I thought Facing History had a philosophy of “more is more” that can leave you utterly stimulated, exhausted, challenged and expanded, but that was before my first full day of the Engaging the Other conference here in Bloemfontein.
Conference convener Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela began the day with at 8:45 a.m., and we were off to the proverbial races for a day of plenary, parallel, and dialogue sessions followed by an absolutely scrumptious dinner at which we heard yet another presentation before taking to the dance floor to the strains of Miriam Makeba.
Rather than run through everything we did and heard today, I’ll give some of the highlights:
I. Pumla’s opening remarks ever before posing the conference’s central question: “What do we learn from these stories of engagement, of encounter with the other, of talking about what needs to happen?”
II. UCLA sociologist and psychoanalyst Jeffrey Prager took us through a review of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s contribution to public discourse and understanding before asserting that we “need to develop in every social institution patterns of institutional organization that do not recreate past patterns of exclusion and domination.”
III. Nobel Prize for Children winner Marguerite Barankitse’s riveting tale about surviving the Rwandan genocide after negotiating for her life and going on to help more than 50,000 orphans as a way of saying Yes to love and Yes to life.
IV. Professor Andre Wessels’ scrupulously detailed description of the South African War previously known as the Anglo-Boer War and the trauma consequences for each race group within the region and country. The Afrikaaners thought what happened should never happen again to us, but only thought about themselves, Wessels.
V. Vintner and psychoanalyst Mark Solms, a sixth-generation South African, spoke about returning to his native land about 14 years in England and going through a turbulent process of excavating the farm’s true past of slavery, apartheid and continued domination before helping workers purchase their own farm.
VI. Respondent Donna Orange saying that the privileged and powerful must go first in righting the wrongs, everywhere in the world.
VII. Facilitating a session in which Father Michael Lapsley told his story of fighting for justice and continuing to do so after he lost both of his arms and the use of one eye when a letter bomb exploded in his home in Zimbabwe in 1990. He asserted that the armed struggle was morally justifiable, and spoke movingly of former ANC President Oliver Tambo’s voice dropping to a whisper as he said, in essence, “We had no other choice.”
VIII. The discomfort of talking about myself in a far more open way than I usually do as a journalist as a storyteller during the Sigrid Rausing Roundtable Dialogues. I shared my experience of intergenerational trauma through Dad’s side of the family as well as our trip with him to return to his hometown for the first time in 73 years this past May.
IX. A deeper sense of the richness of South Africa’s geography and history through the Western Cape contingent talking repeatedly about the country’s pre-apartheid slavery past and the many, many sources of growing discontent. Shirley Gunn’s film We Never Give Up II started with the conclusion of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2002, provided a probing look at its limitations and showed members of Khulumani, an activist group pressing for reparations and other sorts of support from a government it helped to put into power. This was set against Fanie duToit of the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation’s sharing findings from its Reconciliation Barometer published yesterday that young South Africans are optimistic about their job prospects, appreciative of what the TRC did and open to moving forward together with their contemporaries of different racial backgrounds.
X. The pleasure of connecting with folks from PAKH, a group of German Jews and non-Jews who are the descendants of Holocaust perpetrators and victims and who have been talking about these issues for 15 years.
XI. The joy of meeting people from all over the planet who are committed in so many different ways to doing the same kind of healing work.
XII. The anticipation of preparing for tomorrow’s session.
XIII. The knowledge that Dunreith and I will have this set of experiences and memories to ruminate on for the rest of our lives.
Tomorrow brings the second full day.
We’ll be there.
And I’ll be back tomorrow night to share what happened.