Suntosh R Pillay wonders whether conversations and dialogue events can really create social change.
When something is wrong, our impulse is to talk about it. As one of the organisers for the annual Conversations for Change event in Durban, I am always haunted by the same question each year: ‘Can a conversation really change anything?’
My aversion to setting up talk-shops under the guise of being something meaningful and impactful is always eventually offset by a stronger voice that tells me, “Yes, talking can lead to action; in fact, talking is action”. Indeed, as a psychologist trained in psychotherapy, it doesn’t take a lot to convince me that, despite my nagging doubts, talking can cure problems. Political dialogue, after all, was the foundation on which the new South Africa was built, through skillful negotiations and mature compromise. (The content and usefulness of these compromises is another debate altogether; but the commitment to a process of conversation is what’s relevant here).
In his acclaimed book, Conversation, Theodore Zeldin writes:
“Humans have already changed the world several times by the way they had conversations. There have been conversational revolutions which have been as important as wars or riots or famines. When problems have appeared insoluble, when life has seemed to be meaningless, when governments have been powerless, people have sometimes found a way out by changing the subject of their conversation, or the way they talked, or the persons they talked to.”
So, with the pros and cons weighed in favour of more conversation, and in recognition of Africa Month, we set the theme of decolonising Africa. However, this is a topic that also appears to suffer from conversation-fatigue. Decolonisation gained renewed currency as a popular ideology since the Rhodes Must Fall movement in South Africa in 2015. There has since been a surge of interest in the theories and practices of decolonisation, despite it being part of diverse research agendas, community engagements, and government policies across the continent since each of our African countries’ independence days. These practices have not always been called ‘decolonisation’ and have been masked in public health programmes, indigenous knowledge revivals, music and theatre, climate change projects, critical theorising at universities, and other material and discursive practices that consciously and deliberately attempt to dismantle the inhumane and insufferable legacy of colonialism in a postcolonial society.
The force of ideas using decolonisation as its obvious starting point has become omnipotent and omnipresent in South Africa, in particular. This is unsurprising, given our peculiar internal colonialism called apartheid. The “fierce urgency of now”, as Martin Luther King Jr. once remarked, accurately captures the zeitgeist of youthful impatience demanding a society built on a different type of logic.
Rhodes Must Fall was a conversation-starter. It’s spill-over effect resulted in King George Must Fall at UKZN, Fees Must Fall initially at Wits and then nationally, the video documentary Luister at Stellenbosch. A series of hashtags such as #TransformWits, #OpenStellenbosch, #NationalShutdown, #OutsourcingMustFall all point to the power of a continuous, sustained and networked conversation that refused to be silenced. The Fallist movement is therefore a collective conversation on decolonisation. And make no mistake, these conversations are action-oriented. They have arisen from previous actions, they inspire and curate future actions, and they are actions in and of themselves.
When critics make the distinction between action and conversation, this is only useful when those conversations are repetitive, stale and poor excuses for making meaningful change. (As I have written elsewhere, when people are angry and emotively crying out for change, bureaucratic appeals for more dialogue are infuriatingly passé). However, the divide is also artificial, because actions cannot exist without the words that create them. These words emerge out of ideas given life in the everyday language of conversations. These conversations are the life force of a pluralistic, democratic society, both in their content (what topics and themes we speak about), and in their processes (how we actually structure and have those conversations). The content and the process is important, because each complements the other.
Any conversation for change therefore must be participatory, provocative, challenging, uncomfortable, reflective, empathic, and equally about speaking and listening. In this way, conversations, in fact, are decolonising practices themselves, if they are anti-authoritarian and egalitarian. So ironically, this year, the title of the event and the topic under discussion are both intimately linked – to answer the question of whether or not we can really decolonise Africa is to answer the question of whether or not we are able to have the types of conversations we want to have, without fear or restriction. An Africa in constant conversation is perhaps the healthiest sign of an Africa constantly and actively decolonising itself. Where there is silence, we must be worried.
Suntosh R Pillay chairs the Mandela Rhodes Community and works as a clinical psychologist. The public is free to attend the 6th annual Conversations for Change is on May 24, at 5.30pm at UKZN’s Howard College Theatre.