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Nelson Mandela Foundation “Dialogue for Social Change” seminar

The Nelson Mandela Foundation (NMF) hosted a two-day seminar to wrap up their two-year-long community conversation social cohesion pilot programme. The seminar provided an opportunity for the NMF, community conversation facilitators, government, civil society and other stakeholders to discuss the outcomes and lessons learnt from the pilot programme.

Established in 2008, following the outbreak of xenophobic violence, the pilot programme aimed to investigate and interrogate the reasons for the outbreak of communities around South Africa and equip communities with tools to prevent further occurrences of violence.

In his opening address NMF CEO, Achmat Dangor, stressed that one of the key learning of the process was that, “we can’t bottle our problems inside.”The Community Capacity Enhancement methodology developed by the United Nations to facilitate community conversations aimed to find solutions to the problems and to address them by using organic and context appropriate solutions.

Deputy Minister for the Department of Home Affairs, Malusi Gigaba set the tone for the progamme, emphasising that while human migration is an age-old phenomena and that immigrants have played a fundamental role in shaping South Africa what it is today, ‘irregular’ migration posed a number of challenges that required sensitive management. Importantly, Gigaba drew delegate’s attention to the South African Constitution which guarantees the rights of all who lived in the country, not just South African citizens. Bernardo Marino, regional representative for the International organisation for Migration, acknowledged that effectively managed migration cold be an important instrument for development, and noted the need to facilitate the integration of migrants in such a way that they were empowered to become good citizens. Sanda Kibimbi, Regional Representative for the United nations High Commissioner for Refugees agreed with the previous two-speakers stressed the needs for migrants, communities and government to cooperate, adding that the violence against foreigners should alert all concerned to the need to promote the values of tolerance, solidarity, co-existence and to engage in dialogue to do this.

The role of dialogue was picked up again in a later session, focussing on “dialogues for social change”, where NMF Community Conversation Implementing partner, Bea Abrahams, explained that, “Dialogue is a participatory process that deals with complex social problems.  It is a process and an approach. It is a process in the sense that it facilitates enquiry and discussion. It is also a process of listening and looking at underlying issues. The central part of dialogue is building relationships,” explaining further that dialogue enabled communities to, “revisit memories and create a space for more positive interactions.” 

Verne Harris, head of the NMF’s Memory Programme, in his presentation on the theme of “Truth-seeking, migration and social justice”, explored the role of memory in relation to truth, healing, reconciliation and justice. Commenting that memory as a tool for seeking truth and working through national and personal histories is useful in transitional democracies, as evidenced in South Africa through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission,  Harris argued that memory is inherently flawed and fluid, meaning that it can subvert truth seeking processes.  Harris noted the community conversations brought ‘experts’ and community members together to facilitate the emergence of a ‘new kind of truth’, built on memory and informed by evidence of other kinds.

The seminar made me look anew at the migrants I came into contact with on a daily basis, the car-park attendant, the shop assistant and others who deliver unobtrusive services in the city, and question the attitudes of those who treat them dismissively, instead of commending them for trying to find a better life for themselves and their families in an often harsh and unforgiving environment.

The power of memory, both individual and collective, the role it plays in reconciliation and the way in which it is shaped by experience and re-configured through dialogue was for me a central theme of the conference. But, I left wondering if or how it might be possible to hold memories intact, no matter how difficult or traumatic they may be, and find a way for people to come to terms with the memories they carry so that they can move forward unburdened.

See the full report on the NMF “Dialogue for Social Change” on the NMF website.

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