Saturday, September 13, 2008

Dialogue without contest: A table has no podium.

"All wars eventually end where they should have been prevented in the first place: around a table", said Kenneth Daniels, a Guyanese, to me one day. How true!  So what will it take to foster a culture of talking instead of fighting?  How can we in South Africa rediscover the value of dialogue at the table instead of jumping on podiums? How can we use our mouths differently? Do all our spaces for interaction have to become battlefields for power?  Thinking about Zimbabwe and most other conflict areas I wonder why dialogue is in most cases the absolute last option, after everything else has failed? In South Africa we have a different story on which we can build.

In the 80s and 90s there was a very healthy democratic culture in the liberation struggle in South Africa. Eventually even the apartheid government, thank goodness, had to realise the value of dialogue. Throughout this period lively debates and negotiations (we talk because we have to)  happened alongside a growing culture of dialogue (we talk because we want to). Pregs Govender wrote a couple of years ago in the Mail and Guardian about the value of and respect for "collective thinking” in the African National Congress that she admired so much. Creative ideas and counter ideas were generated and, through respectful deliberations, the best ideas of the collective were accepted and acted upon. Bold decisions were taken and people could commit to decisions because they felt valued and consulted. Many people in the country, I think, credited our transition to democracy partly to the fact that the people of South Africa refused to let go of one another. There was a strong awareness of the spirit and ideals of the Freedom Charter and our new constitution paved the way for people to trust that their rights, alongside the rights of all our people, would be protected and their dreams realized.

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.


Reggie said...

Chris, its good to be able to converse in this space. Maybe we can also drink some coffee and red wine when I visit Stellenbosch again.
I agree with you on the lack of safe spaces. In the church, ironically, its even more stuffy. I however appreciate these days, the way the judiciary has become a beacon of hope. Of course, even there, the voices wanting to close it down have also been growing.
To the blogoshere: I'm sure you've been around Piere Vos's blog, which is also quite a lively open 'space', but then I agree with you that people also have to meet face to face.

Chris Spies said...

Reggie, if communities of faith are unable to hear each other and continue to fail to be conduits/servants of reconciliation, we are in serious trouble. The recent fall-out between the DRC and URCSA are opportunities to go deeper, but this is not happening because blame and shame are the easy fall-back strategies. It's much more difficult to keep talking than to give up on each other.
What I find particularly interesting is that even today Afrikaners commemorate the Anglo Boer Wars and remember the pain of humiliation. The very same people blame black South Africans of being stuck in the past when they talk about Apartheid. The way to move on from hurt is not by ignoring it, but by going back into it until it doesn't hurt that much to talk about it. There we need social intelligence and empathy -- qualities that can be learned. And that can happen in dialogue in safe spaces. Thanks for your comments!

derrick marco said...

Reading your thoughts and trying to contextualise it into the old african traditions of communication and dialogue, I inserted the tradition of the palaver tree - interestingly Kofi Annan recently refered to it again. The UDF was one such space I think - so was the Ecumenical movement but churches generally always remained conservative throughout the apartheid period and became more conservative post apartheid.
In this post apartheid SA we should, I think recognise the critical dimensions of change, the institutional policies that are in place and within this framework find new ways of opening up space institutionally as well as within the realm of society to dialogue. This is the challenge and an opportunity we face to arrest the Afrikaner's "lager" mentality, Coloured's racial inferiority and Black African internal ethnic identity struggles.
But we also need to recognise the global nature of the society we live in and the overwhelming economic and development challenges we are facing.
The debate has indeed shifted from apartheid politics to economic-developmental matters that should be influencing our open spaces of dialogue in the 21st century.

The palaver is a traditional African institution of debate and consensus whose democratic potential has been overshadowed by modern political systems

In the early 17th century, a Portuguese Catholic missionary, Father Mariano, made strenuous efforts to convert the people of the small kingdom of Sahadia, on the west coast of Madagascar, north of modern-day Morondava. Despite lengthy expeditions to the area, however, he did not succeed.
One of the main reasons for his failure, he noted in a letter, was the kingdom’s political system. “If the king at least had some authority,” he wrote, “we could have hoped for some success. But the king only controls the area around his home town, he is poor and not feared, and his subjects do as they please without his daring to complain. In fact, the people form a kind of republic. Whenever a big local issue comes up, everyone gathers to discuss it in a council.”
Father Mariano was talking about the fokonolona, an ancient tradition which has to some extent survived in Madagascar to this day (see the UNESCO Courier, March 1999). But it is also found elsewhere in Africa, where it is known as the palaver.
A key socio-political institution of pre-colonial Africa, the palaver is an assembly where a variety of issues are freely debated and important decisions concerning the community are taken. Its purpose is to resolve latent and overt conflicts in certain highly specific situations. The participants usually gather under a “palaver tree” where everyone has the right to speak and air their grievances or those of their group. A complainant may opt to be represented by a griot (a poet, storyteller and traditional singer), or some other spokesman.
The status of women in these assemblies, where the elders try to reach a consensus, varies from region to region. Among some peoples, women actively take part in the decision-making. Among others, they settle for advising their menfolk outside the assemblies.
One form of the palaver is the Ethiopian debo, a mutual aid system where the men of the community get together to help a neighbour (the aba debo, “father of the debo”) carry out a major task. The group chooses a leader, who in turn designates a walle to do the talking. He has to be eloquent and have a good voice because his job is to lead the singing while the work is being done and provide words of encouragement in particularly arduous moments. He also defends the interests of the workers before the aba debo and reports back to them.

Wider participation by women
Palavers operate in various ways, e.g. to deliberate about a marriage or a sale, settle a dispute, look at the circumstances of a crime and then decide how to find and punish the culprit. But the underlying principle does not change. This is one of the democratic institutions of traditional African societies which many African intellectuals feel could be used in the transition to a modern political system, as long as it opens itself up more to women.
In his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, South African President Nelson Mandela stresses the part these assemblies played in his political career. “My later notions of leadership,” he writes, “were profoundly influenced by observing the regent and his court. I watched and learned from the tribal meetings that were regularly held at the Great Place. . . . Everyone who wanted to speak did so. It was democracy in its purest form. There may have been a hierarchy of importance among the speakers, but everyone was heard. . . . As a leader, I have always followed the principles I first saw demonstrated by the regent at the Great Place.”
However, such institutions are usually dismissed by African politicians as old-fashioned. African leaders “tend to distrust the palaver and prefer a superficial legal structure imported directly from the West,” says Cameroonian philosopher Jean-Godefroy Bidima.
Since political independence in the 1960s, young African elites trained in “white” Western ways have encouraged the adoption of Western models, including legal codes which are largely unsuited to African conditions. Even today, rural Africans find it very hard to accept that a “custom” from outside can override sacred customs inherited from their ancestors.
“This is why bush people don’t bring their grievances to the courts (which only exist in the capital) and prefer to settle their differences using traditional structures,” says Ethiopian scholar Béseat Kiflé Sélassié1. “So-called modern institutions in Africa are like make-up on an old lady’s face: it only beautifies the surface. It’s like trying to modernize a building by cleaning up the façade and doing nothing to renovate the inside.”
And so in Africa where, as the Malian scholar Hampaté Bâ once said, “different worlds, different mentalities and different eras are superimposed on each other,” the palaver is “a kind of parallel authority.” Mali is the only African country where it has been integrated into the modern political system.