Sello Hatang: Re-imagining South Africa through the new ‘Grand Dialogue’

Just under 20 years ago, Nelson Mandela set up the Nelson Mandela Foundation to serve as his post-presidential office. Part of the mandate to the foundation was to continue his legacy and to create a space for dialogue, which he believed, was necessary in building our country. The spaces created were to allow for robust exchanges of ideas, for former enemies to engage with each other and for people to work together to build ideas and movements. What we have realised over these years is that creating these spaces is a difficult but integral part of building a meaningful democracy. If our democracy does not come from below and is not informed through participation of the people, we are bound to fail and have a state continually in conflict with society. All of us need to have a voice and have to have a sense of ownership in the direction of our country and the values that we cherish.

The student movement has shaken South Africa to its core and has opened a space for us to engage in the emotive, difficult and painful conversations that we have avoided for so long. It has also given us the opportunity to begin the process of engaging in another ‘grand dialogue’, the last of which we had at the dawn of democracy. These conversations allow us to ‘re-imagine’ South Africa and to dream of the South Africa we want to build. It allows us to be introspective of our humanity and culture, to engage with one another and to persuade others through the power of words. It is through our continuous engagement with one another that we can harness the knowledge that exists in our system. The voices we hear should not only be those occupying a high office or an elite university but should include the voices of as many people as possible. As Madiba once wrote in a letter from Robben Island, “The anchor of all my dreams is the collective wisdom of mankind as a whole.”

Like many South Africans, I believe that there is still much to fall. There is a need for deep transformation in many sectors but we also need to understand what must fill this vacuum. To quote the Chairman of Nelson Mandela Foundation, Professor Njabulo Ndebele, “what will it take to tame fire, and to remember that fire can be a companion to invention; and that for fire to play its companion role, requires of those who use it a lot more thought, a lot more rigour in the thinking, a lot more thoughtful detail in the doing, a lot more investment in time and focus to understand the rich complexity of people living in the social realm, meeting head-on the challenge of thought and imagination stretching across time into the centuries ahead, South Africa emerging as a successful democracy?”

There are many questions to be answered but there is also a collective wisdom that exists and therefore the Nelson Mandela Foundation has decided to partner with News24 on Project Rise. It is our belief that the project will allow for us to engage with many South Africans and for South Africans to begin to read the opinions of others and to move out of the ‘echo chambers’ that have defined discourses over the last decade. We, at times look at our differences and do not realise that what brings us together is stronger than what divides us. Le dithaba di kopana ka meriti as the Setswana saying goes. This speaks of the ways of knowing being a ‘meeting point’ and I hope this platform serves this purpose.

I look forward to the upcoming months as we begin to challenge, contest, engage and persuade one another as the rich intellectual, dialogical and creative of traditions of South Africa become a cornerstone of our collective project.

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