Action dialogues for collective strategies

Mandela Initiative newsletter (Issue 1, Nov 2016)


One of the three pillars of the Mandela Initiative (MI) is the regular and inspiring gatherings of experts on particular problem areas that need to be addressed to help shift poverty and inequality in South Africa. These “action dialogues” are unique in that they link the empirical knowledge of academics with the practical knowledge and experiences of those involved in “on-the-ground” initiatives by civil society and government, be it at local, provincial or national level. This article reflects on this powerful approach to share, learn and act collectively.


Dialogue towards an overarching goal

“The point about action dialogues” explains Francis Wilson, an emeritus professor at the University of Cape Town and national coordinator of the initiative, “is that they are aimed at encouraging and stimulating people to move beyond talk”.

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The 16 dialogues and workshops to date have been facilitated by working with collaborators identified by Think Tank members and others within the MI community, says Wilson. The result is a microcosm of the overall MI strategy: providing a multi-sector platform to investigate and develop strategies to overcome poverty and inequality.

Dialogue topics at times have spanned multiple areas that are important for this overarching goal, such as:


At other times, topics were dedicated to particular areas that can mediate poverty and inequality, such as:


Encouraging and stimulating people to move beyond talk

The dialogues are deliberately kept small (about 25 – 30 people), and continue for anything between two and five days. They have largely been sponsored by the Programme to Support Pro-Poor Policy Development, in the Department of Planning, Monitoring and Evaluation; and some by the Konrad Adenhauer Stiftung; the Fredrick Egbert Stiftung and the Japanese International Cooperation Agency. At other times, MI partner like UCT’s Poverty and Inequality Initiative and REDI 3X3 hosted dialogues that fed into the MI enquiry.


Breaking down the silos

The Initiative’s broad-based engagement, which is really exemplified by the action dialogues, is very useful to help break down silos that exist within and between disciplines, and between different sectors in society, says Dori Posel, the Helen Suzman Chair in Political Economy at Wits University, and the lead researcher of one of the initiative’s research programmes. They provide, as in the case of the overall MI strategy, a platform for discussion and learning, and understanding discourses, and translating these into action, according to Think Tank member Kefiloe Masiteng, deputy-director of Population and Social Statistics at Statistics South Africa.


Starting conversations

Wilson stresses that progress to address past injustices can be held back by tricky politics, though. Therefore, different dialogues have had different levels of success in uniting role-players on collective action. The gatherings are, however, getting people in different fields to start talking to one another, says Servaas van der Berg, MI Think Tank member and one of the recipient of the South African Research Chairs Initiative (SARChI), who is leading an MI research programme. SARChI is a programme of the Department of Science and Technology and National Research Foundation.

“Doing things in one field cannot be done in isolation of another. So the building of capacity, the building of understanding [through the dialogues] are important,” explains Van der Berg.


Starting ground work

A good example is the dialogue that brought together education experts and church leaders, with the assistance of Think Tank member Bishop Malusi Mpumlwana, to probe the faith-based sector’s role in education. “It was an important part of a process of focusing the church’s mind on helping to build a better society after apartheid”, says Wilson. The outcome was exciting: A resolution that churches need to focus on early childhood development, which is a critical building block in children’s educational trajectory, by for example making church halls available for community ECD innovations. Teenagers were also identified as an important group for churches to support, by for instance offering recreational activities for youth. Wilson says churches’ role in monitoring the quality of education in schools, and teachers’ behaviour towards pupils, also emerged as another way in which the clergy can help to transform education.

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Dialogues on social cohesion, such as the one with the Worcester community, highlighted the need to address poverty and inequality meaningfully, and that just saying, “I am sorry” is not enough. But Wilson points out it is important to “recognise that the road ahead is stony, not straight forward, and requires perseverance and many years of work.” Doreen Atkinson from the Centre for Development Support, University of the Free State, explains that a key lesson from a recent dialogue on social cohesion in the Karoo, which she led, was the importance of helping people first to move beyond the painful memories and years of anguish caused by apartheid’s racial divides and injustices to facilitate social healing. Only then will community members be able to join forces to address persistent poverty and inequality.


Seeing the bigger picture

A learning from the action dialogue on youth, employment and the labour market that is extremely relevant for the current debates on access to higher education, according to Wilson, is that universities involve the privileged minority of youth, the top 15%.

“The big issue is what are we doing as a society to provide the necessary skills – social and technical – to all young people to live full lives. Here the role of Technical and Vocational Education and Training [TVET] colleges are important, but not only them. We have not begun yet to face the enormity of the problem.”


A platform for discussion and learning, and understanding discourses, and translating these into action

This debate was taken further in October this year with a dialogue on job creation through skills development, where the role of TVET colleges – and in particularly the need to raise their status among prospective students – emerged as one of seven priorities for action from participants. While such a goal – like the many other that emerge at these dialogues – may sound like a mammoth task for the small number of participants who attend, Wilson believes that the networks that are created by bringing together role-players with a vested interest in a particular area can help build momentum towards collective action.


Read more about past dialogues


This article was written by Charmaine Smith, with much-appreciated contributions from:
Think Tank members: Kelfiloe Masiteng, Lungisile Ntsebeza, Dorrit Posel, Francis Wilson, Servaas van der Berg
Action dialogue organisers: Doreen Atkinson, Johann Maree
Fact-checking and peer review: Haajirah Esau and Francis Wilson