I have been struggling to write these blogs this year. In part it has been because I haven’t known how to write about our work recently, which in some spaces has felt like we’re not making much progress. In an attempt to find some inspiration, I went back to previous blogs….
By way of context, I’ve recently been co-facilitating a programme again with university students, who come from 14 different African countries. Over half of the group is represented by students from outside South Africa, doing their post-graduate studies at South African institutions. This workshop explores what reconciliation means in different African contexts.
In re-reading my past blogs, I notice how I’m consistently drawn into trying to understand if, and how, groups need to reconcile in some way in order to work together. Even though this workshop took place in South Africa 22 years after the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was convened, it is unlike the debates at the onset of the Fees Must Fall movements a few years ago. At this workshop, very little has been mentioned about critiquing the TRC (which I had previously written about in The Dreaded R-word). Maybe there’s a new critique fatigue amongst young people, or maybe it’s because of a broader African exploration of this issue. One of the invited speakers on this week’s programme observed how “old and tired” this conversation about reconciliation is in South Africa. He continued, with frustration, that these conversations seemed to go in circles, and from the outside it looks like we’re making no progress.
It reminded me of the Violence Against Women Social Lab which we have working on for almost two years. In that time, we’ve had four intensive workshops together and many other smaller group interactions. The purpose of this Lab is to find more effective and innovative approaches to deal with the high levels of violence that women in South Africa experience. One of the major difficulties we’ve experienced is the challenge of building trust to enable people to work across painful divides in order to work together to address this issue. The Lab members identified that one of the main reasons for this lack of trust and inability to work together has been because we haven’t had “the difficult conversations”.
I’m beginning to see that these difficult conversations have a common theme; a theme that I’m experiencing again this week with younger people. It is the importance of staying in relationship with one another in order to share how we each experience the pervasive realities of a system that continues to support patterns of racial and economic power, injustice and privilege. And then to challenge these patterns within our relationships. Much like the conversations needed for reconciliation.
Back to the speaker from this week’s workshop, who ended his talk with an important insight – that while this old and tired conversation appears to go nowhere, healing or personal shifts inevitably occur somewhere in the process. It’s not an obvious moment. But once it’s happened, a different quality emerges in the relationship between people. And this is what I’ve experienced in the recent violence against women workshop a few weeks ago. The group reached a point of committing to some ideas they wanted to explore together. It happened surprisingly in an effortless moment. But it was prefaced by a series of frustratingly difficult interactions over time that seemed to make no progress; interactions that had previously created a lot of pain and confusion for the lab members as well as for the Reos team.
My tentative learning this year is that breaking through these stuck social issues requires the continuous acts of staying in a relationship to both reconcile, and to innovate by finding new ways of working together. It’s what my colleague Adam Kahane refers to as one of the conditions of “Stretch Collaboration” explained in his recent book – Collaborating with the Enemy.
I am inspired by how these young people are moving away from seeing reconciliation as the narrow definition of a structured public process to reveal the truth about wrongdoings from the past, to exploring more openly how to stay in the many ongoing conversations we need to keep having to reconcile – with no guarantee of an outcome. It’s a courageous risk.