Gandhi Voyage reaches South Africa


25 March, 2010

After visiting Indonesia, the next stop on the Gandhi voyage of dialogue and discovery was South Africa, where for years Initiatives of Change has been building bridges of trust across racial, ethnic and economic divides. Chris Breitenberg from USA is one of the international team travelling with Professor Rajmohan Gandhi, President of Initiatives of Change, and his wife Usha. He reports:

Dialogue is predicated on listening. The Gandhi Tour has made it a point to do just that. Host organizers peppered the first days in Gauteng Province with events that developed broader picture of the South African narrative.

One such event early on was a house party hosted by a freedom fighter from the apartheid era, Vusi Khanyile. Professor Gandhi spoke alongside Rick Menell, a convenor of the Dinokeng Scenarios, a South African initiative to involve multi-sector stakeholders to consider alternatives for the future of the country. After four long weekends of work, participants proposed an ideal scenario (also considered the hardest to achieve) that outlined a way that both the public and private sectors, state and citizen, could ‘walk together’ as partners in the future of South Africa.

Our next two mornings included visits to Freedom Park and the Voortrekker Monument in Pretoria. Freedom Park conveys South Africa’s history of conflict and the sacrifices many have made in the course of its long walk to freedom in 1994. The Voortrekker Monument honours ‘The Great Trek’ that 15,000 Afrikaners made from the Eastern Cape up country. Both sites are explicit about their desire to broaden perspectives of South African history and to make room for all people who have been part of that story.

For the rest of the week, the traveling team had opportunities for dialogue at a number of occasions including news interviews, university lectures and workshops.

An evening at the University of South Africa, hosted by Vice-Chancellor Professor Barney Pityana, offered a space to consider the role of public intellectuals in effecting societal change. One of our team, Rob Lancaster, reflected on the four simple ideas that emerged from the conversation in a blog article: A Short Word. You can also hear a podcast of the event here.

The team also visited three secondary schools. The African Leadership Academy (ALA) runs a two-year program for exceptional, emerging leaders from 33 African countries. An invigorating question and answer period followed Prof. Gandhi’s address. Gandhi left the students with a root-shaking thought: ‘Please remember that the millions of other young Africans who are not here are as important as you are. If you don’t remember that, than all the training you receive here and all the wonderful flattering words you get here will not really help.’

Chris Breitenberg engages with studentsChris Breitenberg engages with studentsFollowing the world-class standards of the ALA, an afternoon at Mosupatsela High School in Kagiso filled out a bigger picture of education in Gauteng Province. Students shared their struggles with the traveling team. Dropping out of high school is common practice and a number of the students in the class are already mothers.

Amidst these challenges, a youthful enthusiasm persisted and an earnest desire to create change emerged from the conversations.

Sir Pierre van Ryneveldt School in Kempton Park hosted the third visit. A local couple arranged an opportunity for leaders from three local schools to meet for an afternoon session. As news cameras rolled, a dynamic exchange opened up. Talent, a young man soon to start university, shared that many young South Africans feel disenfranchised by the limited opportunities they see in their economic and political future. Many in the room supported his observation, but few knew how to replace apathy with action. The conversation that ensued spoke mostly to this issue and the simple idea that ‘change in the world starts with change in me’.

Following the visit to Kagiso, Portia Mosia, who runs Peace Circles in South Africa and has been traveling with the team, invited her companions to visit her family and home in Soweto. Reflecting on the visit, Fabiola Benavente (from Mexico) said, ‘the opportunity of visiting Soweto reminded me that being with people at the grass roots level is as important as being with those on the top level. One difference is that I don’t have to worry about engaging in highly rational thinking. I can just be present with them. I could see how we lifted their esteem.’

One of the week’s highlights was a public lecture at Pretoria University on March 18. Professor Gandhi spoke on the theme: ‘A Coalition of Conscience: building ethical leadership in public and private life’. After an extensive lecture, one student challenged Gandhi, questioning whether a coalition of conscience would be possible given the relative nature of each person’s conscience. Gandhi acknowledged the difficulty: ‘Many people believe they are following their conscience when, to other people, they are doing something very different. It’s undoubtedly true all over the world. Therefore, a coalition of conscience requires a lot of discussion. A coalition presupposes rigorous debate and discussion, so that stubbornness is not allowed to wear the cloak of conscience.’ You can listen to the podcast here.

As Professor Gandhi handled interviews on Friday morning, the younger members of the team prepared for an evening at St. Monnica’s Church. A raucous evening with the congregation’s youth dramatically lifted the team’s spirits and was highlighted by a number of performances. One team of youth performed a powerful Gumboot Dance – a traditional dance developed by migrant miners in South Africa. Another piece was a poem called ‘Stolen’, written on the evening’s theme of ‘Corruption and Me’.

The next morning, Rajmohan and Usha Gandhi traveled south to Durban for the weekend while the rest of the team hosted a group of young people at the Waigraas Farm for a morning workshop on leadership. After a vigorous World Café session and a long period of silent reflection, one woman related an image of her and her family. She envisioned each person as a bottle of water. She felt that she kept pouring her water into her family members but never had her own bottle replenished. After the morning, she felt that she had found a way to replenish her own strength through personal space for quiet reflection and rest.

The next day the team packed the 16 seat-van and travelled overland to Cape Town. It would be a chance to reflect on the experiences of the week, explore the vast South African countryside and, of course, more dialogue.