At 7.30 am my phone rang. It was Selwyn, one of the retired people in the village of Vaal Marina near where I live at the Vaal Dam. “You said you’d help. I need your help now. The Mamello guys have agreed to come to the community hall. I’m waiting to hear if the VM Neighbourhood Watch will come. If they are there at 11 can you facilitate?”
The room we met in contains a huge u-shape of heavy, immovable desks. The two groups positioned themselves on opposite sides. They left the long joining piece empty telling me “you need to be between us”. Their bodies were stiff and the air was tense.
The week before these two groups had been at ‘war’. Mamello is the local informal settlement where the people have waited years for RDP (social) housing with broken promise after broken promise from government. They took out their frustrations on the mostly elderly, mostly white, villagers of Vaal Marina; closing the only entry road, throwing petrol bombs, burning council and private property and threatening people. The villagers responded with armed patrols through the night. And language that makes you wonder if you are back in the battles of the great trek or the cape frontier wars.
On the second day police arrived in a casper (armoured vehicle). An uneasy calm followed with an agreement from the Mamello people to give the local council until Monday to respond.
That deadline had come and gone. Now the five young, black, mostly male representatives of Mamello faced the six, much older, mostly male VM representatives across the empty opening in the U.
After 30 minutes of creating a safe space, and then an activity to hear each person's perspective on the current situation, it was awesome to see them in three mixed groups animatedly discussing what needs to happen to get the New Mamello housing built!
By the end of the meeting they had one clear list of requirements to take to the local council meeting in two days time, and an agreement that the Mamello people would present it and the VM people would back them up. They’d also decided to meet weekly for a while and thereafter monthly.
In 90 minutes from extremely wary “us and them” to “we can work together to get government to build this housing”. It was amazing. I wish I could have taken photos and video. It was a gift to be given the opportunity to help bring it about.
Selwyn was over the moon. He gave me a big hug saying “Thank you. This was a miracle. I cannot believe the VM people talked.”
Two days later I received this whatsapp message as they were on their way to the council meeting. “Riding in a taxi with I.M. and 10 delegates from Mamello😁😁😁😁👍🏁🏁”.
There is a lot of work still to be done, both groups have many differences. The seeds of trust and cooperation have been planted. It is a first step. A very big step.
As they did a closing exercise the words shared, the smiles on faces, and the body language all spoke of hope.
One of the Mamello people sent this message a bit later “I'm impressed, I think Vaal Marina can show South Africa how rainbow nation can be achieved.”
I believe the only way we can heal our country and move forward to a bright future for everyone is through people talking to each other; breaking barriers and building bridges.
If you would like a similar facilitation for difficult conversations in your workplace or community give me a call or send me a message.