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Can South Africans teach black communities in the UK about how to create spaces for dialogue and social change?

April 4th, 2012

By Yvonne Field

I was in Cairo airport yesterday on my way back to London after spending six weeks in South Africa. I had been asked to co-design and co-facilitate two x 2 day workshops, as part of the Reos Partners team (
The first workshop which was held in Noordhoek, Cape Town, invited almost 50 participants to focus on the challenges facing rural civil society, (rural provinces in South Africa have seriously lagged behind in terms of development and investment when compared to urban areas). There are numerous issues affecting people living in rural provinces central to them are issues of land reform and land transfer. Given an overall lack of progress on this particular issue, this is emerging as a real hot potato in South Africa and a small, but growing voice seems to be calling for more radical approaches similar to those adopted in Zimbabwe.
The second workshop was held in Stellenbosch, a beautiful town in the Cape Winelands . More than 30 participants conversed about how to bring small scale (black) farmers into commercial markets – participants included farmers, private sector retailers, academics, NGOs and government. None of these were topics which I previously knew much about!
Participants attending both workshops were the ‘experts’ within their respective fields (no pun intended), and my Reos colleagues and I designed a process and created a space for dialogue which navigated complex multi-stakeholder issues – people we invited because they had insight and knowledge into their particular part of the system, but no one person held the whole picture, however by convening in this particular manner, more collective system knowledge and insight could be gained.
As facilitators, we supported each group using questions that the workshop convenors (usually two to three organisations who take a lead in a particular initiative which the workshop then forms part of), as well as participants’ were holding. We used Open Space Technology, Learning Journeys, World Cafe, Dialogue Walks, Systems Mapping and large group dialogue to surface more questions, critical issues and emerging themes in need of attention within each system (for more information on the actual tools and processes, refer to Boyer et al. 2008, Mapping Dialogue: Essential Tools for Social Change, available from These creative processes were used to navigate stakeholders through challenging territory as well as to help surface new insights into the system. Towards the end of each second day, we encouraged stakeholders to begin to identify areas which had potential for system change.
This was further illustrated for me when I attended a multi-racial gathering of more than 200 students from University of Cape Town ( last week. This student led ‘Conscious Conversations’ initiative ( posed the challenging question for their annual dialogue, ‘Is UCT racist? The Vice Chancellor attended and listened to the dialogue (he responded to some of the comments towards the end of the two hour session), along with lecturers, other adults and elders. I couldn’t resist making a few comments to those gathered, including one about how I notice that as a Black and British person, I am treated differently by white South Africans, especially when I am with black South Africans which leaves me feeling deeply uncomfortable: the category ‘honorary white’ appears to have currency, even today.

What did I see in South Africa?

Given the enormity and increasingly complex nature of the post apartheid challenges facing South Africa, (some 18 years after the euphoria which marked the creation of a new rainbow nation), these conversations were not by any means easy to navigate, nor were they territory for the faint hearted. At times, even in the facilitator role, I felt quite overwhelmed by the reality of what might be needed to change to achieve lasting social justice and real transformation for the majority black population in South Africa – the continuing effects of which I witness daily whenever I stay at my partner’s house in Soweto.
Despite these big challenges, I was struck by the quality of the conversation followed by clarity of intentions to find seeds of possibilities– to make small but potentially hugely significant changes which could impact on the lives of millions of black people. A commitment to stay in conversation (and to create new realities), even when the going gets really tough, is something I have I seldom witnessed when our community here normally comes together. I notice that we usually engage in debate (which can quickly lead to contested territory, often followed by accusations and break down of communication and /or actual gatherings!), rather than dialogue which Boyer et al, 2008, describes as ‘….meaning flowing through us, with its’ emphasis on questions, inquiry, co-creation and listening, the uncovering of one’s assumptions and those of others, a suspension of judgement and a collective search for truth’, (Boyer et al, 2008, p16, ibid ).

What are some of the implications for Ubele?
One of the key aims of Ubele is to create multi-stakeholder spaces for dialogue leading to new ways of tackling some of our community’s most complex and stuck social issues. Seeing the process in action in South Africa (with participants, young and older being really comfortable with the notion of dialogue and the creative processes which were introduced), increased my awareness and deepened my commitment to bring these to our community and to see what new ways of being and acting together might emerge. We need to challenge traditional ways of convening which I see as often leading us into familiar, (not particularly helpful) forms of behaviour.
Ubele plans to move away from some of our adopted ways of covening – we shall not be hosting ‘expert panels’, followed by Q and A (as in our experience they don’t usually allow new ideas to be generated – and I should know as I have arranged enough of them in the past!!). Also, no more death by PowerPoint, (just a few slides if absolutely essential, to introduce fresh ideas). Actually, some of the key principles on which, Open Space is based, comes from  a rites of passage ceremony for young males in Liberia, West Africa.

Opening up opportunities for ourselves and for others……
However, it is not only our community which might benefit from the creation of uncontested spaces – there seems to be an urgent need for us to create dialogue with other parts of the system, such as the police, local authority, the health system, politicians etc. The question I am now holding is, would a Commissioner of Police from one of the inner London boroughs be up for hosting an ‘Open Space’ session where their big question provides the starting point for the conversation and African and Caribbean (or other), participants decide on their agenda for this conversation and host actual sessions on them?
This year provides us with a unique opportunity as we celebrate a number of significant anniversaries in our evolution as a global black African community (including those of us who are in the Diapora). Anniversaries include 100 years of the ANC, 50 years of Algerian, Burundi, Jamaican, Rwanda, and Trinidadian independence from Belgium, England and France. Trinidad recognised the importance of conversation which explores their future and hosted a five day ‘Common Sense Convois’ last month about the kind of Caribbean they want their children to inherit (
It seems appropriate that those of us who are live in the UK (and intend to keep contributing to our evolution here), find ways of creating our own spaces for dialogue. Ubele assumes that when we meet we will have much to talk about: our challenges as well as our successes. Also with the Olympics fast approaching, the prediction of multiple Olympic gold medals for black athletes of African and Caribbean origin, if realised, should renew levels of positive energy, increase community pride and hopefully create a new impetus for social change and national and global development for some of our most marginalised peoples.

Conversations for our future?

Some of the conversations that Ubele would be interested in  co-hosting, co-designing and co-facilitating to mark this special year which are designed to lead to new ways of acting include:

• A conversation with our elder leaders (those over 50 years of age who have been active in our community for a decade or more)
• Brothers’ in Conversation – to complement our successful ‘Sisters’ in Conversation’ dialogue which took place at the beginning of this year
• Emerging leaders in conversation – for black young people aged 16+
• A community conversation (as an over-night residential) building on these earlier conversations and for all age groups.

So if you are interested in collaborating with us in these conversations or other activities either as a co-convenor, participant, intern, volunteer or in some other capacity, we would really like to hear from you. Contact us at

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