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The dreaded R Word

Colleen Magner
February, 2017


As another unpredictable year begins, already full of surprises, I’ve been thinking about what to focus on for 2017. As part of this exercise, I’ve looked at what factors have informed where we’ve got to as Reos in Southern Africa today.

Five years ago, in August 2012, South Africa experienced the brutal Marikana shootings. 2012 marked a year of significant increases in social unrest, linked to rising unemployment and inequality. As I was reviewing my notes trying to making sense of what was going on, I was reminded of our end-of-year strategy meeting that year where my colleagues and I discussed what this unrest might mean for our work. As a response, we embarked on a mini- scenario construction process. The key uncertainties we identified were whether influential public and private institutions would have an appetite for finding new ways to address increasing social pressures and social unrest. We played out four stories about what could happen to these uncertainties, and subsequently what kinds of responses were necessary.

Our observation surprised us: that when the stakes were getting higher, organisations seem to have a decreasing appetite to work things out in new, creative ways. Instead, most people retreated to polarized positions, hanging tightly to the views and worlds they knew best.  We wanted to test, and counter this observation. This lead to an event Reos hosted early in 2013 inviting concerned leaders to explore the question: “What do we do when the stakes are high and the trust is low?” Many ideas were spawned about possible new ways of working together. Some of these ideas didn’t go anywhere, and others made a significant contribution to specific issues, such as the future of food.

Fast forward to 2016. Reos recently co-facilitated a process with a client to look at what reconciliation (the dreaded R-word) means in modern-day South Africa. The process involved inviting a number of well-known South Africans to offer ideas and provocations. One of the speakers addressing the issues of land reform said: “What makes land so complex is that today, reconciliation is seen as an opposition to land reform”. Another continued: “If you now stand for reconciliation, you stand for injustice”.

A discussion continued about the role of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). The (TRC), established in 1996, was originally formed as the start of a transitional justice process in South Africa. In retrospect, South Africans placed impossible-to-achieve expectations on the TRC as the central vehicle for reconciliation. And consequently the work of reconciliation post-TRC and other processes didn’t pan out as well as everyone had hoped. Today we are faced with a sentiment of betrayal, frustration and anger at how little has changed, particularly regarding race and economic power. Some young participants of this recent exploration of reconciliation felt that the TRC let white people off the hook and that the idea of a transformed society was never achieved.

The events of 2016 at institutions of higher education have reaffirmed the observation we came to five years ago – that the appetite to talk and work things out together across our diverse views is at an all-time low, in part because dialogue has been equated to “reconciliation”, and that in turn, reconciliation has been equated with letting those in power stay where they are.

So in 2017 I’d like to explore dialogue processes that go beyond the idea of reconciliation. I’m wondering what could shift if we start by listening to individual experiences and perceptions of obstacles to full participation.  My hunch is that we might see other ways, beyond reconciliation, to respond to the difficult challenges that are still very much part of our reality since Marikana.

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