In defence of dialogue

2009-11-06 00:00

“YOUR problem,” I told a student leader the other day, “is that you think.”

The young man grasped the irony. Because, surely, a university campus is a place where thinking as a meaningful form of action should precede physical aggression, mass demonstrations and other forms of forceful protest.

Universities should be characterised by the fact that complex human problems can be discussed and solutions arrived at through collective thought in the midst of an exceptional challenge.

My fear is that we, in our country, have abandoned reflection. Marches are now the primary instrument for expressing differences. Whenever we differ with someone, we hurl abuse at them. The discussion and consideration of problems is a lost strategy for overcoming differences.

We seem to have forgotten that this country resolved its most serious problems through dialogue in the early nineties. Official talks were preceded by what was known as “talks about talks”.

But we talked and talked and talked. And we found solutions to problems that had divided this country for more than 300 years.

In contrast to his public image, this is what I admired about Julius Malema, leader of the powerful African National Congress Youth League, when he visited the campus of the University of the Free State last week.

He was prepared to listen. He asked questions. He sought understanding. He explained his own position. He listened again. And then he made his decisions.

That is leadership, and that is how we as a country can move forward constructively in the settling of our differences.

This week I started a public listening­ campaign by moving my office outside. In front of the main building, which houses the rector’s office, there is a big open space known as the Red Square. (I still have to establish exactly where this defiant name originated in the Kovsies’ anti-communist days.) I have moved my desk to the centre of the square and placed chairs opposite it. Right there, under the scorching Free State sun, I invite students to come and speak to me. I want to explain my position on the Reitz Four to them. I want to listen to their opinions on the subject. I want to understand the thinking of those who oppose the decision and those who support it.

More than that, I want to demonstrate a different approach to the handling of differences and anchor it in the culture of our university — one of thinking, talking, listening and talking again. That is all I have done in the past three and a half months — I have listened, talked and listened.

When students told me they don’t want exclusive residences for first-years — partly because they want to integrate incoming students and partly because it means that senior students have to be transferred to other residences — I listened.

I established that we could retain the principle of integration in the existing residences without the need for exclusively first-year residences. As a result of listening, my opinion changed.

To listen as a leader isn’t easy. I have often seen tears during the evening discussions in the residences. Many students want things to stay exactly as they are. In this case, some of them gave me a rude sign; others raised their voices in anger; and many told me that their residences hold deep meaning and positive memories for them.

I listened, explained my position and altered my plans on the strength of what students told me.

Of course, the news media do not like conflict resolution. They want a fight. They want to see blood on the floor. Consensus doesn’t sell newspapers, conflict does. There is often a testosterone logic in screaming headlines such as “Leader backs off”, as though it was a duel to the death between two fighting animals lacking the capacity of thought.

There is no shame in agreement. No one loses face when strong positions are adjusted or altered for the sake of peace.

That is what is called leadership.

•Jonathan Jansen is the rector of the University of the Free State.

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