We should have gone for counselling after we became a democracy

On Tuesday night, I co-facilitated an interactive dialogue discussion at the District Six Homecoming Centre. A couple of things made it interesting.

The topic was “The South Africa we all want to live in” and it took the form of what I can only call an “inverted panel discussion”. We invited panellists, but they did not sit upfront. They sat in the audience and were allowed to respond only after we had heard a significant number of contributions from the floor.

In this way, we ensured that people who attended could set the agenda for the discussion without having to listen to a panel of speakers and then have only a few minutes at the end for questions and comments.

What was really interesting was that the event - organised by the Community Chest of the Western Cape, District Six Museum and the One City, Many Cultures Project - attracted more than 100 people without advertising the names of speakers.

My experience, until now, is that many people decide to attend certain events based on who is speaking.

The fact that so many people came to this discussion is probably an indication that ordinary South Africans want spaces free from political-party interference where they can talk about the problems facing our country and help to search for solutions.

If anything, Tuesday night’s discussion showed me that there is still a lot of hurt in our society and some of this hurt stretches back to the days of apartheid.

Issues raised including the “forgotten” people of the Western Cape, those who live on the Cape Flats or are homeless; the lack of restitution for the people who were forcibly removed from District Six, some of them 50 years ago; the need for the repatriation of human remains of our ancestors from foreign countries; gangsterism on the Cape Flats; food security; land; racism and violence, including the slapping of people in Parliament and schools; and the responsibility of the rich towards poor people.

The overall tone of the evening was not to complain, but rather to look for solutions to our many problems.

One of the invited respondents was Gabeba Gaidien, an impressive young woman who has been working in Manenberg and who spoke about how trauma was passed on from one generation to another in South Africa. One way of dealing with trauma was through education, she said.

I have always felt that, in South Africa, we moved too quickly from a situation of serious oppression to one of ubuntu and rainbow nationism. We never dealt with the trauma most of us suffered under apartheid but tried to forget it in the interest of building a new nation. All of us should probably have gone for counselling after we became a democracy.

Stanley Henkeman, the executive director of the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation, another of the invited respondents, summed up the evening by saying that there was a need for a new narrative in South Africa, but no one could write that narrative on their own.

The government needed to work with civil society and others in order to get to that narrative, he said.

One of the most poignant moments of the evening came towards the end when Pamela Court, whom I have known for many years, spoke about white privilege and how she still struggles with it, despite trying to live with a non-racialism credo for more than 30 years.

What this dialogue - and there will be a few more all over the Western Cape in the next two months - showed is that South Africans are prepared to talk to each other to look for solutions. As we head into the elections, political parties will try to exploit the divisions in our society.

I have hope that we have enough people who are prepared to rise above those divisions to work together for the South Africa we all want to live in.

(First published as a Thinking Allowed column in the Weekend Argus on Saturday, 23 February 2019)