Let us dialogue

By Dr. Hlope Brigalia Bam

We as South Africans have a way to come together in creative ways when it really matters. We came in our millions to vote peacefully in all the recent elections. We united to transform this country from an apartheid state to a constitutional democracy.

We hosted and won the rugby world cup in 1995 and the African Cup of Nations in 1996. South Africans successfully hosted the Fifa World Cup and made Africa and the World proud. We have the capacity to embrace one another and our brothers and sisters from around the world. We proved the skeptics wrong, time and again.

We may have been doing many remarkable things, but we seem to have unlearned the power of real dialogue, which has served us so well in the past. We confuse dialogue with robust debate, conferences and consultations, which leave most people deflated and disillusioned. Tired of talking and cynical about efforts to bring people together we resort to radical tactics, blaming or withdrawal.

Our negative experiences of being in contested spaces where the battle for the supremacy of ideas destroys our ability to unite around a common vision are reinforcing a growing fatigue and a belief that it does not help to talk.

We are over-workshopped and under-inspired and then tend to say “Ah, this will be just another talk shop!”

Our counter-experience is that people have a deep need to interact as ordinary humans in “uncomfortable safe spaces”. They do not so much want to listen to speeches or being work-shopped or consulted on pre-determined ideas and concepts.

They want two things: reliable information and a process that enables them to discover “the other” in meaningful ways.

Discovering and learning from the other inevitably leads to a greater sense of self-awareness, which in turn is necessary to create a sense of common purpose and agency. People are much more likely to commit to joint action if they understand what is required and when they commit to one another.

Two dialogue initiatives that I am involved with, the Finding Ways to Walk Together dialogue initiative and the South African Women in Dialogue (SAWID) initiative are examples of energizing and inspiring processes.

People, without exception, leave the dialogues with new energy and, more importantly, with a sense that solutions can be found collectively. A participant in the dialogue on education in the Eastern Cape said: “If I had these dialogues when I was young, I would have been a Mandela by now.” That is the power of dialogue.

Time and again participants tell us that they want round table dialogues where the richness of ideas to overcome serious challenges is matched with listening and understanding that acknowledge the pain, humiliation and need for healing. They want to know that their contributions are valued.

If we want to understand what is currently wrong with the way dialogue is perceived, we should ask questions about the how, the process, of dialogue: What is dialogue? Why is there dialogue fatigue? Where are the spaces for genuine dialogue? What is the quality of our dialogue spaces? Who is talking and who is left out? Who owns and dominates the spaces? What can we learn from successful dialogue initiatives in South Africa, Africa and around the world? Why have we allowed the tried and trusted cultural habits of our ancestors to resolve differences through dialogue to slip out of our reservoir of approaches? Why is it so difficult to put our purposes together and to unite on the basis of trust that each contribution is genuinely valid and well intended? Why do people’s contributions have to be judged by tribal, class, ideological, or political affiliation? And what are the determining factors that decide which ideas are better than others?

Our young democracy is now entering into a phase where we can no longer ignore the value of dialogue. No longer can we rely on our struggle credentials and our past heroes. We need to become the heroes of today and tomorrow. Our legacy should not be sought in monuments for fallen heroes, but in a united nation that unlocks the potential of all its people, especially the youth.

When I see bright young people who articulate their hopes and aspirations brilliantly, and when I hear how people in Limpopo, Eastern Cape and the Free State call for a concerted plan of action to train and equip dialogue facilitators who can lead dialogue at community, village and regional levels, I want to call on all South Africans to support them in every respect.

Dialogue, which is a way of interacting – not just talking – is not going to happen by chance. It is only going to happen when we commit to making it happen.

This is why I am so excited about the national dialogue to be convened and hosted on 25-26 July 2012, by the Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town, Thabo Makgoba, at Liliesleaf, Rivonia. The purpose is to unite South Africans through dialogue around concrete ideas on how our country can once again become a nation of dialoguers,  together building a shared society.

Whereas there are many calls for dialogue in South Africa, there are no clear ideas on how to convene and sustain dialogue at all levels of our society. The needs are clear. The messages that people formulated during the regional dialogues (leading up to this important national event) of the Finding Ways to Walk Together dialogues are equally clear. The possibilities and opportunities are everywhere.

It is now time to take leadership to make sure that we once again come together when it matters most. We can, once again, prove the skeptics wrong and restore hope for and faith in our country’s future.

This article has been published by The Sunday Independent


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