The Mandela Dialogues on Memory Work 1
Reckoning with the past and building trust towards the future
Every society emerging from oppressive rule or conflict to democracy is faced with the difficult task of re-shaping and re-liberating societal memory and promoting cooperative views on the common history. Countries have tended to reckon with the pain and the damage of the past through formal instruments, like ‘truth commissions’ and ‘criminal tribunals’.
At the same time, experiences around the world have shown that processes of reconciliation and rehabilitation are complex and require far more than a reliance on formal records. A crucial element in any transition to democracy has to be respect for, and the provision of space for, the interrelated dynamics of remembering – storytelling, silence, and discussions.
The Mandela Dialogues on Memory Work 1 offered a space to discuss the complex personal, collective, and professional challenges facing those engaged in reckoning with the past.
“My eyes have been opened and I must go forward with the knowledge that I have gained.”
Participant of the Mandela Dialogues on Memory Work
The 26 leaders and change agents (52 % men, 48 % women) were activists, analysts, functionaries and policy makers. Among them were a a federal judge, founders and CEOs from foundations and museums, researchers and publicists. Many of them were also survivors or descendants of survivors of human rights violations and brought this experience to the dialogue process.
Argentina, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Cambodia, Canada, Croatia, Germany, Kenya, Serbia, South Africa, Uruguay
Through different layers and modes of engagement the process reinvigorated debates about memory work and how we do it, and offered new approaches, new questions and challenges to existing paradigms. The objectives were to develop leadership and methodological capacities of the participants, to deepen their understanding of the functionality of recording in shaping and liberating societal memory, and to enable participants to enrich and develop change projects in their own institution or country.
In locating the dialogues in three countries with very different pasts and very different approaches to dealing with the past, the convening organisations sought to offer opportunities for the participants to actively engage with a diversity of experiences, and explore the complexity of reckoning and representing the past by immersing into three different national narratives during the course of the lab. The participants were thereby offered chances to reflect both on the similarities and differences between these contexts and their own regional, national, and local experiences
During the first five-day dialogue in South Africa, participants learned to know each other personally and professionally, through sharing their biographies and discussing the issues that inform and trouble their work. In this dialogue the participants and hosting team (comprising the convening organisations and the facilitation team) struggled to find a balance between different methods and modes of engagement, especially the need for analytical and intellectual discussion and debate, on the one hand, and on the other, the need for more experiential, artistic forms of learning and observation. In relation to memory work itself, many areas of both tension and consensus emerged during the first dialogue’s many sessions.
Key questions focused on building trust towards the future, healing, and preventing the repetition of history, the ethics and inclusivity of memory work, and caring for self.
During the second dialogue in Cambodia the responsibility of participants to co-create the process was emphasized. Participants were looking to ‘dig deeper’ into the issues they face in their work; share knowledge and find where the differences and similarities between their contexts lay. The importance of context and intent behind memory work emerged as additional themes.
This broadened the discussion and focused participants on why and how memory work is done to achieve the often diverse goals of a range of stakeholders.
Next to shared projects and intentions, a significant result from the final dialogue encounter in Germany was a deeper understanding of the differences between national and regional contexts that inform and define approaches to memory work. This sharing of difference, disagreement, and discomfort seemed as significant as the identification of shared issues and concerns had been in the first and second dialogues.
The agreement to seek to understand and elucidate those differences was an important breakthrough in the process, that took participants and the hosting team beyond the questions outlined at the start of the journey.
Minea Tim is the executive director of Kdei Karuna – a Cambodian NGO working in the field of dealing with the past by conducting dialogues to transform historically rooted conflicts.