There’s no doubt that South African higher education is in crisis. However, a crisis can also be an opportunity.
US philosopher Martha Nussbaum has spoken of our ability to imagine others’ experiences. Almost all human beings possess this capacity in some form. But it needs to be greatly enhanced and refined if there’s to be any hope of sustaining decent institutions across the many divisions that any modern society contains.
In seeing higher education’s crisis as an opportunity I find inspiration from the experience and insights of Father Michael Lapsley. The cleric sees himself as a wounded healer who has turned his suffering from apartheid – he lost both of his hands and one ear because of a letter bomb – into personal and social healing.
Lapsley often uses the words of a little girl with whom he worked in Fiji; she described her suffering as “vomiting out the poison”. He started the Institute for Healing of Memories, which created safe spaces
where people can tell their stories in small groups in an atmosphere of deep listening that affirms the dignity of the story teller. No feelings are discouraged or declared illegitimate. Some people need to let go of anger and even hatred.
Universities are well placed to create similar spaces. These can deepen empathy and bring university communities together to find solutions to the sector’s problems. Research I have conducted outlines how these spaces might best be developed.
Researching safe spaces
My research explored the Institute for Healing of Memories’ methods. I attended several of its workshops, where I was reminded time and again that whether South Africans are white or black, oppressor or oppressed, lecturers or students, we’re all prisoners of different systems. These kinds of workshops are important tools in ultimately creating safe spaces to “vomit out our poison”.
Sadly, universities are so busy trying to make ends meet that there’s no time or energy to listen to their communities’ stories. Academic Suellen Shay has pointed out that there’s “no head space to tackle students’ underlying deep seated anger and frustration. We’ll be trying to figure out the cost of security (guards) per day instead of having bigger discussions.”
Students at Shay’s institution, the University of Cape Town, have called for a kind of Truth and Reconciliation Commission mediated by outsiders.
My colleagues and I tried something similar to this at Stellenbosch University’s Faculty of Theology, though on a smaller scale. It was organised after some students removed and rearranged photographs of the previously all-white class groups. They left notices on the walls that read: “Black pain - White gender men - Violent space - Non-representation - Lack of transformation.”
The faculty’s acting dean, Professor Hendrik Bosman, organised a transformation indaba (an isiZulu word meaning “meeting”). It was chaired by a qualified facilitator and attended by about 70 lecturers and students from the faculty.
I experienced it as a space where some of the students took the opportunity to “vomit out the poison”: their past and present experiences of the faculty as a “violent space”. It left me physically and emotionally uncomfortable. I was anxious – and felt my compassion waning. These are common emotions for people involved in difficult, intimate dialogues that take them out of their comfort zones.
Bodies on the line
It took me some time to work through what I faced during the event. Through conversations with colleagues and friends I realised that what I experienced could not be clarified by merely thinking through the challenge – which is academics’ preferred way to deal with issues.
I realised that I need much more practice in the development of empathy through deep listening. It seems to me that the only way to get such experience is to purposefully help to create these spaces and convince my body and mind to move into them. Maybe this is what South Africans are learning from protesting students: it’s only when you are participating with your full body that others start to pay attention and that you become open to learn.
Some universities have already created the spaces for this sort of work. At Stellenbosch University the Frederick van Zyl Slabbert Institute creates various platforms through which students and young people can expand their learning experiences and leadership skills. This includes spaces for intense discussion and listening.
The Centre for Conflict Resolution at the University of Cape Town is contributing towards peace by promoting constructive, creative and co-operative approaches to the resolution of conflict and the reduction of violence.
Another avenue towards creating more safe spaces is through incorporating these into academic programmes. In our faculty of theology, for instance, running a Healing of Memories workshop is a module in the Master of Divinity programme.
Healing and reconciliation
Philosopher Richard Kearney writes of the necessity for shared translation and forgiveness:
… (it) is only when we translate our own wounds in the language of strangers and retranslate the wounds of strangers into our own language that healing and reconciliation can take place.
Many of the initiatives concerning healing and reconciliation in the past have been done by institutes and centres outside universities. I am convinced that enough expertise has developed in recent times to create safe spaces for conversations where translation can be done and wounds can be healed.