The failure of our leading political parties to take dialogue seriously is tragic and very, very dangerous. When cadres are lining up in battle formations along the crack lines of constant contestation and competition, those in the shrinking middle retreat into their political and ideological corners. Political parties love it, because this is how they mobilise their supporters.
We are steadily descending into an abyss, step by step, judged by Friederich Glasl's Nine Stages of Conflict Escalation: tensions, moving beyond debate to humiliating actions, coalitions and loss of prestige, threats, limited attacks and destroying the enemy. We not only have a destructive conflict. The conflict has us and the cracks are getting wider by the day. The glue that binds us together is our common humanity - our ability to re-humanise one another. We can only do that if we dare to step out of our corners into the uncomfortable safe spaces of genuine interaction where we listen to each other deeply enough to be changed by what we learn.
It seems as if the African National Congress (ANC) and Democratic Alliance (DA) beg to differ. In 2012 City Press published my article "Is the ANC serious about dialogue?" in which I said that ANC Policy Documents showed no signs that the party took dialogue seriously. How could we preach to the rest of the world that they should dialogue when we allow dialogue to slip out of our vocabulary and our practice? The 2017 ANC discussion documents confirm my worst fears: There is zero interest in getting South Africans talking across the divides. Zilch. See for yourselves.
There is not a single mention of dialogue in the "Legislature and Governance", Organisational Renewal and Organisational Design, Economic Transformation and Strategy and Tactics of the ANC documents. The International Relations document states that there is "no progress towards dialogue and a political solution for a two-state solution in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict"; that there is a need to "Strengthen North-South Dialogue"; and that the ANC need to assess "the ideological orientation and character of the various fraternal organisations and parties on the continent to identify those with political visions that are reconcilable with that of the ANC to determine the basis of party- to-party dialogue."
The Peace and Stability document, which one expects would call for dialogue in South Africa, mentions dialogue only once under, wait for it, the "Correctional Services" heading. There is a "Victim–offender Mediation and Dialogue" programme with the aim of "placing victims
at the centre of its activities."
So, I thought, surely the Social Transformation document would prove my scepticism wrong. At least everyone realises that social transformation is about weaving the fabric of a society that transforms itself because citizens converge towards common values and standards through ongoing multi-stakeholder dialogues, right? Social transformation happens because people understand why change and transformation are needed and are coming together to transform the root causes of inequality, injustice, racism, and corruption, not true?
The ANC must focus on breaking up such monopolies and on ensuring participation of black South Africans, and in particular Africans (my emphasis), in all sectors of the media and across the media value chain."
No, there is not even a hint that social transformation includes dialogue. The only reference to dialogue is in relation to the "outcomes of people's dialogues through izimbizo and other stakeholder consultations"... [that formed]... the basis for the policy shift from "housing to human settlements development". A policy dialogue in 2014 is the only mention of dialogue in the Education, Health, Science and Technology document. The title of Communications and the Battle of Ideas document already indicates that it's all about winning the battle of ideas. If your purpose is to win, then there is no dialogue to think together, understand and explore.
And what about the media, which ought to be one of the prime platforms for dialogue? No, all that is needed is "a debate about media transformation... [which] does not happen in a vacuum and must be located within the broader debate regarding dismantling of monopoly capital and radical economic transformation". The media "has also played a part in trying to thwart ANC and its alliance partners initiatives to initiate radical transformation... The ANC must focus on breaking up such monopolies and on ensuring participation of black South Africans, and in particular Africans(my emphasis), in all sectors of the media and across the media value chain."
The only ray of light is in the paragraph on "Fourth Industrial Revolution... that will impact on all aspects of the South African society"... [which will make]... it necessary that effective structures for ongoing dialogue on the challenges and opportunities take place between a range of stakeholders on a continuous basis".
The DA fares even worse. Only two out of seventeen policy documents mention dialogue: three times in Arts, Culture and Heritage policy document and once in Labour Policy document. Art is useful "to continue an open dialogue about our history and heritage" and "to facilitate dialogue between different cultures and people around the world" and the National Economic Development and Labour Council (NEDLAC)... was intended to be a forum for social dialogue, and the platform for consensus-building around mechanisms to promote social development and economic growth." That is it. Nothing more. As a dialogue practitioner, I am absolutely stunned.
How did both the ANC and the DA not notice that they consistently fail to use the language of dialogue, and to differentiate between dialogue, on the one hand, and consultations, debate, discussions and negotiations, on the other hand? Do they genuinely believe that talking only to themselves and shouting to their opponents will lead us anywhere? There is simply nothing to suggest that the ANC and DA have a vision of a country that has dialogue as its first default response to problems. When there is no vision there is also not an understanding of what can go wrong if we don't dialogue.
The ANC and DA are just like political parties everywhere: They look as far as their political noses and focus only on the next elections. President Jacob Zuma said the ANC, comes first - not the country - because without the ANC the people will be misled and will stay under perpetual oppression. Yes, Baba, if the ANC is the saviour, why would you put the country first? If the ANC will rule until Jesus comes what is there to dialogue about?
The failure to lead us on a path of dialogue is the surest way not to achieve radical economic transformation.
It is clear that the ANC and DA, and most likely all parties in parliament, have no clue that dialogue is the "Art of thinking together," as William Isaacs says. As he put it: "Dialogue... is about a shared inquiry, a way of thinking and reflecting together..." When we enter into "unwitting 'argument' mode'... [we]... stand in a stagnated pond of our own predispositions and certainties and blindly defend what we have as necessary and unalterable." Standing blind and sinking deeper into in a stinking stagnated pond is killing us as a nation.
The failure to lead us on a path of dialogue is the surest way not to achieve radical economic transformation, because we are wasting taxpayers money and ignoring a cheaper and more effective way of solving our problems. We pay millions to investigate allegations of wrongdoing and waste taxpayers money to fight senseless and avoidable court cases but we fail to create a dialogue mechanism to help us work problems out amongst ourselves. We have fallen far behind Ghana and Kenya who created functioning institutional mechanisms to foster dialogue and mediate conflict.
It does not have to be like that. What should we as citizens do? It is very clear that we cannot rely on politicians to lead us towards dialogue. The polarised political climate characterised by destructive parliamentary behaviour, internal factional battles, power struggles, allegations of corruption, state capture, and the tendency to inflict maximum insults and damage on political opponents make political leaders part of the problem - not the solution.
In 2012 Brigalia Bam wrote "Our young democracy is now entering into a phase where we can no longer ignore the value of dialogue. No longer can we rely on our struggle credentials and our past heroes. We need to become the heroes of today and tomorrow. Our legacy should not be sought in monuments for fallen heroes, but in a united nation that unlocks the potential of all its people, especially the youth." How do we unlock the potential of everyone?
Refuse to live in fear and do not become part of a faction. The middle ground is the most dangerous space, but we will have to occupy it and enlarge it. Make the circle wider. Refuse to be used as voting cattle that only count during election times. Your vote is not for sale. Do not believe anything people in power tell you. Find out for yourself. (One of my favourite quotes is "Never believe anything until it is officially denied.")
We cannot afford to take the foot off the citizens' action accelerator. This is our country. We do it for the sake of our children and grandchildren. Re-humanise one another. Listen, talk, engage, and seek first to understand and then to be understood. Make friends. Eat, pray, cry, laugh and dance together. Share what you have and be generous. We are, as Paul Hawken says, part of the immune system of this planet. We can transform stagnated ponds into running rivers.