It's not just empathy that will solve Africa's problems. We must start listening to each other

Image: World Economic Forum/Benedikt von Loebell

Lady Mariéme Jamme
Founder and Chief Executive Officer, iamtheCODE
A hand holding a looking glass by a lake
Crowdsource Innovation
Get involved with our crowdsourced digital platform to deliver impact at scale

Listening looks easy, but it's not simple. Every head is a world. - Cuban Proverb

Dr Keneilwe Munyai recently wrote that empathy can help solve Africa’s problems but I think listening is actually what will help solve our problems in Africa. Listening comes before empathy and it takes lots of patience to know how to listen.

Before the rise of social media, we had time for each other in Africa. Under our palaver trees (commonly known as the baobab), communities came to discuss issues of common interest in a peaceful and constructive manner.

The World Economic Forum has gathered many prominent leaders in Durban this week but one thing noticeable at such high level events is the lack of listening. There is lots of selling, forecasting, showcasing reports and talking, but hardly any listening.

As we gather again, how can we make sure we listen to each other effectively? Actually take the time to really listen with no interruption from mobile phones, or WhatsApp notifications popping up every second.

How can we gain each other’s attention, when South Africa is going through such turbulent times and uncertainty is on the increase? The country is facing major problems, protestors are expressing themselves on the street of Johannesburg and nobody seems to listen to them. People are talking at each other, not with each other.

Not enough South Africans are in employment, the quality of education is deteriorating, corruption undermines the public and private sector. The country is so divided by racial conversations, black and whites are scared of one another; they don’t even talk, but blame each other.

The Rainbow nation is an illusion these days. The economy has stalled, thanks to the mismanagement of public funds. These are just a few issues facing South Africa, the birth country of Nelson Mandela, who sacrificed so much.

The prevalence of HIV and AIDS among adults increased from 10.6% in 2008 to 12.2% in 2012; and rates of HIV/AIDS among school-age children is unacceptably high. With all these problems, it is important to ask: who is listening in South Africa, especially to women and girls?

How to listen

There are four common types of listening we often do but we can change the world if we choose to do it differently:

1. Listening with comparison

This is demonstrated when two people talk to each other, neither party is listening but both are unconsciously comparing themselves with what the other person is saying.

2. Listening with distraction

When two people are talking and neither is paying attention. Instead they are being distracted by phones, computers, or distant conversations.

3. Listening by charity

One person is talking but the other does not really care about what they are hearing. They are physically present but mentally absent. They feel sorry for the other party and will pretend to listen politely but want them to hurry up.

4. Listening with judgement

This type of listening is prevalent at high-profile events where individuals are desperate to seek glory. Judging you while you are to speaking to them. Curiosity is insufficient, everybody wants to show how well they are doing. They drop names to show the other party how important they are. They are not connecting at all.

All these types of listening will be in evidence at Durban this year. Arguably, South Africa is in chaos because of leaders unconsciously practicing these types of listening.

A change of attitude is needed as we meet this week, the ideal type of listening we are looking for is listening with reciprocity.

South Africans are not healing but they are not listening either. My sincere hope is that people will practice listening with reciprocity, pay more attention to what the other person is saying or not saying just for few minutes; and have one-to-ones to understand the other party better.

This can really change how we transact as Africans. We are obsessed with growth, GDP talks, shiny reports, or flagship programmes that will not even survive six months from now.

We should be obsessed with listening to each other, sharing ideas, inviting investors, marketing our continent better, with real case studies like, the first African-led global movement mobilizing government, private sector and investors to advance education in science, technology, arts, mathematics and design (STEAMD).

This week it was reported that the Trump administration may stop funding Michelle Obama’s Let Girls Learn – a programme to open up educational opportunities for girls around the world. So it is more important than ever, to continue to develop our own programmes for millions of women and girls in Africa. It is a moral imperative to give them an education in technology.

But who is listening?

Don't miss any update on this topic

Create a free account and access your personalized content collection with our latest publications and analyses.

Sign up for free

License and Republishing

World Economic Forum articles may be republished in accordance with the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International Public License, and in accordance with our Terms of Use.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

World Economic Forum logo
Global Agenda

The Agenda Weekly

A weekly update of the most important issues driving the global agenda

Subscribe today

You can unsubscribe at any time using the link in our emails. For more details, review our privacy policy.

About Us



Partners & Members

  • Join Us

Language Editions

Privacy Policy & Terms of Service

© 2024 World Economic Forum