Finding new pathways in South Africa
22 years after the advent of democracy in 1994 South Africa finds itself in crisis. This crisis has various manifestations and finds its most obvious expression in the #feesmustfall movements led by students in the universities towards the end of last year and again now in 2016.
The students are the first of the ‘born free’ generation to reach third level education. The demand for free education should not be a surprise, while the determination and anger of the students has plunged the universities into a deep crisis, and, at the time of writing with exams looming, it is not certain that all universities will be able to complete the academic year.
Wits University in Johannesburg, which has been one of the epi-centres of student protest, is a campus under siege, with police vehicles stationed on the campus, at the gates and patrolling inside. The police presence has led to an escalation of a difficult situation with rocks being thrown and police firing rubber bullets and stun grenades at protesting groups of students. The university has closed, and re-opened, closed and re-opened again in recent weeks. Other campuses have faced similar situations.
There is little happening on the part of government, university administration and the student movement to end the deadlock – little apparent willingness to compromise, and everyone caught ‘between a rock and a hard place’.
It is possible to find some new pathways towards a peaceful outcome in a situation that seems hopeless, and is fraught with many pitfalls and potential dire consequences?
Some of us as concerned people have started a process to think differently about what can be done, and some new conversations are starting to happen. I have been working for the last 2 weeks, initially just through my network, to create some new conversations.
Choosing deliberately to not engage with people in positions of power or with stated positions or who are ‘representing’, and just creating conversations with people who care, want to see movement and who are willing to create. Working in the middle of the system, and using a spiral network approach – each conversation leads to someone else.
Deep listening, with the intention of understanding and making meaning is a core principle of how we are trying to build the new pathways.
Over 2 weeks this has led me into significant conversations with students, academics, mediators, social and health scientists, economists and many others. Negotiation experts, future thinkers, newspaper sellers – everyone has a view – and we are seeing all views as important.
What is becoming clear is that we will need a number of multi-stakeholder processes – carefully facilitated – to address a range of critical issues related to the university crisis. Funding will be significant, as well as thinking about how we can move towards a ‘decolonisation’ of education, and how we rebuild trust on the campuses. These processes will need to be supported by technical expertise as well as process guidance that can enable deep listening, generative dialogue.
Even before we can reach the point of engaging in this societal dialogue, we will need to find pathways and bridges that will enable leaders be able to ‘walk back’ from clearly and strongly articulated positions and confidently enter such a process.
And we need to make this a learning process as we go, so that whatever comes out of this can be used possibly as a model for working with other deep societal problems.
I am writing this from a place of both excitement and fear. Excitement that new ways of listening can be found. And a fear that we may not succeed. But try we must.
“Yes, there are a hundred, and a thousand voices crying. But what does one do, when one cries this thing, and one cries another? Who knows how we shall fashion such a land…
Yes, it is the dawn that has come. The titihoya wakes from sleep, and goes about its work of forlorn crying. The sun tips with light the mountains of Angeli and East Griqualand. The great valley of Umzimkulu is still in darkness, but the light will come there. Ndotsheni is still in darkness, but the light will come there also. For it is the dawn that has come, as it has come for a thousand centuries, never failing. But when that dawn will come, of our emancipation, from the fear of bondage and the bondage of fear, why, that is a secret”.
from ‘Cry the Beloved Country’, Alan Paton