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The walls within: working with defenses against otherness

Online Conference 5-11 July 2021

AM23-QC-PP19: The impact of unconscious group dynamics on the transformation journey of a South African township primary school

Parallel Papers Session 4
Saturday 1 July 14.00pm-15.15 SAST - VENUE 4
This presentation is STREAMED: a live broadcast from the venue with no online interaction. Moderators may announce zoom 'chat' questions can be submitted. Please 'mute' your microphone in consideration of other online participants and the audio recording.

The impact of unconscious group dynamics on the transformation journey of a South African township primary school

Presenter: Regan Berry


In this paper I use a psychodynamic lens to interpret the dynamics I observed and experienced as an external coach, workshop facilitator and researcher during my involvement with a primary school situated in Alexandra township in Johannesburg, South Africa. Townships in South Africa are remnants of apartheid spatial planning and consist of communities characterised by overcrowding, inadequate infrastructure and resources, rampant unemployment and crime. Townships are also areas that are alive with possibility, resilience, innovation and incredibly rich culturally diverse communities.

In South Africa it is well recognised that despite the vision and hope to eradicate the apartheid education system and create equal education for all there still exists a dual education system. The schools serving the affluent minority produce almost 90% of the children who proceed to university. The schools serving the majority of black learners in this country are under resourced, have unqualified educators and consistently underperform academically. Despite billions of Rands and innumerable national, provincial and local interventions nothing has significantly shifted this prevalent underperformance. Conventional above-the-line explanations and solutions to address this pervasive systemic problem have not yielded promising results and it is past time to explore what might be occurring below the surface in these schools and the education system in South Africa. This study forms part of a larger constructivist grounded theory doctoral study aimed at constructing a framework for holistic transformation of South African township primary schools.

Psychodynamic theory is one of three systems theories which constitute the theoretical framework of the study; the other two being Bioecological Systems theory and Spiral Dynamics theory. The study is an in-depth study on one township school where the first author was involved over a ten-year period, first as a practitioner then as a researcher and practitioner. The data was collected through interviews, autoethnographic reflections, listening posts, documents and solicited data and the data was analysed through coding and thematic analysis. There seems to be a plethora of both basic individual defences of denial, splitting and projection and social defences built into the school and the broader educational system which are explored in this paper.

The paper explores the power of containment and containing the containers of the principal, SMT and educators through the creation of safe spaces to think and process emotion. Despite the natural underlying spirituality of a community where the PURPLE Spiral Dynamic worldview is prevalent; where community and relationships are honoured over individualism; and collaboration for the survival of the collective is valued there appears to be significant alienation which has rendered broken relationships and resulted in disconnection and a fractured school and community system. The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated and magnified the challenges faced by township schools as the vain hope of a “no-child-left-behind” vision of the South African Department of Basic Education dissipated like smoke drifting into the ether from a smouldering fire without being actioned or transformed into anything of substance.

Learning Objectives

Participants will be able to:

  1. Identify social defences against anxiety in traumatised organisations.
  2. Distinguish between the Basic Assumption Incohesion states of Aggregation and Massification.
  3. Recognise the impact that a lack of containment in schools has on thinking and learning.
  4. Recognise and discuss the interplay, synergies and clashes of the PURPLE and BLUE Spiral Dynamic worldviews in a community.

Biographical Summary

Regan Berry is a leadership Coach, Social Worker in private practice and leadership and teams workshop facilitator in the Education Sector. Regan has been involved in transforming education in township schools for over ten years. She is a Doctoral student in her final year. Regan is using an unexplored systems psychodynamic theoretical lens to bring new insights and understanding to township schools that exist in and serve traumatised communities in South Africa. Regan holds a Bachelor of Commerce degree, Master of Arts (Social Sciences) is an Integrative Enneagram Coach and has a Certificate of Working with the unconscious in Groups recognised by the Institute of Group Analysis.