CANRAD Perspectives on Reconciliation: Lessons from South Africa and the USA

3March2014
Before going in to hear the speakers we were passed this editorial at the sign in table, SA sees no evil, hears no evil. Then as we filed to our seats “Strange Fruit” sung by Nina Simone played with and editorial drawing (I hate to use cartoon when the topic is this gruesome) depicting the execution by hanging of Ken Saro-Wina and 3 fellow activists (above).

The tone for the evening was definitely set.

Three of our speakers were from the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation at the University of Mississippi and the fourth speaker was the director of the Institute for Reconciliation and Social Justice at The University of the Free State.

Dr. Andre Keet was the first to speak.  Not only is he the director of the institute mentioned above but he was also appointed a member to the Oversight Committee to Transform South African Universities.  He spent a good deal of his talk on the role universities played in upholding the Apartheid government and how they can now play a role in ongoing reconciliation for the country.  In his role on the Oversight Committee he said that South Africa has not seen a shift in equal opportunity complaints over the past 15 years and this includes the institutions of higher education.  He went on to say that the university has been both a key element in changing the government 20 years ago as places of learning and protest but various universities were also complicit in apartheid.  Universities still have tenured faculty who were apart of and benefited from the apartheid system, which makes real change difficult.  He also posited that the top down order universities use to function helps perpetuate racist attitudes and behaviors, if for no other reason, to hold onto the status quo.

He challenge the audience with this question, “Do we live reconciled lives?”

He posited that South Africa has gone through several stages:

  1. Age of Human Rights-This was the end of Apartheid and South Africa’s new constitution
  2. Age of Transitional Justice-This is a constant stage because all justice is transitional.  The same idea he argued for the term post-conflict because there are communities (esp poor communities) you encounter that are always moments past conflict
  3. Age of New Spirit of Capitalism-It is ok to walk over your neighbor, your friends, and strangers to become #1. Everyone is trying to make money for themselves but how do you teach compassion? Can ubuntu survive in this era?  Or is it already an empty signifier? This era of consumerism depends on a economic hierarchy but people who live disadvantaged lives should still be able to do so with basic human dignity.
  4. Age of Identity-He pointed to Uganda as a society that is experiencing this transition now (honestly, this definition lost me…he was going really fast!)

He put forth a term that I have yet to find a clear definition for and that was democracies of proximity.  But he said that this idea was more constructive than reconciliation because reconciliation itself is constructed around the language of contention.

The next speaker was Susan Glisson and she gave us historical context for both the William Winter Institute and the University of Mississippi.  She explained that the University of Mississippi itself was founded in 1848 to perpetuate the ideology of slavery.  The plantation/slave owners in Mississippi at that time did not like the the abolitionist views coming out of the universities in the northeast and so they founded their own university.  During the years of the American Civil War the university closed so all of their students could be involved in the war effort.  The university buildings became hospitals and the land was a battlefield.

Dr. Glisson then talked about the work she had done in Mississippi prior to the formation of the institiute. She worked with the residents of Neshoba County, Mississippi around the issues of healing and equity (all of the presenters really pushed back against the term reconciliation). As sh is to Mississippi what Mississippi is to the rest of the country. It is first at being last. Neshoba County was the place that 3 civil rights workers were murdered during Freedom Summer as they tried to register black people to vote. This incident was turned into the movie Mississippi Burning. It was with this long history of racial animus that in 2004 she was asked to come into the county and start a dialogue between the residents.

During this time of dialogue the people of Philadelphia and Neshoba County realized that they had opinions about each other which had been formed over time but with no actual conversations taking place. The work she did in the county was over a 6 week period of time where, by the end, the residents called for an investigation to be re-opened for the 1964 murders. The investigation led to an arrest, trial, and finally a conviction 40 years to the day after the murders.

Charles Tucker was the next to speak.  He first talked about the song we had listened to at the beginning of the presentation, relaying to us that as an African-American in his early 60’s the song was real, not just haunting lyrics.  He grew up in the era when lynchings, cross burnings, and racial intimidation happened.  Then he transitioned his talk to the work he does at the William Winter Institute.  The Institute likes to draw on the organizing philosophy of Medgar Evers who believed in the wisdom of the community.  They don’t want to go into a community and tell them how to fix a problem and then leave, but rather they only go into a community when they are asked.  Then they listen because the people who are from there and live there know the needs their community best.  When they are called in they provide tools to the community for them to listen to each other.  Part of the other they teach the community to listen to are young people.  Not just listen but also invest in them.  Another way by which the institute facilitates investment in the next generation is through their Summer Institute, which is for rising high school sophomores.  It was great to hear some of the success stories from these newly empowered students going back to their communities and making change.

Jennifer Stollman is a historian by training and taught at the college level for 20 years before joining the Institute.  Her scholarly area of focus has been on the individual construction of identities and the historical uses of power.  She was hired as the academic director of the Institute.  She works with the university on orientation programs for both new employees and incoming students.  During the orientation program they have an honest conversation about Ole Miss’ history, reputation, and direction the university wants to take going forward as a center for restorative justice.  She discussed efforts where they have had success on campus, like after football players heckled actors during a campus production of the Laramie Project. The institute stepped in and helped facilitate a conversation between the football players and the actors.  Dr. Stollman then told the audience about an incident of vandalism, which occurred to the James Meredith statue on campus while they were in South Africa.  The whole panel agreed that they were impressed with the swift and immediate response from everyone in the community from the university president to all of the fraternities.  In a quick investigation, three members of a fraternity were found to be the ones responsible and action was taken. All three individuals agreed that, while big progressive strides have been made, the state and the university both have a long way yet to go.

I was thrilled to be in the audience for this panel discussion!  Each panelist gave me a lot to think about in regards to what has happened with reconciliation in the US and South Africa.  But also what has been missed and what is still to be accomplished.

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