Reflections on Poland and South Africa PART ONE

Through Malina Baranowska-Janusz, a Lewis Method Deep Democracy Youth Speak facilitator, and Gert Roehrborn, from the Heinrich Boell Foundation Warszawa (Warsaw, Poland) I was invited to participate in European Youth Conference 2017 (#EYC2017) “Regain or Retreat? European Youth in an Age of Uncertainty”. The conference was organized by the Heinrich Boell Foundation Warszawa and the Green European Foundation.

I walked away with a feeling of hope.  These are complex issues and need to be examined and considered at each level. For me the grains of truth lay in the phrases used by participants - “doing it together” or “dialoguing with the community”. These statements suggest that these dialogues can be easily achieved.

There is a need to know how to introduce the dialogue and to ensure that the dialogue does not become mired in entrenched sides with naming and blaming taking place, so that people can move to the point that each can find the answer within themselves. This can be taught and developed through the Lewis Method of Deep Democracy.

The Conference took place in Gdańsk, at the European Solidarity Center- ECS- Europejskie Centrum Solidarności. This is one of the best museums I have ever visited. It is situated next to the well-known shipyard where the initial strikes against the communist regime took place. This shipyard is the birthplace of the Solidarity Movement, which led the fight against communism.  The museum is now a UN heritage Centre for Human Rights.

Poland MFA Europejskie Centrum Solidarności / European Solidarity Centre, Poland,Jezyk,pid,2,lang,2.html 

There were two spaces in the conference where the Lewis Method was introduced. The first was an informal discussion on the following topic:  “The Role of Emotions & Conflict in Development” led by Myrna Lewis (Deep Democracy Network), with Jacek Wasilewski, journalist, UW (Warsaw University). Gert Roehrborn chaired the session where the parallel history between the fall of communism in Poland and the fall of apartheid in South Africa was discussed with emphasis placed on how the conflict was dealt with in each region and what is happening in these two countries today.

The world in the late 80s early 90s saw incredible changes! Changes that were seemingly sudden but in fact happened after a prolonged period of human suffering due to a lack of acknowledgement of human rights.  Poland and South Africa experienced two of these dramatic changes.

In Poland the Round Table talks took place after an intensive period of military rule. The military rule was enforced to take Poland “back” to the communist type state before the Solidarity Movement’s strike action in the 1980s, which saw the initial attempts at establishing the tenets of democracy and human rights. The democratic period, crushed by military rule, did not last long. Many lives were lost and many activists were imprisoned.

Mass riots and continuous strikes seriously impacted upon the social and economic stability of the country and finally ended military rule in Poland.  At the famous Round Table talks, peace was negotiated and the communists withdrew.

The Round Table talks were designed by two psychologists. Their work on the mediation process enabled successful “buy in” and a peaceful transition to take place by the withdrawing communist regime and the new political stakeholders stepping up embracing the potential of a peaceful transition. The situation was explosive and could have easily led to civil war.

Similarly, in South Africa the change from Apartheid to the new Democracy took place in a violent and explosive environment where civil war was a strong possibility.  The ANC (African National Congress), similar to the Solidarity Movement in Poland, led the activist campaign against Apartheid. The National Party was brought to its ‘knees’ after a long period of rioting and strike action. One of the first strike actions, led by youth was against the Bantu education system in 1976. These actions, led and organized by the ANC, caused social and economic turmoil. As a result of the release of Nelson Mandela, leader of the ANC (who had been imprisoned for 27 years), discussions, similar to those of the Round Table were held, and peace was finally achieved.

The different approaches to these two conflict situations were topics for discussion at the conference. In Poland, the psychologists’ mediation process targeted the politicians and the tensions were kept to a minimum, the focus being on trying to gain a peace treaty. In South Africa, at a similar socio- political level, the negotiations took time and involved many a mediation type processes.  But at another societal level, namely the level of people needing to work and live together other processes took place. One of these was also designed by two psychologists, Myrna and Greg Lewis.

The Lewis Method of Deep Democracy was born out of a changed work environment where people had to start working with one another in a participative manner. Moving away from a hierarchical Apartheid system of racial segregation, it became necessary to introduce new ways to encourage participants to interact with one another.   A dominant feature of societies practicing discrimination of any kind is that people from different ethnic and racial groups have little opportunity of getting to know each other. Interpersonal interaction in South Africa was highly stylised and in keeping with the separate development policy of Apartheid. People worked and lived side by side one another but had very limited social contact.  The lack of genuine interpersonal interaction fuelled prejudices and stereotypical thinking.  For most people attending workshops run by the Lewis's they were “seeing” and truly “meeting” one another for the first time as people. They had to confront one another, oppressor and victim, each dealing separately with their deep pain, anguish, rage, guilt and fear.  They had to move towards working within a democratic setting of equality, responsibility and accountability.

In order to achieve this very tough challenge the Lewis Method introduced specific steps into the decision making process, namely:

  • to allow each participant to express his or her opinion and have them listened to
  • to enable, recognize and encourage minority opinions to be voiced and heard and then
  • to engage with all the views that have been expressed, acknowledging that there are those who hold similar views and others who have different points of view from your own. The aim is to encourage all voices to be heard and then to take a vote
  • to gain the minority’s wisdom and ‘buy in’ by establishing what they need to come along
  • to enable the conflict (which inevitably arises from differences of opinion) to take place in a structured manner in order to resolve it, and allow people to learn and grow and attain innovative creative solutions to problems.

This method is very different to the mediation method used at the Round Table talks and Peace Accord process setting the basic constitution in South Africa. South Africa has in writing, one of the most human rights orientated constitutions in the world.

Regrettably, the mediation successes of previous approaches are no longer viable within the present context.  In both Poland and SA, political power and corruption threatens to undermine the best intentions expressed at those famous talks and to question whether these countries can still be considered viable democratic states.

The discussion concluded with what is needed when we speak about change. We considered that true change as opposed to political and power change can take place between ordinary people who have to work and /or interrelate with one another.  The pressure and motivation to work together, combined with using good methods and technology to enable this to happen, may well be the answer. What we need today is true change.

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