We’ve recently had our local government elections in South Africa. Even if you voted in the first democratic elections in 1994, election day still feels like a novelty. Like when you join a new school or club.
It was a strange feeling going to cast my vote again. Prior to the elections, I facilitated several workshops with my colleagues where the overwhelming sentiment about how well we are doing as a country in addressing a range of issues (whether its inequality, race or economic participation) was one of disappointment. Yet on the day of elections, I experienced a sense of collective agency. It was a feeling I hadn’t had for a while.
In these workshops, I’ve been part of conversations with three very different groups: one group was looking at how we can find ways of reducing violence against women; another consisted of young post-graduate recipients of a prestigious leadership scholarship exploring what reconciliation and redress means in South Africa today; and the third was from a large South African bank. All the groups grappled with what might be possible in South Africa’s 20-plus years of democracy. In these groups, I have had conversations with people spanning a multitude of South African realities, including farm workers, police officers, ex-prisoners from Robben Island, staff from universities across the country dealing with the implications of #FeesMustFall, and people who were involved in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC).
What I think I heard in these conversations is that a dichotomy of two opposing views has been created: on the one side there is the continued attempt at reconciliation born from the dream of the rainbow nation, and on the other side there is the view that South Africa’s post-democracy transition has actually kept the status quo in place in terms of race, patriarchy and economic inequality. I’m not clear yet about what the message of this dichotomy is, but I think one of the things that might be keeping us stuck is the assumption that the discontented only want to dismantle what has been created.
Some of those who criticise the reconciliation attempts, aim at the privileged, a category in which I include myself. When I’ve tried to put this identity aside and to listen to what is being expressed underneath the anger directed at me, I’ve been surprised by what people are trying to say. In one of these recent workshops, a participant challenged my relevance as a facilitator because I’m white and disconnected to the realities of young black people. It was difficult to hear, and yet staying in the conversation opened up new possibilities of understanding within that relationship.
I’m left questioning whether calling someone irrelevant, or a racist, is always an attempt to shut that person out. Could it also be an invitation in, veiled behind frustration? In the days of the TRC, we witnessed stories of atrocities conducted against people during a dispensation that condoned oppression. The TRC was intended to start the journey of redress and reconciliation. It was the beginning of learning how to listen to each other. And in retrospect it seems that we were interrupted by the important work of creating the future.
What we need to listen to today is a different voice. One that lives in a democracy, and yet is still disenfranchised. We cannot box that voice of anger and frustration only into “atrocities of the past” – it’s a lived reality that is asking to be heard.
So the big question is how to discern where the voice of judgment and frustration opens up an opportunity into conversation. Instead of seeing the work of creating the future as an interruption of our learning to listen and respond, could we see it as an integral part of moving through the past, and current place we find ourselves in today?