Dialogue in the New South Africa: Consciousness Cafe at the National Arts Festival
Dialogue leads to a better future in Our country
Dialogue in the New South Africa: The No-Name-Initiative.
While attending the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown last week I spent a couple of hours at the Consciousness Cafe in the Yellowwood Lounge in the main venue of the Festival. This was part of the "Think Fest" and encourages people to share their feelings about their life and especially their feelings in the new South Africa. I also attended a session where well known people at the festival shared their experiences in a session called "What I learned from....". In this one hour presentation, Rob van Vuuren (actor and writer) shared what "I learned from attending the Brighton Arts Festival" and Jeannie McKeown (a poet and author) shared about "Listening and reading before I write".
But it was the Consciousness Cafe that turned out to be one of the high lights of the festival for me. It is advertised as "Be brave enough to start a conversation that matters" and "You choose the topic" and "Nothing is taboo". A well organized communication session is facilitated by two presenters who ask the group present to suggest topics and then a vote is taken on the one they want to discuss. Breaking up into pairs, the participants then talk about their feelings using "I" dialogue. Then they "dare to dream" in order to solve the problem. After this every pair reports back to the larger group.
I had just attended a musical presentation where I had felt marginalised because I was one of a few whites in the audience and felt like I was being attacked for being a white South African and a colonist. As a young boy my father had come to South Africa from Holland when his father came to work on the new railway line between Johannesburg and Mozambique in the early 1900's. My mother's family had come to South Africa in the earlier years as Huguenots, fleeing from Persecution by the Roman Catholic Church in France. Neither came with the object of robbing the local population, and both families have, in their own way, made a contribution to making South Africa what it is.
Yes, I am well aware of the evils of what happened in the name of "Colonial Expansion", the abuses firstly under the Dutch and British rule and then under the Apartheid Regime. At the same time I am an African and in my way have done what I felt was right to address the wrongs of the past. I am aware of the privilege that I had enjoyed as a white South African. As a teacher of world history at the African Christian College in Swaziland during the past few years I have also enjoyed dialogue with many students from many African countries to our north, and have done extensive reading in the area of African History by writers both white and black.
Living with the burden of having been a privileged white, I don't want to feel guilty about my colonial past but rather want to be judged by my own life and contribution to making this a country one that everyone can be proud of and enjoy a good life. At the same time I am fully aware of the reality of life in this country and other countries. Not only in Africa, but in many countries where poverty and abuse continues on many levels. Somehow playing the blame game of looking back, while it has some obvious value(after all I teach History), will not improve the situation much if we use this in a negative way. We should rather use the past to look to the present and future, to ensure that mistakes from the past are not made again.
So when the topic for discussion was chosen and my suggestion was chosen (even if slightly amended) I especially enjoyed the dialogue in the discussion because I felt my voice was being heard. I listened carefully to how others feel and also shared my feelings. If more of this kind of dialogue can take place we will head for the right future and so I salute the NNI(No-Name-Initiative) for what they are doing.
Many years ago I joined the efforts made by van Zyl Slabbert to get a process of dialogue going in South Africa. He formed IDASA, The Institute for Democracy in South Africa, and I participated in meetings and workshops in the 1970's. One of the persons in our discussion group at the festival commented that what we need in South Africa is more bridge builders and when someone asked for examples I mentioned van Zyl Slabbert, Nelson Mandela and Miemie Mswapi, a great lady living in a shack in Parkridge in East London. She had left her tribal home in Chalumna some years ago to come to East London to give her children a better education. I met her when she attended an adult literacy course I was teaching and became a fellow teacher and is now doing a great work in the informal settlement facilitating micro-loans to people wanting to start their own businesses. If we all reach out and do what we can to make this a better country then we might succeed. If we learn to listen to other people and try to understand where they are coming from we will develop empathy and understanding. If however we continue to look for someone to blame for where we are, we may just miss the opportunities of what we can do, individually and as a country; to build a better place for all.