Civil Society and Conflict Transformation. The storytelling as a tool to start a change and the South African case.



We are going today to try to answer to some questions connected to the idea of start a social process of change and inclusion in the society using as a tool our stories. I would like to give you a briefly presentation of the theories I think are important to understand that process and take the South African reconciliation experience as a comparison. I would like to contextualize briefly what is the South African reconciliation process and why it is important as a sample for us.

It’s more than 20 years since South Africa has changed: in 1994 with the first inclusive elections, Nelson Mandela was elected the first black President of the country, and everyone was celebrating the end of the Apartheid regime. This system, the Apartheid, was based on the racial division of the society and the exclusion of the majority of the people through fear and the institutionalization of racism. Of course, it’s not that easy a transitional process to democracy, and to heal all the wounds of oppression takes time, a lot of time. Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu, another famous South African Nobel Price pushed to face the past through a reconciliation process. After one year of debates, in 1995 was created the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, on the model of a lot of countries that before did it. In fact, Truth Commissions, since the 80s, have been used in many countries that faced dictatorships or wars, such as Argentina, Chile, Guatemala, and so on. The thing that made the South African Commission unique was that for the first time, western justice, that is mainly retributive, which means that criminals pay for their crimes; was mixed with a traditional African way of conflict resolution. The word Ubuntu, that you may know, means ‘I am because we are’ and it was used in the Transitional Constitution in 1993, with the special task of guide the South African Reconciliation. The way they put the basis for a future of peace is a model, nowadays, studied by whom are trying to promote Peacebuilding and Conflict Transformation. I’m going to give you a short theoretical framework as I said, before try to answer two questions: In what way storytelling is useful today and how can we use it to build a culture of dialogue and integration in a context that need to be transformed?

Meaning of peace in a civil society

“Peace depends on transformation of another relation between parties, conflict.”

Johan Galtung

There are a lot of studies around the meaning of peace and how we can build it. Johan Galtung is considered the father of that kind of studies, and he defined that there are two kind of peace, negative peace and positive peace. The first one is not actually peace, but mere absence of conflict. In the words of Galtung “the idea of peace as the absence of organized collective violence, in other words violence between major human groups; particularly nations, but also between classes and between racial and ethnic groups because of the magnitude internal wars can have. We shall refer to this type of peace as negative peace.” (Galtung, 1967) Positive peace aims, on the opposite, to create a true democracy, by empowering people in their role as active citizens, promoting integration and harmony among the people. More specifically, to create peace, to transform a society we need:

  1. Education
  2. Participation
  3. Dialogue
  4. Cooperation
  5. Conscientization
  6. Equity, Parity

Another definition we need to clarify in order to aswer to our questions is the one of democracy:

“Democracy is a system for managing difference without recourse to violence. Differences (of opinion, belief, ideology, culture etc.) are a natural part of every society. And conflict arises from such differences. Rather than eradicating or removing differences, or excluding some groups who differ within society, democracy functions as a process through which differences are brought out, acknowledged and dealt with in a way that permits them to exist without threatening the whole system.” (Bloomfield, Barnes, Huyse, 2003)

As the title said, we don’t need to go that far to find conflicts, our societies are full of conflicts, created by a lot of situations that are not faced in the proper way by our political leaders. So, having a definition of what is democracy and what is peace we can focus on something that, in my opinion, is most important element we have to consider to build a culture of peace: the people, that need to be put again at the centre of that process. Our characteristic that diversify us from the other beings on this Earth: humanity, that is our richness and what we must somehow rediscover. The person, the human being is at the basis of each one of the elements we identified as fundamental to create peace. Why? Because each one of these elements is based on the interaction of people. Something that in a lager perspective of peace building in a country should not be forget.

And that is exactly what was done in South Africa: the idea at the basis of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was that the people should be at the core of the process of Rconciliation, their stories needed to be told in order to heal the wounds left by the past. The aim was to include everybody to let them feel they belonged to the new South Africa.

The question here is: How can we get an active role of the people in our aim to transform a society?

I would like to use the words of an author I like quite a lot, Paulo Freire, who was the Brazilian educator that spread the concept of Conscientization, something he directly experimented in his work especially during the critical time Latin America was living during the 60s and the 70s. I mean the dictatorships, among these the most known are Argentina, Chili, Brazil, Uruguay. Summarizing that concept of Conscientization using Freire’s words, we can say that it means “learning to perceive social, political and economic contradictions, and to take action against the oppressive elements of reality.” (Freire, 2005)

It means that the process of developing a critical awareness of one’s social reality pass through reflection and action. Action is fundamental because it is the process of changing the reality.  Paulo Freire says that we all acquire social myths which have a dominant tendency, and so learning is a critical process which depends upon uncovering real problems and actual needs. In his view, the language, a completely human phenomenon, which mediate between me and everything and everybody that surround me, is key in that process.

