Athambile Masola
Athambile Masola

Reimagining dialogue

I used to love going to church. Growing up in a traditional black Methodist Church meant that for each service I knew what to expect. People would arrive 15 minutes before church began, wait in the pews silently or sing a few hymns while we waited for the choir to usher in the preacher for the service. The first hymn was selected appropriately as the hymn book is divided into the appropriate categories for each moment in the service: amaculo okuvula icawa, amaculo omthendeleko, awokudumisa, amaculo omtshato etc (hymns to begin the service, hymns for communion, hymns for praise, hymns for weddings etc). Thereafter we would go to the first book of the hymn book and begin the reading of Umbedesho wemini yecawa (Worship for the day), a series of hymns, prayers and litanies. The process was predictable each week.

In the black Methodist Church (iWesile) there are also a variety of special services throughout the year: iziganeko (services that mark an event). These services were a big deal on the church’s calendar and we would all go to church wearing our uniform if one was part of umanyano (fellowship meetings): Wesley Guild members would don their royal blue uniform, berets and skirts for the girls, the men would wear red and black and the mothers would wear their red, white and black attire. One of these services was known as umnqophiso. This service would happen at the beginning of the year as a way for the worshipers to make a covenant with their God for the year that lay ahead. This service was so important that even people who had strayed from the church the previous year would never miss this service. We would have to leave home very early to secure a seat as the church would be bursting at the seams, teeming with familiar faces: the older praying women in the front row, the lay preachers in their black coats in their special corner. Umfundisi would wear his best cassock and his entourage would comprise of ministers and priests from other churches in the Methodist family. By the time one arrived at church, the congregants would have gathered and singing hymns readying their spirits for the word of God later in the service.

I knew what to expect from the service. The scripture readings were almost always reminiscent of the previous year and the hymns were always the same. One could tell devout churchgoers from those who weren’t churchgoers at all by the extent to which they used their hymnbook or not. By the time I was a teenager, I was very proud of the fact that I could sing hymns at church without looking at the words in my hymnbook. After hearing the hymns for so many years, I had memorised them and was therefore a faithful member of the church.

I am reminded of my church days whenever I go to public seminars and notice that they aren’t very different from what I experienced in the church. And thus a book launch, the annual lecture commemorating tata Nelson Mandela (hosted by the Nelson Mandela Foundation), a seminar at the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation will have the exact same patterns. I know what to expect. These events are often earmarked as the spaces for dialogue and intellectual conversation. Those who attend usually get a special email (if they have joined a listserv or happen to be associated with the organisation). The crowd is usually the same: mostly white, middle-aged men and women who are mostly associated with the nearest university or think-tanks in the town and many will know each other from “the days of the struggle”; the smattering of black faces will mostly be students from the nearest university or activists supporting their fellow leader who is one of the guests on the panel. And then the panel: it will comprise of “the experts”, the intellectuals surrounding the topic of discussion. They will have a title, a bio and will have the pressure of moving the audience as the spirit moves the faithful during a church service.

We, the audience, will sit and wait our turn. When the experts are finally done speaking we share our testimony, a comment or implore the expert for some kind of wisdom on the issue at hand. This will be done at the end of the event during the question-and-answer session. And the event will end with wine and wisdom where others will network and find the opportunity to speak to the experts and get their books signed as we sometimes do at church when we wait for the benedictions at the end of the service and talk to the church elders about whether or not the spirit has moved us.

I was exposed to this form of dialogue during my student days at Rhodes where academics and academic rock stars would present their research at various departments. When I moved to Cape Town I was shocked to discover that the same spaces existed: spaces where the same people met in privileged enclaves to talk about their privilege (or a book or film), drink some wine and go home mostly to forget about the conversation and to do the same at the following event a few weeks later.

I am still surprised that the format of the “expert panel” talking to the gushing audience continues to persist beyond the university space. Is it a middle-class way of doing dialogue? Is it a secular way of doing church? Does this form of interaction really encourage the kind of dialogue that could lead to change? Does the same dialogue happen in Khayelitsha, Mdantsane or Diepkloof? Does it need to happen in these townships if it isn’t happening already? These are the questions that plague my mind every time I leave yet another public event, wondering, has the spirit moved me?

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