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Virtual conference explores role of arts in peace and reconciliation
Author: Corporate Communication/Korporatiewe Kommunikasie [Rozanne Engel]
Published: 18/06/2020

Stellenbosch University (SU) recently co-hosted an international conference with the theme, Art in Peace and Reconciliation: A Transnational Perspective, in collaboration with the Association of Commonwealth Universities (ACU) to explore how the arts, in all its diversity, can be used to open up space for healing, dialogue, reconciliation and transitional justice across the Commonwealth.

 This inaugural event held with the ACU forms part of the ACU's Peace and Reconciliation Network and the conference was held virtually due to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Association of Commonwealth Universities is an international organisation dedicated to building a better world through higher education. International collaboration is central to this ambition.

The free online event brought together leading academics, researchers, artists and professional staff from more than 40 universities across the Commonwealth for a series of interactive panel discussions. The holder of a research chair Studies in Historical Trauma and Transformation at SU, Prof Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela, was the leading force behind organising the conference, together with Prof Shaun Ewen of Melbourne University and Alex Wright, ACU's Head of Public Affairs. All the technical logistics of the conference were hosted by SU and coordinated by Lidia du Plessis, Coordinator: Staff Mobility Programmes, Centre for Partnerships and Internationalisation at Stellenbosch University International.

Presentations at the conference by established researchers, emerging scholars and young researchers who are busy completing their doctoral work, focused on representations of the past through the arts and theatre as an ethical act of witnessing trauma that might provide not only ways of acknowledging the past and its transgenerational repercussions in the present, but also the possibility of alternative forms of theoretical knowledge. 

During the opening and keynote session, Chair of the Commonwealth Peace and Reconciliation Network and SU Rector & Vice-Chancellor, Prof Wim de Villiers said that the conference could not have come at a better time as the whole world is currently taking a stand against racism, violence and injustice.

“This conference was a long time in the making. Not only does it speak to overcoming conflict in places that have to varying degrees been torn apart by discord, such as South Africa, Northern Ireland, Lebanon and Syria, but it also takes place against the backdrop of the black-lives-matter (#BLM) protests against the brutal killing of George Floyd in Minnesota, USA."

The ACU's Commonwealth Peace and Reconciliation Network aims to connect and support those interested in peace and reconciliation, facilitating collaboration and sharing approaches to truth telling and reconciliation in society and within universities themselves.

According to Prof de Villiers, SU is committed to engaging and collaborating with stakeholders, and the university's partners at a local, regional, continental and global level.

“What happens in the world shapes us as institutions, and what happens on our campuses whether physical or virtual matters to the world. We are all part of something bigger. Transnational collaboration is very important to Stellenbosch University. We set ourselves the vision of becoming Africa's leading research-intensive university, globally recognised as excellent, inclusive and innovative, where we advance knowledge in service of society," said Prof de Villiers.

The keynote session also included panel speakers Prof Gobodo-Madikizela; Prof John Brewer, Professor of Post-Conflict Studies, The Senator George J Mitchell Institute for Global Peace, Security and Justice, Queen's University, Belfast; and Prof Ewen, Pro Vice-Chancellor (Indigenous) and Foundation Director of the Melbourne Poche Centre for Indigenous Health, The University of Melbourne and Visiting Professor of Indigenous Health and Leadership, King's College, London.

Prof Gobodo-Madikizela's presentation looked at “Reparative Humanism" and the important role it plays in how people can relate and show empathy to one another's traumas. She also reiterated the importance of Ubuntu in “repairing brokenness" and bringing forth reconciliation. 

In Prof Brewer's presentation, he looked at the impact of generational trauma among families. He believes that “time does not always allow for healing to happen" in second and third generational victims of trauma, because of unresolved social inequality and justice.

Prof Ewen explored the importance of reparations of place in his presentation and said that it should be a key component in universities as many institutions are placed on indigenous land, which predates the establishments of many universities.

“Without reparations the social contract between a university and the local community which provides the institution with the license to operate is weak. Reparations of place as a concept holds much promise to universities as they engage with their place base communities and will help to develop an authentic licence to operate," said Prof Ewen.

The other sessions during the conference included topics such as the Northern Ireland troubles from 1969–1999, which resulted in almost 3 600 deaths and over 40 000 injuries. A panel discussion addressed historical trauma in South Africa and another session examined profile lessons from the “imagining futures" project, a global cross-disciplinary collaboration focused on archives as negotiations about visions of the future examining whose story will continue to be told and how and whose silenced in moments of post-conflict, displacement and reconstruction.

There was also a panel session that addressed the university as a site of reform in advancing peace and reconciliation, the role of the arts and implications for decolonising methodologies in teaching and learning, research and engagement, which looked at experiences in South Africa, the United Kingdom and indigenous-settler contexts in Australia and New Zealand.

The recordings of the conference sessions will be available on demand to all those who registered.

For more information on the ACU, visit the website here.​