Once the realization is accepted that even between the closest people infinite distance exist, a marvelous living side-by-side can grow up for them, if they succeed in loving the expanse between them, which gives them the possibility of always seeing other as a whole and before an immense sky.
Rainer Maria Rilke
Introduction and background
South Africans have been grappling with the concept and implementation of some form of reconciliation for many years. This complex, important debate, when it is consciously considered, seems to fall on a spectrum of a number of sceptical, fatalistic views on the one end, a number of solutions that insist on full integration of the various groups and individuals in society on the other end, and a range of other nuances and viewpoints in between.
In my recent book Dangerous Magic: essays on conflict resolution in South Africa we considered (in Chapter 16) we had a comprehensive look at our challenges, definitions and difficulties in the very idea of reconciliation, and our various main options. This essay takes a brief but focused look at one of the reconciliation options that is gaining traction in several global conflicts, and which concept seems to hold significant promises for our South African situation. It can simply be called agonism.
Agonism – what is it?
Agonism simplified is a conflict management, social and political theory that accepts and builds on the (obvious for some) acceptance of certain positive results and consequences that flow from conflict. While it has several different originating philosophies (from grim theories of the world to simple pragmatism), agonism in this sense holds that conflict is a perennial fact of human nature and existence, and that positive and constructive results can flow from conflict correctly understood and channeled.
Agonism is generally concerned with the retention of democracy and democratic values in such an affected society, and it is established on a balancing between the inevitability of these conflicts with a deep and real respect of the other. Here conflict and its inevitability is not seen as a negative aspect of human life, but as a necessary, ultimately constructive reality. Such an agonistic democracy would use existing and future conflicts in a positive manner to benefit society and to derive maximum constructive results from inevitable and perennial conflict. Agonism is therefore not asking that we work towards the proverbial rainbow nation, a creation of grey from black and white, some form of synthesis of what we find in our conflicts.
It accepts, and in fact demands, as Belgian political theorist Chantal Mouffe reminds us, that some important conflicts will for always be irreconcilable, intractable and that we need to work with, and make the best of, that reality, and that efforts at complete, conflict-free socio-political coexistence will always remain an exercise in frustration and futility.
Some of the current obstacles to reconciliation in South Africa
I have earlier in other discussions dealt with the difficulty of arriving at some consensus of what this term “reconciliation” should mean for us in practical terms, and whether it is even necessary. Such earlier assessments have dealt with our unresolved conflicts across the socio-political sphere remaining as significant obstacles to any meaningful concept of reconciliation, and various practical plans and solutions in support of such reconciliation were discussed and considered, from a comprehensive, two phased Truth and Reconciliation Commission 2.0 to a modus vivendi where we simply get on living with each other. Our inability to correctly assess and effectively address and resolve our deep, cyclical conflicts have made reconciliation very difficult, and the passing of time leads to its own additional scepticism and polarization, as can be expected.
The shape of a South African agonism
Using the above very simplified profile of agonism, a more comprehensive technical application and a few other modern conflict management considerations I believe that agonism can be a worthwhile candidate for further debate and expansion in the South African socio-political landscape in general, and the reconciliation debate more specifically. As we will see below, efforts at societal homogenization are having some very negative unintended consequences as highlighted by conflict research, and very little progress on this project can be shown for our efforts these last three decades.
Each of the various alternatives (including no reconciliation options) that we have investigated have their significant challenges, and at the very least the addition of an established, globally recognized reconciliation conflict tool can only add to the richness and importance of the debate. A policy of agonism of course can, but does not need to be a formally acknowledged and adopted reconciliation philosophy.
Government, political parties, activist groups and even individuals can adopt and practice its principles, and directly and indirectly reconciliation and our other conflicts can be addressed using this flexible and dynamic approach to conflict and politics. It can be anything from a formally adopted policy to a tacit acknowledgement thereof at any of these levels, and a lived reality for anyone who chooses to work with this conflict tool. A city, an NGO, our institutions, a political party can start living the values and dynamics of agonism, and simply show through their conflict results that it is a viable, beneficial approach to existing conflicts and its consequences.