That is exactly what societies that need to be transformed have to do: change the main perspective that legitimized the old system, the one that oppress a part of the population and put the rest in a condition that they can dominate, starting from the language, to the behaviors and myths. The problem is that the ideology behind a system of oppression, that creates all these social myths we said before, permeates all levels of the social fabric. That is why, we need to educate to democracy, we need to create active citizens that participate in that process through the dialogue, in a communication that let the knowledge to be shared. Education can bring bases to create the awareness (conscientization) and it is needed to keep the outcomes of the transformation process, and at the same time it is the way to get it: in other words “critical awareness of one’s social reality through reflection and action.” (Freire 1988)

Conflict transformation: South African case

South Africa has been a model in the Conflict Transformation area, because of the unique way they used to overcome the conflict and the painful past, as we said earlier, through a reconciliation that aimed to include all South African perspectives: Western way and African traditional way. They tried to transcend the tensions finding an innovative way to heal the memory. The storytelling was a tool really effective, together with the encounter with the ‘other’, in a spirit of conceiving the new South African identity and healing the old one. That was included in the way the Truth and Reconciliation Commission decided to face the big deal they had. In fact reconciliation it is something that we can locate at a pre-political level, more specifically it is something that involve the people, at every level of the social fabric, in order to motivate the change. Once the agreement between the main parties (I mean the African National Congress to whom President Nelson Mandela belonged; and the National Party, responsible for over 40 years of Apartheid); were done, the most difficult part of the process of nation building were to be undertaken. Two main national conferences were held in Cape Town before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission started its work. A lot of experts from all over the world were invited to participate and share their experience in Conflict Transformation: explaining how their respective countries took on the transition and what would they suggest for South Africa. Moreover as we said earlier, the Transitional Constitution of 1993 clearly suggested how to develop that process, as a result of all the efforts to understand it during the negotiations and these national conferences. The National Unity and Reconciliation part explicitly highlighted something:

“This Constitution provides a historic bridge between the past of a deeply divided society characterised by strife, conflict, untold suffering and injustice, and a future founded on the recognition of human rights, democracy and peaceful co-existence and development opportunities for all South Africans, irrespective of colour, race, class, belief or sex. The pursuit of national unity, the well-being of all South African citizens and peace require reconciliation between the people of South Africa and the reconstruction of society. The adoption of this Constitution lays the secure foundation for the people of South Africa to transcend the divisions and strife of the past, which generated gross violations of human rights, the transgression of humanitarian principles in violent conflicts and a legacy of hatred, fear, guilt and revenge. These can now be addressed on the basis that there is a need for understanding but not for vengeance, a need for reparation but not for retaliation, a need for ubuntu but not for victimisation.” (South African Interim Constitution, 1993)

The fact that the word Ubuntu was mentioned in the Constitution meant that there was a common agreement on the use of a mixed solution to face the process the country needed to heal the wounds. Moreover we cannot forget that a process of transition is something that takes time: the fact that we use the word process imply that it is something that start in a certain time and to end would require a while from the moment it started. Alex Boraine, one of the commissioners of the TRC wrote:

“The process of reconciliation can begin at different points in the transition of a country from a totalitarian state to a new form of democracy. For some, it begins at the negotiation table; for others, when perpetrators are indicted and prosecuted; for others, it may be when prisoners are released; for others, when a new constitution, which guarantees fundamental freedoms, is accepted; and for some, it is when free and open elections are held in which all citizens can participate. There are many starting points, but its never a once off. The process is ongoing, especially in countries where oppression has been deep and lasting.” (Boraine, 2002)

Storytelling as a way to meet the ‘other’:

“Storytelling, as I use it here, refers specifically to a sub-type of narrationthe relating of narratives in person, orally (or by signing), to an audience of at least one. The medium of storytelling is potentially available to everyone because everyone is able to tell a story and no equipment is required. Thus storytelling is a readily attainable means whereby persons can access at least some narrator potency.” (Senehi, 2002)

What we understand from that definition is that the storytelling is the most easy way to create a context of sharing and participation, because it is almost free if you consider that the only thing you have to do is gathering the people. My personal experience in South Africa made me understand how a society transformation can be started, how it is its development and how important is to focus on youth. I think that to create peace, we must create spaces to promote the dialogue and confrontation in a participated process that let the people meet each other. The new generations need to understand the idea that creating a culture of peace goes behind the politics. The world, today, has a lot of conflicts on going that need to be transformed even though Western Media focus just on few of them. Nowadays in Europe, among the conflict we have, one is between the so called natives and the so called immigrants.

Saying it with few and easy words: every day we meet immigrants coming from everywhere whom we don’t even ask their stories, we don’t know each other and we don’t have the chance to do it! What sometimes we forget, it is that a change in most of the countries start with a true awareness of the reality, of the identity and begin at a grass-roots level. But, why can’t we start by recognizing that just by going back to the essential, to the fact that we are all human beings? Wouldn’t it be a good start? How can the South African experience inspire us in that sense? Indeed cultural values have a fundamental role in it, but it is also extremely important to create a network among all the people who is committed on it. As it was used in the South African case, as a tool to get reconciliation, we should rethink from a different and plural perspective the need there is here: the need for reconcile each other! I believe that the most dangerous weapon we have against a social change we face is fear, fear of the other and fear of discover that it was just in our minds. Starting from the earlier age, we should create spaces to allow the different narratives on our countries mix each other in just one new narrative of inclusion and trust. Here is where the storytelling play its best role: education is something that we imagine connected to the children, while everybody can learn, and we can try to learn again to live together an then integration is a step closer than we think.


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