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Is Reconciliation Real (Dialogue) ? by Lindy Wilson

1 August 2010

In the depths of the country I opened an e-mail from Prof. Njabulo Ndebele inviting me to a Dialogue between four young South African novelists and Ariel Dorfman, the world-acclaimed Chilean-American author on Suspect Reconciliation to take place three days later at the Fugard Theatre.

There was something in his personal tone and the quality of the invitation that compelled me to change plans, take a plane from Port Elizabeth to be there, believing that, that it is surely suspect if we think we have achieved Reconciliation yet  After three hundred years of colonialism and oppression it will take a little longer.

In his attached “Thought Piece”  Ndebele observes that:  “Reconciliation seemed to transform minimal loss (the previous oppressors lost very little materially) and minimal gain (the previously oppressed gained minimally) into the impression of universal gain.”

A false impression, because minimal gain has, in fact, “rendered the previously oppressed vulnerable to permanent poverty”. And, “while continuing poverty might be embarrassing for a liberation movement now in power, it may also turn out to be a convenient advantage … Especially at election time it could be good to have the poor.

“The obscenity of distributing food parcels among the poor to attract them to election rallies might be difficult to resist.  That the poor accept such poisoned gifts does not necessarily mean they are grateful.

At that precise moment they confront the choice between hunger and dignity.  It is a demeaning choice forced on them by a ruling movement proclaiming abiding concern for them.  Torn up by contradictions, the poor vote to keep the movement in power… Could Nelson Mandela have misled the poor?”

Dialogue around this question, insight by four young novelists and relevant autobiographical input from Dorfman’s life by the Chilean-American writer who is giving the 8th Nelson Mandela lecture this week, opened our minds.

The dialogue took place in the new Fugard Theatre, a beautifully renovated space recently given to Capetonians as a gift.

Athol Fugard recently returned to South Africa to produce his new play The Train Driver, symbolically to anoint the theatre with a work he felt compelled to write, honoured that it is in his name.

No better venue could have been found for the Dialogue, filling its huge, warehouse-rehearsal-room upstairs with a diverse collection of writers, academics, journalists, TRC commissioners, poets, actors, activists – evidence that almost all responded to this important topic, the on-going questioning of the concept of reconciliation.

I filmed Ariel Dorfman speaking at UCT twenty-five years ago, at the height of apartheid’s assassination-squad era when troops were constantly in the townships.  His famous play Death and the Maiden touches everyone whose lives have suffered under ruthless dictators.

In his play a young wife recognizes her torturer when her husband brings a man back to their holiday house because his car has broken down.

It is about her confrontation of him, her capacity to take charge.

Dorfman wrote: “I found the characters trying to figure out the sort of questions that so many Chileans were asking themselves privately, but that hardly anyone seemed interested in posing in public. How can those who tortured and those who were tortured co-exist in the same land?

How to heal a country that has been traumatised by repression if the fear to speak out is still omnipresent everywhere? And how do you reach the truth if lying has become a habit?

How do we keep the past alive without becoming its prisoner? How do we forget it without risking its repetition in the future?

Is it legitimate to sacrifice the truth to ensure peace? And what are the consequences of suppressing that past and the truth it is whispering or howling to us?

And how guilty are we all of what happened to those who suffered most?

And perhaps the greatest dilemma of them all: how to confront these issues without destroying the national consensus, which creates democratic stability?

Reconciliaton goes hand in glove with creating a true democracy, freedom of speech, freedom to speak out, experiment, uncover the truth, not to be afraid of rocking the boat.

South Africa did not experience a revolution although it was close to an undeclared civil-war.  Its leaders negotiated a settlement to the astonishment of the whole world.

We have just achieved another accolade by hosting the FIFA World Cup so successfully. But the deeper questions remain in spite of our brilliant capacity to do this, to be able to construct outstanding stadiums, to set violence and crime aside, replacing it with a sense of physical freedom and laughter, singing and dancing with the world at large.

When the party is over, unease creeps back because of the desperate inequality of our people.

Reconciliation is certainly suspect in the light of this truth. This is what has to change.

Is it surprising that people revolt when the whiff of apartheid returns in disguise by insulting the poor with the despised toilet bucket system or by replicating box houses row upon row in many of the small towns, re-enforcing  the image of separateness like the old ‘townships’ of the past?  What else is in disguise?

Kevin Bloom, one of the young novelists on the panel, considers Johannesburg ‘a city always in disguise’.  He tracks the three kilometers between himself and his friend Themba, a student at Wits doing two degrees.

He, Kevin, lives in a normally comfortable Killarney apartment and Themba lives in Hillbrow in a room without running water or electricity, his space subject to constant false raids in the early hours of the morning by the supervisors of the building.

So Themba lives there with his suitcases always packed:   “I’m threatened I’m not settled”, he tells Kevin,

Truth, confined to gross human rights violations committed under apartheid, was successfully uncovered by the Truth & Reconciliation Commission, yet few of the perpetrators apologised and those who did not come forward have never been prosecuted as was understood in the original brief.   Reconciliation began there but it was clear that it would take much longer.

Even in a minor domestic spat it takes time:  someone has to apologize.  A deeper consciousness and understanding of what really happened needs more time and reflection.  Previously privileged South Africans, who were classified ‘white’ in the old South Africa – myself included – have not yet had the maturity to say sorry effectively - if at all.  We have not said sorry for the truth we need to acknowledge:  that whoever we are, whatever stance we took, whichever political affiliation we had or refused to have, we gained.

We gained health, wealth and prosperity at the expense of all those South Africans previously classified black, coloured or Indian..   It is time to say sorry properly and to start giving back in real terms.

Henrietta Rose-Innes, another young novelist, read out an honest, moving, autobiographical account of the rambling home she moved into as an innocent child.

She describes the vague and somewhat sinister way the previous owner of the house was referred to by her parents and how his name, written into one wall, could not be removed in spite of numerous coats of paint.  Years later the truth dawned on her that her childhood home had previously been the home of someone who had been forcibly moved from it by  the Group Areas Act, which claimed it for ‘whites only’, that her parents had probably got it at a good price.

“The rainbow nation needs to start mixing rather than keep running parallel.   We need to start touching one another,” observed Thando Mgqolozana who wrote his excellent novel A Man Who is Not a Man, about a traditional circumcision which goes horribly wrong.    Thando is appalled at the equanimity with which people are able to look at death and dying all around them – and not act.

Niq Mhlongo (Dog Eats Dog) was possibly the most irreverent of the four, quoting a conversation from his book about  reconciliation having been ‘over-sold’ and sensing the importance of opening up further conversations with  people who consider that they have the right to loot as much as they like.

“We have to be loyal to our community by betrayal of that community,” said Ariel Dorfman,  “near enough to understand but distant enough to criticize.”

Could this be the beginning of a new style of dialogue of support where creative writers, poets, film-makers and other artists take courage from one another to truly tell their most intricate, secret stories, revealing their real fears and opening up the baggage of damage our society continues to manifest – and courageously acknowledge the healing it needs?

“People want to talk.  What South Africa needs is the entering of personal intimacies into the public space”, concluded  Njabulo Ndebele.  What better place to continue this than at the Fugard Theatre?

Lindy Wilson is a Cape Town based Film Maker