Talia Smith
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01 October, 2014

Freedom – Our Responsibility

International conference to build a culture of reconciliation, sustainability and empowerment
UFS, Bloemfontein
26 to 30 September 2014

Jonathan Jansen
Jonathan Jansen
Jonathan Jansen, the Vice Chancellor of the University of Free State (UFS) opened the eagerly anticipated ‘Freedom – Our Responsibility conference’ (26 – 30 September), held in Bloemfontein, South Africa.

The conference aims not to be a one-off event that only inspires people for a few days. ‘We want to link up people who will continue to connect with one another and take the desire to keep making a difference into whatever situations they find themselves in,’ says Susi Gubler, head of the Lyndi Fourie Association International (LFAI), based in Switzerland and one of the originators of this conference. ‘This is an endeavour for sharing knowledge and experience and for building long-term involvement in bringing reconciliation where it is needed, development where it will make a difference and healing where there is hurt.

‘The UFS, once notorious for the Reitz Residence incident when several white students humiliated black cleaning ladies, was chosen for this conference because it is pioneering new approaches to build fellowship between people who have different views of history and to bring them to a new understanding of themselves as human beings,’ says Gubler.

More than 60 local and international speakers and over 200 delegates from around the world spent four days at the University exploring how to strengthen the foundations of reconciliation, integrity and sustainability in society locally and internationally. The fifth day of this event was spent with the community of Platfontein outside Kimberley, where programmes to build the culture of empowerment and integrity are already underway.

The Vice Chancellor opened the conference by letting the international audience know that they are in a country that has ‘a history of madness, and a province with a particular history of madness in terms of race segregation. It is therefore significant that the UFS, that had a previous reputation for racism, is based here. This is the Chancellor's mission – to move beyond the reputation to integration and in his words “work to show people that it is not about race, it is about humanity. Our challenge in doing this is still high.”

‘How can you bring the youth into a space of inclusivity and integration after so many decades of division. How do you bring them into communion and fellowship’ he questioned the audience. ‘I am not well liked in this province because I am challenging mindsets and cultures.’ Jansen’s plan for integration involves seven steps under what he calls 'nearness'; Nearness beyond proximity, through mediated action, Nearness in real time, Nearness as communion, as truth-telling, Nearness by resemblance and Nearness as courage. Activities include 'trying as much as possible to be where they are – spiritually, empathetically and intellectually'. This involves attending numerous students events, creating dialogue about the past, talking to students about their issues and teaching them how to love, inviting ethnically diverse students for breakfast to share stories, inviting truth-telling, aiding to see each other for their common humanity and encouraging the youth to be better than the previous generation. All noble endeavors.

Jansen is always looking for signs that show the university is transforming in a significant way, ‘transformation is a qualitative change in what you see and understand, it is the renewing of the mind.’ When asked what inspired him to be the authentic leader that he is, Jansen replied with an unexpected answer telling a story from his youth ‘my personal transformation came from being influenced by two Afrikaners.’

Next on stage was the Mayor of Bloemfontein, Thabo Manyoni, who stated that freedom linked only to a democratic system was often imposed and not real. ‘If we leave freedom only to politicians we might be found wanting later,’ he said.  He added that integrity was severely tested when politicians were entrusted with huge public money, ‘integrity is a pillar of government.’ Manyoni said: ‘A society that doesn’t value integrity can never produce leaders of integrity. In South Africa we are found wanting in this regard.’

The conference is a partnership between the Lyndi Fourie Foundation in South Africa, the LFAI and Initiatives of Change South Africa. The conference was inspired by the reconciliation that took place between Letlapa Mphahlele – a man who fought for liberation of his people, and Ginn Fourie – a mother who lost a daughter in the violence of that struggle in South Africa. The conference was opened by Fourie and Mphahlele, the two South African protagonists whose story was turned into the award-winning documentary Beyond Forgiving. As the first time the film has been screened in South Africa, the conference acted as a launch for the documentary.

Marking 20 years since the end of apartheid, this was a chance for locals as well as people from around the world to hear a moving story of ‘tragedy and hope’ and how it is possible to go beyond forgiving to break the cycle of vengeance.

‘The reason why we are willing to share our story is because of the hope it brings, the hope that is generated from this documentary is that of reconciliation for the country,’ Fourie stated at the closing of the session. There is little doubt that Fourie and Mphahlele’s story has inspired and captured the hearts of new audiences of different cultural backgrounds, religious communities, and for both old and young.

Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela
Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela
In her address, Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela, senior research professor in Trauma, Forgiveness and Reconciliation at University of Free State, said whites in South Africa generally lacked acknowledgement of their responsibility for the brokenness of the past. ‘This is something Ginn Fourie has done,’ she said. But guilt and shame remained and became trauma when it was passed from generation to generation.

Four people representing communities in South African history (an Indian, Black, White and British of descent person) came together to symbolically explain the history of the country to the international audience. One of these, Wilhelm Verwoerd, grandson of former Prime Minister Hendrik Verwoerd, said young South Africans were struggling with how to take responsibility for a past they were not part of. ‘We’re not asking that, as a young person you deny your ancestors,’ he said. ‘It is rather the ability to respond to the suffering of people who suffered as a result of our ancestors doing.’

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