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Reflections on Reconciliation

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By Zimpande Kawanu

In the article on Leadership published earlier this year we mentioned that our Scholarship and Leadership Development programme presents a curriculum that focuses on the following four principles: Reconciliation, Education, Entrepreneurship and Leadership. These form the framework from which we wade into the continent, raising questions that enable us to evaluate and assess Africa. This is done with the modest and yet urgent conviction to understand it better, especially in terms of its history, the political economy and its financial markets and current affairs. This, admittedly, is a colossal task which, despite this, we do not shy away from. As it happens, the nature of the MRF, which to date has inducted 444 Scholars from 25 African countries, renders it suited for the aforementioned task of encouraging young African leaders to look at their countries and continent – inspecting the national and local polities through the lens of self, other and society with a discerning eye. It is partly from these discussions that this essay shall reflect on and ruminate over the concept of reconciliation.

Reconciliation, the amending of odious relations, circumstances and other societal phenomena, transpires at multiple levels. Therefore, the workshop cited above was designed with the intention to provide comprehensive discussions and reflections, drawing in on dynamics of self, other and society, over the subject. And a motivation for this approach is to enable for an intimate treatment of this concept, thus, allowing for an honest and self-reflexive contemplation and dialogue amongst the Scholars and ourselves. The work of Kimberlé Crenshaw on intersectionality was very useful, and its primary contribution is that there is a myriad of intersecting and interacting variables that make up the whole of a person and their experiences, phenomena and circumstances. This is similar to the “interaction of the sum of parts” principle found in Systems Thinking theory that we encountered in the Leadership Workshop held between January and February 2018. Therefore, reconciliation in relation to the self opens up a process in which an individual audits the multiple identities that they are composed of. Indeed one cannot locate in totality their innumerable and immeasurable characteristics. However, one can acknowledge the primary features that have a bearing on how this person is encoded and identified in society. The Multiple Identities exercise was advantageous in revealing further that society ascribes social identities to people and also frames their place and function. Moreover, this primordial phenomenon of human socialization is not fixed, therefore, because societies are characterised by continuous change, and so social categories must be seen as impermanent and ever evolving. The concept of reconciliation is applicable in the sense that, identity being complex, fluid and malleable, it is possible to house contradictory and conflicting characteristics. The aforementioned exercise involved the Scholars responding to which identifiable categories – sex, gender, race and ethnicity, gender, sexuality and religious views – apply to them. The insight gained is that depending on whether one identifies with or against a mainstream and hegemonic category, for example heterosexuality, then that person’s experience in society is either characterized by positive or negative interactions as well as of course, an intersection of the two. Thus, people who identify with the mainstream categories form part of the normative experience. Whereas those who do not quite fit the norm are regarded as subversive, suspect or abnormal—often with perilous and violent consequences arising from the subjugation of these people. Therefore, the individual is a collection of such complex identifications that they hold within them qualities that simultaneously privileges or undermines them.

The exercise illustrated the complexity of identity and also the degree to which one is inadvertently complicit with preserving the status quo and, furthermore, with the consequence of peril visiting upon those who identify differently. Indeed, reconciliation mainly pertains to the improving and mitigating of relations that have gone afoul as well as the synthesising of contradictory, conflicting or inchoate ideas, entities or dynamics. Reconciliation with the self involves developing the self-awareness that enables one to see their composite self, and to be conscious of how society perceives them, but also how they perceive others. Conscious of one’s agency, they can then proceed with the sensitivity that minimizes their capacity to be harmed and marginalised or to harm and marginalise others. Also paramount in reconciling is the acceptance of oneself. Since society prescribes what is proper and improper, and who we are based on biological and physiological characteristics, the consequence of living in communities that often rejects and alienates difference is that one may internalise the idea that they are abnormal. Therefore, reconciliation isn’t conforming to external ideals uncritically or contorting oneself in order to be correct, but accepting oneself as a sovereign human being who is fine the way they identify so long as they do not harm anyone.

