However, the spirit and culture of democracy has been seriously eroded over the last 10 years. "Collective thinking" was sacrificed on the altar of "group thinking", which means that those people who were closest to the views of the centre of power in the executive prevailed over others who had different views. Here the examples of HIV-denial and the way the executive dealt with Zimbabwe come to mind. Peter Senge and co authors write about groupthink in Presence, (p31-21) as follows: "The Voice of Judgment can stifle creativity for groups as surely as for individuals. It is what we typically call 'groupthink', the continual albeit often subtle, censoring of honesty and authenticity in a team. The collective Voice of Judgment tells people what they should and shouldn't say, do and even think. Often, its effects become evident only in retrospect…"
Parliament -- mostly a forum for heckling and very seldom a forum for dialogue -- lost much of its oversight capacity over time because MPs could not dare to break ranks. A culture of fear to speak your mind and to criticise the dominant and powerful voices discouraged independent thinking and action. This situation was exacerbated by weakened organisational structures of the ANC and civic organisations on the ground. In the 80s and 90s the ANC and United Democratic Front (UDF) had structures on the ground that dealt effectively with short term crises and medium and longer-term ground-swell issues that arose. It was therefore, for example, possible for the ANC and its partners to contain the mass anger over the assassination of Chris Hani and to prevent the outbreak of full-scale revenge attacks because there was strong leadership at national, regional and local levels. This is no longer the case. The scale and impact of the recent outbreak of xenophobic attacks were most devastating in communities were there were no or weak leadership structures or mechanisms. Government watched helplessly as people who are protected under our constitution were fleeing their attackers with no one to run to.
Before and during the 1994 elections the tensions were far worse than today, but there was a very a very important safety-valve mechanism in place: The National Peace Accord (NPA) structures at national, regional and local levels. The National Peace Secretariat, Regional and Local Peace Committees were inclusive, credible and agile forums that provided people a safe physical and process space to mediate and facilitate solutions to thousands of potentially destructive conflicts. They used dialogue, joint problem solving and monitoring. Ordinary people had an opportunity to discuss issues threatening peace. Politicians and police, government and NGOs, religious and cultural leaders, housewives and business executives collectively held one another accountable. There was a sense of ownership of processes that affected them.
Since the disbanding of the National Peace Accord structures and the conclusion of the negotiations for a new constitution there have been virtually no safe spaces for creative and generative dialogue and cohesion-building. That is, in my opinion, one of the main reasons for the growing intolerance and xenophobic attacks. Where do people meet without defending or attacking each other? And where do people explore ways to overcome problems in spaces that are free of political contest? Radio talk stations are doing a fantastic job in amplifying people's voices, but in itself it has little potential to change behaviour because people are not meeting fact to face. There are very few safe spaces where people can meet and dialogue in the absence of politicians who push group thinking. We have lost the spaces to connect to each other with the sole purpose of building a cohesive society. People are caught between ignorance and fear, without hope-giving and enlightened guidance and inspiration by leaders, on the one hand, and without access to constructive processes, on the other hand.
This is where I would like to invite you to explore me some ideas on how to help turn this situation around. How do we work towards the design and facilitation of safe spaces in ways that are empowering and reconciling? How does one help leaders and ordinary people to separate politically contested spaces (which is the arena for party politics and the current default style of discourse in and via the media) from safe spaces where people can explore ways to "see with fresh eyes"? How do we stimulate dialogue at various levels? How do we build cohesive societies that are working together to overcome the hurts of the past? How can we reclaim the momentum and right to determine the direction of processes that impact on poverty alleviation, economic growth and socio-economic development? Who needs to talk, how and when?
Is it time for a new round of scenario building processes along the same lines as the Mont Fleur scenarios during the early 90s? I'm sure some private sector companies are undertaking research into scenarios, which is helpful, but I think we need an inclusive process that involves polity, business and civil society.
Isn't it time to seriously engage with one another on how to ensure that South Africa leads the way to achieve the Millennium Development Goals and sustainable development and that our progress does not depend on whether whether Mbeki or Zuma is president?
How do we build a common understanding of what sustainable development is? Nicanor Perlas, in my opinion, gives a crucial perspective on and framework for sustainable development in his book "Shaping Globalization. Civil Society, Cultural Power and Threefolding". Sustainable development, he says, has seven dimensions: Spiritual Development, Human Development, Social Development, Cultural Development, Political Development, Economic Development, and Ecological Development. I particularly like this framework because it goes beyond the usual focus on economic and political stability. In all the other six dimensions we are seriously lacking.
What we need is generative dialogue: conversations that will help us generate something new, something that goes beyond what is there for all to see.
The question is how to make the dream of Sharunas Paunksnis a reality: “Today, the voice of power is much louder than the voice of dialogue, and our hope is that someday the latter will dominate both politics and public perception.”
I look forward to tap into your wisdom, so please leave a comment below.