Dispatch Dialogues’ wild pioneering ride into deep soul territory

Former judge Albie Sachs during the Dispatch Dialogues at the Guild Theatre.
Former judge Albie Sachs during the Dispatch Dialogues at the Guild Theatre.

It’s easy to cheer for a newspaper like the Daily Dispatch on its 150th anniversary but one of most novel ways I can offer is to reflect on the crazy antics and precious friendships forged during the wild pioneering ride titled the Dispatch Dialogues.

The project began, unintentionally, in late 2007 when Mark Gevisser asked the Dispatch to launch his new book, Thabo Mbeki — A Dream Deferred. At that time public town-hall style debates had not emerged in SA, nor had newspapers started hosting them. But that night, as Gevisser ended his talk and we opened the floor to questions, members of the audience began to literally dive for the microphone. Clearly people wanted to speak. And as the Dispatch’s opinion page editor, it became my passion (and sometimes nightmare) to try to give them an opportunity.

Because our resources were limited, we asked the University of Fort Hare to join us in building a forum for public discourse. Then-marketing manager Mncedi Mgwigwi and vice-chancellor Mvuyo Tom immediately recognised the democracy-building potential of the project. And so began a treasured partnership that continued well into the tenure of the excellent professor Sakhela Buhlungu.

Political economist Moeletsi Mbeki
Political economist Moeletsi Mbeki

The ground-breaking nature of the Dispatch Dialogues is perhaps evident from the way in which we arrived at our name. Then-editor Andrew Trench asked me to find a title. I wracked my brains, finally pulled out my Thesaurus and my eye landed on the word “dialogue”. Until then, there was, as far as I know, no other platform for public dialogues in South Africa.

Our adventure was underway, but little did we know that we were heading into a storm — one created by the outcome of the ANC’s 2007 Polokwane elective conference.

President Jacob Zuma’s excesses were quickly coming to the fore, but within the ANC, loyalty or self-interest dictated silence. Those who dared to protest did so at their peril. The political climate was electrifying.

Faced with Zuma however, it did not take long for giant-slayers to arise. A pair stepped up in December 2010 at a special Dispatch Dialogue at the Guild Theatre that doubled up as the annual Tiyo Soga memorial lecture.

Professors Barney Pityana and Mcebisi Ndletyana minced no words about the problems happening at the helm of government. As they spoke, I remember sliding deeper into my seat and gripping my arm rests.

Justice Malala
Justice Malala

The next morning the Dispatch headlines amplified the bold sentiments from the night before: “Zuma is now a national problem” and “Clarion call for a nation in crisis”. It was, in a hindsight, a cannonball — one fired across the nation’s political landscape that blew open the way for others to speak.

That highly charged atmosphere was replicated many times as we steered the Dialogues from East London to Dikeni, Makhanda and Mthatha.

Because everything in the Eastern Cape is so political, safety soon became a concern. We got help from disaster management savvy Professor Len Brunyee who advised: choose ground floor venues, ensure all chairs are fixed to the floor, have security backup, alert the police and traffic department, and have a backup generator lest someone cuts the power.

In post-Zondo Commission SA this might sound a little crazy. But trying to carve out a space for a public battle of ideas in eKoloni in the Zuma years was often hair-raising.

This was definitely the case in a Dialogue titled “The Battle of the Generals” that featured Bantu Holomisa pitted against then-ANC secretary-general, Gwede Mantashe.

Two hours before we were due to start, the car park at the Guild Theatre was overflowing. UDM and ANC supporters were crushed against the foyer’s glass front doors, pushing against one another. The interior hall was full and there was no way to fit another body in. The tension was through the roof.

At that moment we were saved from certain disaster outside the building by an unknown bright spark who took it into his head to lead a small mob in a quick stampede down Oxford Street. Fortunately, the mob soon lost steam and went home.

Holding the red card Sipho Pityana
Holding the red card Sipho Pityana

Inside the Guild bedlam ruled. Waves of people had somehow squeezed into the foyer and were trying to push into the packed hall. In the middle of the crush, to my utter shock, I spotted the tiny, elderly figure of Epainette Mbeki being swept along by the crowd. I almost fainted.