In order to deepen Scholars reflections of reconciliation, the Foundation invited guest speakers to share their stories on how they have grappled with multiple identities in the different places they inhabit. Dr Sebabatso Manoeli quoted Joan Didion who advised that we must remain on nodding terms with our younger selves lest they come unannounced at 4am and demand to know why they were abandoned. She tied this to the importance of reconciling who and where you have been. Dr Manoeli said that identities are continuously in flux and attuning to their versatility is important to preserving one’s wellbeing.  Dr Beth Vale, a Mandela Rhodes Scholar from 2010, reflected that as a young woman in academia engaged in social activism, she has come to affirm the importance of seeking out conversations with people whose views differ with hers. Understanding opposing views via dialogue is important for one’s development, she continued, and it is in those moments that one can further develop empathy. She warned against isolating oneself with people one agrees with ideologically, because that too, she said, despite how progressive their politics are, is myopic and exclusionary. Luwando Scott shared a personal narrative which revealed to him that by being himself, and refusing to conform, he encouraged others to do the same. The threat of violence often follows people whose sexuality and gender is non-conforming, but, continuing, he stressed the importance of authenticity even if it means “choosing to fail” the confining standards that society imposes. Finally, Zed Xaba spoke of how identity was informed in the little town she grew up in during apartheid. She shared that racial hierarchy dictated the social capital or lack thereof of racial categories, and that the consequence of measuring worth along these terms posed psychological distortions in the way people saw themselves. Part of her journey in personal reconciliation was debunking the myth of racial hierarchies and internalised oppression. This too, she concluded, is a part of grappling with oneself, continuously debunking received notions and unexamined assumptions, and she encouraged the Scholars to retain vigilance that will fortify them against imposed and antiquated ideals.

Moving onto reflections on broader society the Scholars embarked on learning journeys. These were field trips to the District Six Museum and the Slave Lodge, and they provided a platform from which the Scholars could consider reconciliation broadly through the prisms of other and society. These two places are historic sites representing the experiences of imperialism and apartheid in South Africa. They also provide concentric links to the rest of the continent, the Americas and South East Asia, as well as metropoles of Europe. Such repositories of history invoke the socio-political and economic consequences that arose from the encounters with colonialism. The dynamics that emerged from these encounters are myriad, and some of them, like the uninterrupted legacies of inequality, expropriation and exploitation, continue to influence the lives of many Africans in devastating ways. Speaking at the National Reconciliation Day gathering on 16 December 1996, Nelson Mandela stated that, “reconciliation means working together to correct the legacy of past injustice.” Here the term is related to fortifying the fledgling democracy and the reconstruction of a new country. This definition is predicated on addressing and alleviating the adverse historic consequences.

In their discussions the Scholars remarked on the importance of history in detailing what has transpired, and that from this, it is possible to audit how human relations and systems have developed. Following that, we can continue to advocate for the freedoms that our leaders secured and extending them with the intention of addressing the vestiges of the colonial past. The vast geography encapsulated by the shared experiences of slavery and colonisation is advantageous to a group of young African leaders, who, though physically located in South Africa studying at different universities, consider the entire continent in their discussions. Emerging from these discussions was also the recognition that sites dedicated to preserving history provide tangible edifices that make history less theoretical and more palpable. For example, there has been a growing polarization with the resurgence of interest in land restitution, and this coincides with the dismay over the lack of settlement for the communities forcibly removed from their homes during the Group Areas Act. These are pertinent cases requiring mediation and arbitration, and the District Six museum not only provides a chronicle of the removals but also represents the devastation that accompanied that.

Returning to an earlier point, the experiences of the continent intersect in intricate and intimate ways. Therefore, the value of our Scholar’s composition in comprising of Africans from across the continent is that there is greater capacity to audit the continent: to share, assess and evaluate the actions of different generations of Africans in their bidding for freedom. These endeavours require ethical, intelligent and honest dialogues and, ultimately, actions. The generations that came before us secured the freedoms that have ensured a better Africa than that which they grew up in. Many more liberties remain to be unlocked and so much of our continent’s potential remains to be harnessed. Reconciliation is a concept that doubles as a tool, and as the revolutionary’s dream prophecies that all the artillery will eventually be converted into ploughs, this concept can be the tool we can use to unearth the lingering roots of poverty, preventable diseases and pathologies borne of intense deprivation in our societies, and in our hearts.

Zimpande Kawanu
(South Africa & UCT, 2017)