democracy treats
the heat as a signal for those with privilege to listen. To toughen up in the
face of scorching temperatures. To respond with urgency without re-
centring ourselves. To stop dampening the ames with a coolly colonial
attitude – whether in the name of ‘civilised’ or ‘scientic’ discourse – that
makes other ways of relating illegitimate.
On more than one occasion, I’ve watched a fynbos re move across the
mountain range behind my cottage. At night, it’s a beautiful sight. One
moment it looks very far away, a silent image of dancing orange against
dark mountain · issue 15
the dark sky, observed through the safety of my bedroom window. I’ve
felt a mixture of sympathy and smugness in relation to people who built
grand holiday houses on the mountain slopes. The next moment, the
ever-present coastal wind carries sparks to a spot much closer to my
cottage and whips them into ame. Suddenly, I’m no longer a complacent
spectator on the periphery.
Sometimes ery exchanges combust unexpectedly at close proximity,
and it’s no longer possible to be a bystander, condently assuming the
problem belongs to others. We may be implicated.
Of course, it’s not just black South Africans who possess a hard-earned
capacity to sit in the re. Most people who have experienced profound
struggle and silencing have developed this resilience. I found out about
this last year at an international Deep Democracy dialogue in Greece and
then I had an unexpected lesson about the long haul of cultivating resil-
We arrive in Greece from different countries to participate in a
week of Deep Democracy. Old-fashioned democracy has recently pro-
duced President Trump and Brexit, and has allowed Erdogan, Putin and
innumerable others to get away with murder. During six intense days
together, we sought to remain available to the full spectrum of experi-
ences and opinions related not only to the rise of the political right all
over the world, but also to people of colour from all over the world living
with legacies of colonialism, women in Japan struggling to nd their pub-
lic voices, women – and some men – navigating life after sexual assault,
people who identify as queer dealing with power dynamics within the
queer community. Perhaps most powerful of all, people from different
African countries choosing to have a public conversation with each other
about the risk of becoming apologists for whiteness, refusing to allow
any of the white facilitators on hand to facilitate their conversation.
It is hot.
The deal is that every voice deserves to be heard. Especially the ones we
don’t want to hear because they carry too much hatred, or pain. These
are often the ones we’ve silenced internally too, especially if, at our most
honest, those voices have found a small echo within us. By listening to
every perspective, we carve out more spaciousness within ourselves
to hold the whole picture, not just the bits we like. By acknowledging
the pain that can calcify into hatred, maybe there’s a chance for healing
the self and acknowledging what has been silenced both internally and
externally. Rather than simply seeking to destroy the other. Together, we
may come to better – more nuanced and more sustainable – decisions
that still represent the majority but are vastly improved by also taking
seriously the reservations of various minority perspectives.
I sit, one among . Zanele is here too. None of us are passive specta-
tors; we’re all caught up in the experiences of being more central or more
marginal, of trying to deepen the democracy between us, regardless of the
issue. But the introvert in me keeps me rmly attached to my chair, reluc-
tant to participate more actively. On the penultimate day, we agree to talk
about an issue we’ve been skirting: colonialism. When the facilitators
request that someone speak from an authentic experience, so that we
don’t end up in a supercial role-play, I nd myself rising from my seat
next to Zanele. My great-grandfather was a British missionary to Bengal.
On the other side of my family, the men have served in the British Army
for as long as anyone can remember. This is a history about which I
would happily keep quiet. Not today apparently.
I thought I’d developed a pretty high tolerance for heat in South Africa,
but I was woefully underprepared. As I embodied my lineage, the heat
proved more than I could take and so I did exactly what any cool,
rational, order-loving coloniser would do and asked everyone to calm
down. Not surprisingly, this polite request had the opposite effect. Fuel to
the re. Whoosh! That experience created a simmering curiosity within
me to know more about my colonial ancestry.
Those of us with privilege have largely been shielded. We haven’t had
to toughen up. We don’t have the inbuilt resilience developed by enduring
the daily insults and closed doors that come with inequality and injustice.
Even those working in the eld of sustainability research don’t necessar-
ily feel the same sense of urgency as those at the frontline of ecological
disruption. We can still afford a certain degree of denial that disaster will
befall us, a certain level of cool.
So what does it mean to learn to sit in the re? To willingly be exposed
to heat in relationship? How will that kind of heat tolerance help us
survive other kinds of heat that may be coming? And what can we learn
from fynbos? I’m learning to be in the re often enough to germinate new
growth, but not so often that the new growth is lost. Fire can be an
addiction; I’ve worked in groups with pyromaniacs who light little res
all the time.
Soon I will return to South Africa, with my privilege intact, and I’m
dark mountain · issue 15
checking my ammability levels. My skin, once again paled by the long
winters of Europe, needs to be both sensitive enough to pick up on subtle
signals of disturbance and reproof enough to sit in the heat of ongoing
and necessary social upheaval in South Africa.
And that’s not an exclusively South African task.
With my thanks to Zanele, whose ne anger was a catalyst for me to
listen more closely to anger, and to learn how to breathe my own dragon
Heifetz, R.A. and Laurie D.L. ‘The Work of Leadership’, Harvard Business Review (),
Horst, M. ‘Learning from Discomfort: Science Communication Experiments between
Diffusion, Dialogue and Emergence’, in Philips, L., Kristiansen M., Vehviläinen M.,
Knowledge and Power in Collaborative Research: A Reexive Approach,
Mindell, A. Sitting in the Fire: Large Group Transformation Using Conict and Diversity,
Lao Tse Press,
Pooley, S. ‘Recovering the Lost History of Fire in South Africa’s Fynbos’, Environmental
History (), , pp.–