“Ma Mbeki,” I yelled over the throng, “Are you alright? What are you doing here?”

“I’m fine. I’ve come to see the debate,” she shouted back, typically sharp as a tack. Then she waved at me while being thrust forward by the surging crowd.

From that moment I have absolutely no memory of the rest of the evening. I’m sure the two speakers were excellent. But all credit must go to a team of fabulous people — Guild manager, Zane Flanagan and his crew, UFH’s Khotso Moabi, and Wanga Mjoli of the Dispatch — who manoeuvred us all back from the edge of a precipice that night.

Because the political climate had become so incendiary, we decided to avoid overtly political topics during election season. Things were just too risky. But come new editors, come new ideas, and it was Bongani Siqoko who, some years later, dreamt up the pre-election Dialogue at our largest-ever venue, Abbotsford Christian Centre.

Exactly two minutes into the event someone indeed cut the electricity cables. But we sat frozen in the dark for only seconds — by then our skills were well-honed, our generator was in place, and we were ahead of the game. I guess we’ll never know who caused the sabotage that night, and it is perhaps a coincidence that one political party had chosen not to participate in the event.

Many other curved balls came our way over the 11 years that I facilitated 120 public dialogues in our region. Keynote speakers missed planes to East London leaving us with empty stages. Several folk found the microphone so intoxicating that we struggled to prize it away from them. Guests went hungry because Eastern Cape restaurants close early. It was always a scramble to get speakers to early bird flights the next morning. And by far the most inauspicious start to any dialogue was when two speakers waddled onto the Guild’s stage splutteringly drunk.

There were also several attempts to capture the Dialogues — from within the newspaper and without. Against these I fought like a beast. 

But despite all the drama, the Dialogues ultimately became a place to make friends. As the years passed, a warm atmosphere developed among our community of regulars.

Among the names that I recall from our speakers and attendees were:

  • From the law: Thuli Madonsela, Justice Albie Sachs, Vusi Pikoli, Sonwabile Mancotywa and Mzukisi Makatse;
  • Politics: Mcebisi Jonas, Trevor Manuel, Pravin Gordhan, Lubabalo Mabuyane, Xola Pakati, Cope’s Rev Mvume Dandala, Costa Gazi, Andrew Feinstein, Mkangeli Matomela, Mmusi Maimane and Mvusi Sicwetsha;
  • Traditional leadership: Nkosi Phathekile Holomisa and Prince Langalibalele Mthunzi Ngonyama;
  • Academia: Kenya’s Ngugi wa Thiongó — brought to us by Xolela Mangcu. Also Theo Mncedisi Jordan, Wandile Kuse, Saleem Badat, John Hendricks, Somadoda Fikeni, Peter Vale, Leslie Bank, William Gumede, Richard Pithouse, Stephen Friedman, Mzukisi Qobo, William Gumede and Dumisa Ntsebeza;
  • Education: Jonathan Jansen and sisters, Margaret Irvine and Barbara Valentine;
  • Journalists, activists and analysts: Moeletsi Mbeki, Nkosinathi Biko, Omry Makgoale, Justice Malala, Benjamin Pogrund, Mazibuko Jara, Laura Miti, Russell Grinker, Xola Moni and Keith Ngesi who lugged his heavy radio kit to so many venues;
  • Business: Sam Motsuenyane, Herman Mashaba, Thando Mpulu and Liso Mabandla and his cousin Belz; and
  • Clergy: Mangaliso Matshoabane, Laurette Mkati and Sithembile Sipuka, Mthatha’s Catholic bishop.

Also important are some no longer with us: Ntsiki Sandi, Zukile Ningi, Lawrence Tutu, Monde Tabata, former Dispatch editor Brendan Boyle and feisty Zolile Keke who once, from the audience, eviscerated Pallo Jordan up on the stage.

The final word goes to Mdantsane activist, Thabang Maseko, who, in my view, gave the Dialogues its finest compliment. “For many days after each dialogue is over, we sit in the township and discuss the topics that have been raised,” he once told me.

And that, my friends, was the point all along.

* Dawn Barkhuizen facilitated the Dispatch Dialogues from 2007 to 2018.



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