In his speech to parliament in 1644, English poet John Milton famously declared that above all liberties, he asks only for the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience.On Saturday 27 May 2017, the Urban Futures Centre at the Durban University of Technology, working with Democracy Development Program, took a step back to these basic principles of democracy as aired by Milton through the first of a series of upcoming dialogues aimed at encouraging debate and critical engagement on the status of our democracy, and reflecting on how South Africans can find solidarity across their differences in the face of threats to our young democracy. The dialogues are titled ‘Frank Dialogues’ and the first theme was “Imagining a future that has not yet emerged.”
Only 100 personal invitations to this event were sent out to community leaders, leaders of civil society organisations, and various political role players and not one recipient was aware of another until we were all together in one room at the DUT Hotel School, Ritson Campus. This was aimed at creating a space for honest engagement where heartfelt responses could be given to difficult questions, and where anger would not be discouraged as we confronted our current inequalities.
What first struck me as I walked into that conference room was the racial and gender diversity of the participants, which the organisers got right. Walking into a room where it was said inequality was going to be discussed, this was the first thing I told myself to pay attention to – the diverse representation of views.
We then sat in groups of five and listened as the facilitator told us the rules of engagement. Listen to understand, be respectful, speak only for yourself and challenge your own beliefs. He also told us that for each new topic, we would be required to move to a new group. It all seemed easy enough and the ball was set rolling.
I personally found the whole event to be very informative. It gave me a chance to hear about other people’s lived experiences in South Africa. This gave me a chance to reflect and realise that although we may all rally behind the same flag, there’s still so much more left to be done for true harmony to be reached.
A lot of positive input was heard at the dialogue, along with some heated debates around gender-based violence, power, inequality and identity politics. The participants were asked to provide written feedback on their different experiences and submit this back to the organisers, as well as offer solutions to the problems that were raised. These submissions are currently being debated and the organisers are considering the input received in designing the second dialogue in the series.
Pictured: People attending the first critical dialogue, engaging in discussions at the ‘Frank Dialogues’ session.