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The Invisible Middles

Colleen Magner
April, 2015


Today is South Africa's 21st Freedom Day, an appropriate day to reflect on the country’s step into adulthood. I was recently asked the kind of question I’m used to asking, but I realised not used to being asked: “If you cast yourself forward to 2030 in South Africa, what would a good picture be and what are the steps that lead to this reality?”

It was a disconcerting struggle for me to answer the question: “What could South Africa look like if the picture was better than it is now?” The obvious answers came me first: there will be a reduced gap between rich and poor, more people will be in meaningful work, there will be better use of our scarce but still accessible shared resources, and so on. I think I even quoted some of the NDP’s targets. Then I ran out of what to say, and needed to pause: my answers didn’t feel convincing or alive to me.

The better story has already been carefully thought through by a number of important institutions like the National Planning Commission. I paused for a moment to find something to offer from my own observation of how change has happened.  As I was given more time to think about the answer, the light slowly flickered on.

In imagining the future, I realised the importance of a number of “invisible middles” playing their critical, but not always obvious role. Invisible middles are the people, organisations and groups who fly under the radar. They are not in the press, they are not the first line of public scrutiny, and they are not big or influential enough to effect change independently. What makes them unique is that they have the purpose and ability to engage both the engine room and those steering the ship. They understand the trade offs and conflicting interests between different sectors and yet know that there are also places of shared interest and concern.

The invisible middles can also be described as “Interlocutors”. Alan Fowler describes the role of Interlocutors as assembling actors, guiding interaction, and embedding action in institutions. Interlocutors are not external to the outcome – they’re not consultants. Quite the contrary - they hold deep commitment and attachment to the outcome.

In our work, I have come across many invisible middles working across sectors in South Africa, whether it be in organisations working with local government and traditional authorities on land reform, or people working within both corporate boardrooms and stokvels on more inclusive financial products. These individuals and their organisations have the ability to “assemble actors”: what we in Reos call “convening”. The stepping up part will happen when there is more considered attention given to “guiding the interaction” as Fowler explains (if you’re interested in his work, I’ve included a link below).

So for me if the story begins in 2015, and ends in 2030, there will be multiple initiatives guided by the invisible middles to address unemployment, land reform, healthcare, energy, sustainable food supply, regional integration, social protection, infrastructure, and other burning issues.

This will require unlikely allies to stay committed for a period of time, to debate, share, experiment and implement. How do we ensure the invisible middles continue to connect people, resources and shared interests? There are many ways in which this could happen and is already happening. IAMAFRICA is an example of a considered response to the recent spate of xenophobic attacks in South Africa. And further abroad the Sustainable Food Lab has been working across the Americas on sustainable food supply.

The invisible middles are critical connectors in South Africa, an environment that so often experiences intractable division. We won’t necessarily all know about these invisible middles or hear about them in the press. But as we more actively seek them out and notice their role, we might experience a change in ourselves – how we make sense of our shared challenges, who to work with, and how we chose to act together.

For more stories of interlocutors, working with large complex problems, and how different parties came together to work on them, see:


This is the second edition of ‘Moving through Tough Terrain’, a monthly post that reflects experiences from working in places where there are no easy answers. It’s something new and an experiment in how we can share some of the things Reos is learning about this work. Click here to read the previous article.

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