“Dialogue is not an optional extra in South Africa, but an urgent imperative if we are to move into a non-racial future,” one of the sentiments shared by Archbishop Thabo Makgoba.

The Brackenfell High School racial concern is yet another reminder of just how much deeper South Africans have to dig to uproot deeply entrenched systemic issues, such as racism. Much to our detriment, racism has remained ingrained in the structure of society and does not simply exist as a fragment of the country’s painful past. Though it may be written in the history books of our curriculums to date, not enough has been done to truly unpack and dismantle this oppressive ideology.

Despite the efforts exercised by the TRC to attempt to reconcile a divided society, inclusive and constructive systems of dialogue is still a necessity that needs to be implemented at the early fundamental stages of learning and development. Integration policies need to be critically examined and executed to greater lengths in order to ensure that our schools become a pivotal example and reflection of the nation we aim to build.

What we have learned in our practice is that each and every individual has their own truth that governs the ways in which communication, information processing and physical or verbal interaction takes place. Oftentimes in spaces of conflict, these truths are paramount to each individual, obstructing them from recognising the common grounds that lay between them. Instead, these parties other one another, enabling the notion of “us” and “them”. When parties take part in this dysfunctional process, they dehumanize one another and are unable to openly communicate from a human perspective. The impact or consequence of this is an environment constituted by excessive violence, much like what we have seen at Brackenfell High School and many other institutions.

We’ve asked the question, “how does a society already battling with remnants of segregation come to a place where it is able to consolidate itself and take part in an open dialogue with the intent to nation-build?”

One of the first steps taught in our From Conflict to Collaboration workshop is to identify our own personal conflicts and challenge our current belief systems. One needs to grapple with where these originate from and why. Our beliefs and ideologies are learned and informed mostly by the culture and environments we live in. We are influenced by individuals who form part of our intimate or everyday circles, as we create bonds based on common values and filter what resonates with us despite how these might impact adversely.

If our environments are exclusive, the consequence of this is that our actions are reconfigured to actively discriminate others on the basis that they have been justified by others with the same secular views. These are exhibited in the utterances of racial slurs and epithets shared in conversation or in aggressive actions taken against the party of difference. It is very seldom that one takes a step away from the negative dialogue to contemplate whether these influences truly resonate with one’s core values and what the impact might be on the quality of life one lives.

Society is taught to identify difference rather than commonality. It is how our educational and institutional systems teach us to process information and assign a set of predetermined criteria for the intent of labelling and defining. Racism, like many other oppressive systems, makes use of obvious characteristics, simplifies them, categorises them and renders them absolute. There is little to no room for any other information despite its validity to supplement a deeper, more accurate understanding, as it changes the nature of the label already assigned. This presents a grave problem, particularly in South Africa as it does not enable the youth to think critically about the world they live in and be able to problem-solve.

As complex as racism is and has become evolving along with society, entering into an open yet difficult dialogue often seems too great of a task. Yet, open dialogue disarms the aggressive component of conflict, which fuels the internal justifications each party has for reacting a certain way. Open Dialogue means that those in conflict enter into a space of equality despite their views. Power no longer features in this space, as it requires them to speak truthfully in confronting real issues with the person in conflict and in turn with themselves. It forces us to relook at our adversaries, no longer as obstacles but as people who have their own narratives, who too have been disillusioned along the way. Open dialogue allows us to reflect and be a reflection of a community or society that simply wants to be recognised, that wants to be valued and wants to achieve. Once our people are ready to truly internalise this understanding, South Africans can begin to innovate a new society that places the values, needs and interests of its people above exhausted, archaic
notions of power.

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