A truly South African agonism can then accept our deep-seated differences on so many important aspects of our reality, accept that these differences are here to stay, work towards a level of consensus on important socio-political issues (such as the stability of certain institutions, economic recovery and growth, service delivery, education and so on), and then grow and develop an agonistic framework of robust, respectful, constructive conflict in the best interests of all South Africans.
For our South African political leaders, as a start, to begin adhering to this philosophy, would make them more effective, they would be able to address issues more than complaining about processes and personal attacks, increased levels of respectful but robust conflicts would lead to better conflict outcomes, greater social, political and economic stability and service delivery, and our leaders would eventually start setting an example that we would want to emulate in our own conflicts. Emotions aside, in other words, agonism is a demonstrably more efficient conflict strategy, even in reconciliation processes. None of this requires a cent in expenditure, or more than a few weeks of debate and maybe the design and implementation of certain policies or frameworks within which this can be developed and achieved.
Modern conflict management insights in support of agonism
One of the very important cautionary realities that conflict research and case studies show us is the counterintuitive fact that sometimes efforts at reconciliation can lead to further polarization and societal conflict. Our earlier conversations on identity conflicts, how they work and how to effectively address them should already give us a hint as to why these well-intentioned reconciliation efforts and programs can be so harmful and counterproductive, and ending up actually making matters worse, as we often see in our communities. Simply put, organized efforts at reconciliation, at cultural or national homogenization, at removing or minimizing edges and boundaries that are important parts of people’s identities can, however well-intentioned, be perceived as social, economic, even existential threats by groups and individuals.
A threat to their group and personal identities are perceived, and a defence is called for. This raises their sense of attack and conflict, and the shrillness and conflict caused by these processes can lead, and continues to lead, to conflict cycles, conflict rigidity and avoidance, or an escalation of existing conflict patterns in communities. Seeking enforced consensus and too much of a joint narrative therefore ends up causing more harm than good. This observation would explain why our efforts of the last number of decades have shown such little fruit.
Agonism is certainly well-established in political philosophy, peacebuilding and conflict management research and praxis. One of the very attractive (to me, at least) features of it is how it simply starts with our conflicts where it finds them, with an unflinching acceptance of conflict realities and a rousing enthusiasm and energy pointed at deriving every constructive, positive drop of benefit out of those inevitable conflicts, without having or making any unrealistic, theoretical dreams or aspirations about conflict in the real world. If we accept that reconciliation at some level, and however defined, is a common good and to the benefit to South Africans as a whole, then we need to be concerned about the state of this debate and the practical progress that can be shown at this stage.
Poor leadership, worsening economic conditions, a marked decrease in trust in institutions and a list of other factors and unresolved conflicts are steering us away from reconciliation and the benefits that should follow on such a process. In addition to the lack of progress of the more conventional reconciliation attempts (our “rainbow nation”, as it was) we are starting to see the troubling support and exploration of alternative “solutions”, ranging from violence to secession campaigns, increased polarization and an increased populist rhetoric.
Without the need to remove any of our perceived reconciliation efforts, plans and strategies we can add this option of agonism, a conflict strategy that is built on the realities of the South African landscape, a strategy that reimagines our problems, our journey, our goals and our solutions. In practice (here and globally) such a conflict / reconciliation strategy of course requires a number of practical considerations (what conflict are involved, who subscribes to this strategy, who participates, how does it become effectively carried out in everyday life etc), but this is of course to be expected and a necessary part of the hard work that needs to be done. It can also, without limitation and simply by following its own guiding light, deal with all of the contentious, difficult topics, such as restoration, land, justice and so on.
As with so many of our conflicts, the solutions are there. We just need the leadership (political, professional and personal) to get us started. Our political, business and community leaders, our activists and you and I will have to understand what this concept entails, and then start living it.
(Andre Vlok can be contacted on email@example.com for any further information)