Opinionista Donald Paul 12 December 2012

From engaging to engagement: When reconciliation is more than just saying ‘sorry’

The benefit of engaging historic hindsight with reflection is that moments missed in the immediate receive a larger role in the narrative of our nation. That's why watershed moments are typically identified after the fact. Yet, occasionally, something happens; a particular engagement occurs that redefines the narrative at that instant.

Such a moment occurred during the four days that scholars, activists, philosophers, journalists and students gathered on the campus of the University of the Free State to participate in the third international multidisciplinary conference entitled “Engaging the Other: Breaking Intergenerational Cycles of Repetition”. The conference, which closed Saturday December 8, was held in Bloemfontein under the auspices of the University of the Free State’s (UFS) Dialogue between Science and Society Programme and sought to explore methods of stopping the damaging cycles of repetition borne of collective and personal historic trauma.

On the opening night Professor Jonathan Jansen, the Vice-Chancellor and Rector of the University of the Free State, pointed out the significance of holding such a conference in the Free State, a place redolent with the history of the Boer War. He told delegates they would not only hear stories of the nation’s trauma but also stories of hope. “We are still struggling,” he said, “to find a way to look at each other not through the accident of the epidermis but through a common humanity.”

This notion of a common humanity prevailed whether framed by intellectual psychoanalytic debate or embraced by a young mother who chose to build homes for war orphans. But another strand emerged, one less concise but more comprehensive, less precise but more profound. And this was the idea of love.

From the impassioned words of Marguerite Barankitse, director and founder of Maison Shalom in Burundi, a woman who, when asked what was her “business plan” to begin to house the war orphans she had gathered around her, said, “Four things: L.O.V.E.” to philosopher and feminist Professor Martha Nussbaum from Chicago, who said that each “nation is itself a narrative of shared sufferings and achievements, and what cements it is the sense of public love, not abstract notions”. (Which is why she describes Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King as “geniuses of love” connected the abstract to particular instances.)

Breaking the cycles of repetition across generations, however, is not simply singing, “love is all you need”. And reconciliation is not simply having to say sorry. “Engaging the Other” explored numerous levels of historic, collective and personal trauma, from the Anglo-Boer War, “the 20th century’s first liberation war” to reconstructing the master/slave relationship on a Cape wine farm to exploring a white soldier’s remorse for going off to wage an unjust war.

But after the many dialogues on the psychoanalytical theory of one’s self and the other, after the several explorations of “how communities of hatred prevail across generations”, such as described by Jeffrey Sprager, professor of sociology at the University of California, Los Angeles, it was on the second evening of the conference that ah-ha! moment occurred.

Professor Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela, senior professor on trauma, forgiveness and reconciliation at the UFS and chair of the organising committee had included in the programme a public dialogue, “South Africans speak about the crisis of moral leadership”. The guest speakers comprised activist Faeza Meyer, chairperson, Tafelsig Residents Unite, author Prince Mashele, director, Centre for Politics and Research, legal academic Pierre de Vos, professor of law, University of Cape Town, and scholar Barney Pityana, professor and Rector, College of the Transfiguration.

Three issues emerged from the debate: first, that South Africans cannot wait for some “messiah” to appear and lead us from this state of disgrace; second, we need a more representative (and therefore accountable) government; and third, the ideals of social justice and equality for all as enshrined in our Constitution must be reaffirmed and defended.

The speakers’ unanimous concern that the once sharp moral-edged sword wielded by the ANC in its righteous struggle against Apartheid had been dulled, was echoed from the audience. “Where are our leaders?!” shouted a young, angry woman, as she went on to cite a litany of failures laid at the feet of the country’s leaders. 

The debate signified that moment when what a writer once termed “the rhetorical vapour” lifted from the praise singers’ accounts of our revolution, the immortalisation of the great battle between good and evil, and focused on the reality of governance. It was the moment when the mood of the nation shifted from the “unite and forget” of the Mandela years to “unite and remember” in order to be able to move on constructively and preserve the future.

The delegates at the conference had heard from diverse sources and at many levels, that in order to forgive the past, we needed to remember it and be prepared to move to a higher ground, what some called the third or moral position. Here, speaker after speaker called on the country to remember the ideals for which so many had been sacrificed and to unite in order to ensure the vision and ideals of the democratic struggle are kept alive. 

What the conference served to do was to engage with what someone called the “legacy of racism’s psychic density” in South Africa; what the public dialogue achieved was to throw the foundations for a movement that remembered what it was we wanted to overcome then and would on this foundation build the platforms for engagement now necessary to realise that vision. DM

* The debate, “South Africans speak about the crisis of moral leadership: a public dialogue” was held on Friday 7 December at the Centenary Complex of the University of the Free State in Bloemfontein and was part of the third international multidisciplinary conference entitled “Engaging the Other: Breaking Intergenerational Cycles of Repetition”. The conference, which closed on Saturday 8 December, was held under the auspices of the University of the Free State’s Dialogue between Science and Society Programme. Professor Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela is the chair of the organising committee of Engaging the Other: Breaking Intergenerational Cycles of Repetition.


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