Jonathon Rees/Proof Communication

Meaningful dialogue can forge positive change in South Africa

Those convening the national dialogue promised by President Ramaphosa could learn from the innovative Violence Prevention Forum.

On 30 June, President Cyril Ramaphosa announced South Africa’s new multi-party executive and promised to convene a national dialogue with political parties, civil society, labour, business and other stakeholders to address the nation’s critical challenges.

Dialogue can lead to collaboration and positive change. But it won’t be easy, and will require the willingness of all parties to listen to one another and confront difficult issues that divide South Africans. The Violence Prevention Forum (VPF) offers lessons on how to have meaningful dialogue among different sectors.

Violence is one of the most critical problems the new administration must tackle, and doing so will take more than strengthening policing. Social challenges like violence are complex, requiring systemic change that involves multiple interventions simultaneously from various sectors.

Systems change experts Cynthia Rayner and François Bonnici propose three principles that place power in the hands of those most affected by a problem. These are fostering connections between actors in a system, embracing context and reconfiguring power. The VPF has found that carefully facilitated dialogue, underpinned by agreed values, can support all three principles.

VPF achievements wouldn’t have been possible without different sectors appreciating each other’s value

In 2015, the VPF was established as a platform for dialogue among representatives from government, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and researchers. The relationships between these three sectors were fraught with power differences and mistrust. Communication between them was often poor and antagonistic, which hampered the use of knowledge and evidence to prevent violence. The VPF set out to build trusting, collaborative partnerships and share knowledge and evidence to inform practice and policy.

In 2023, the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) conducted case study research to understand what motivated researchers, government officials and NGOs to participate in the VPF, and what enabled the change we saw. This included better collaboration between NGOs, partnerships between NGOs and government, better use of evidence to inform policy, and the scaling up of effective programmes.

One of the drivers of the VPF’s impact is how meetings are facilitated. The forum used a meeting methodology that placed great value on relationship building. It theorised that the quality of relationships between individuals in different sectors and institutions influenced the success and effectiveness of violence prevention efforts.

From the start, the VPF embraced the complexity of South Africa’s context. It acknowledged past conflicts and the power imbalance between sectors, and lowered hierarchies of power to help rebuild trust. No one received preferential treatment for being a government director or a social worker – all had equal opportunity to contribute. The facilitators and participants encouraged and modelled respect and empathy, and the focus was on fostering understanding rather than winning a point.

Rather than focusing on consensus, the VPF urges problem solving and collaboration to achieve a shared goal

Participants in VPF meetings listen deeply to each other, despite their differences. Time is allocated for updates from each sector on key developments and challenges. There are no long presentations by ‘experts’. Information and knowledge are shared in a way that is accessible to all, and time is spent unpacking the meaning of new research and the implications of policy. This facilitates information flow and learning, and opens opportunities for collaboration.

As a result, government officials gained a deeper appreciation of the range of violence prevention interventions that are working and being tested. They have started to consult and partner more with researchers and NGOs to develop policy.

Researchers also began to empathise with other sectors’ perspectives and challenges. A researcher who participated in the forum told how the dialogue made her see her work in a new light. ‘When I’m sitting at my desk, I remember that I’m writing about human beings,’ she said. Being part of the VPF has also encouraged researchers to make their findings more accessible to practitioners and policy makers.

NGOs have started to collaborate rather than compete, and can now understand how their work supports government policy. This is evidenced by the establishment of the South African Parenting Programme Implementers Network, which was conceived by NGOs participating in the VPF.

The national dialogue should be an ongoing process enabling empathy and a shared understanding across sectors

By prioritising active listening and empathy between sectors, the VPF has become a space for collective sense-making. This has led to an appreciation of the linkages between structural and interpersonal violence, and the impact of intergenerational trauma carried by South Africans. The VPF supports the creation and use of evidence to inform practice and policy. This would not have been possible without the different sectors appreciating each other’s value.

The importance of dialogue and good relationships in enabling the use of evidence and scaling up interventions is increasingly recognised globally and among forum participants. The VPF’s approach doesn’t focus on seeking consensus or clear agreements. Instead, its value is bringing together people with different perspectives, urging problem solving and collaboration to achieve a shared goal – reducing violence in South Africa.

As South Africa’s new Cabinet gets down to work and seeks to forge collaborative relationships across political parties, the conveners of the promised national dialogue could learn from the VPF.

Let this national dialogue not be a once-off exercise but an ongoing process that enables empathy and the development of a shared understanding across sectors. Only then can we work together to build a country that most South Africans are proud to live in.

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The ISS is grateful for support from the members of the ISS Partnership Forum: the Hanns Seidel Foundation, the European Union, the Open Society Foundations and the governments of Denmark, Ireland, the Netherlands, Norway and Sweden.
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