/ 18 October 2011

Qiniso dialogues: What is our common identity?

Government officials, non-government organisation staffers, businesspeople and social movement activists came together last week for the first of a series of debates to uncover the five questions that every South African must answer to “build a better country”.

The Gordon Institute of Business Science (Gibs) and the Mail & Guardian held the first of six Qiniso Dialogues on Thursday and Friday last week, bringing together 60 “movers and shakers” to discuss challenges currently facing South Africans. The Qiniso, or truth, Dialogues aims to produce “a set of key questions that every South African must answer in order to secure a better future for our country”.

What are the five questions every South African should answer? The M&G and Gibs launched a unique workshop, the Qiniso dialogues, creating a space for dialogue among diverse South Africans to come up with productive questions we need to raise to help shape our future.

Manager for Gibs’ Dialogue Circle Anthony Prangley opened the Qiniso Dialogue sessions, and said it was important that the participants raise the debate about South Africa’s future and “our stake in it”. “We must raise the debate not only amongst ourselves, but also encourage a broader debate in the country about where we are going and about each of our responsibilities,” Prangley said.

Managing partner of indiAfrique and Qiniso co-organiser Seth Naicker led the Qiniso Dialogue participants on a walk through Newtown, where hidden sites were used as tools to facilitate reflection and debate amongst the group. Once the thought exercises were completed, the participants were urged to consider which questions they believed would assist in shaping a future South Africa.

Guided by the philosophies of Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela and Malcolm X, among others, the participants posed questions about the socio-economic rights of South Africans, a common identity and the legacies that will be left after the passing of the current generation. It included questions such as:

  • How do we support entrepreneurship in order to alleviate poverty?
  • What legacy do we want to leave behind?
  • Which route to economic freedom do we choose?
  • What is our common identity?
  • What is our shame, and what is keeping us ashamed?
  • How are you going to be the South Africa you want to see?

Naicker explained it was necessary to open the space of boardroom discussions about the future of South Africa.

“Corporate culture captures you, as does community development culture. Let it go and bust open the space so that we can speak honestly about our country,” he said, and used the tragic story of jazz musician Kippie Moeketsi as a springboard for a discussion about what it means to be in exile. Moeketsi was a South African saxophonist of Jazz Epistles fame, but died in 1983 after a long battle with alcoholism. Moeketsi is one of few apartheid-era jazz artists that moved back to South Africa, despite its oppressive conditions, instead going into exile. A statue of Moeketsi sits on the of a construction site outside the Market Theatre.

Politics student Lukhanyo Neer said the Moeketsi thought experiment made him feel as if he was a “passenger” in South Africa. “Instead of engaging and participating, I realised that in my own capacity I’m in exile, even though I am still in the country physically,” Neer said.

The Qiniso participants also faced the ghosts of South Africa’s past at Newtown’s little-known Workers’ Museum, a converted compound that housed apartheid-era migrant workers. The museum visually tells of the unforgiving living conditions of Johannesburg’s migrant workers through several series of images and stories describing the men’s experiences. Once the participants had explored the museum, Naicker called them to gather around the compound’s courtyard tree. The tree has its own particularly grim history: workers that were deigned to have broken one of the many confusing and oppressive rules of the compound were chained to the tree as punishment, sometimes overnight.

Zama Ndlovu commented that the living conditions of the migrant workers were “only marginally better” than those of slaves. “We give them a stipend and then call it a wage, and then it moves from being slavery to cheap labour,” Ndlovu said.

The last thought experiment facilitated by Naicker was called the race of life, where participants were required to step forward or backward according to questions posed by Naicker. For instance, those Qiniso participants who had access to computers as children were required to take two steps forward, while those that did not were required to take two steps back. A series of similar questions followed, with the results being visibly indicated according to where participants ended up in the race.

M&G CEO Hoosain Karjieker encouraged the Qiniso participants to facilitate debates about the future of South Africa.

“Get your thoughts out there, get your voices out there,” he said. “What we [the M&G] will do is provide the platforms to sustain this dialogue, but it is up to you to engage on these platforms,” he said.

Gibs graduate and fellow organiser of the dialogues Shaka Sisulu said the team had been working on “different incantations” of the project for several years.

“[The aim of the project] is to bring together different segments [of South Africa] that don’t necessarily talk to each other, that don’t necessarily reach each other,” he said.

Prangley added: “We wanted to make sure we had voices from different places, because so often we have conversations in silos, conversations in particular places with a particular point of view.”

Over the coming months the Qiniso Dialogues will bring together up to 180 participants from various sectors of the community in six meetings. After this, the team will assess the questions put forward by each group before publishing which five questions the groups had in common; five questions every South African must answer.