(An approximation of my reflections shared at the Institute for the Study of Human Rights’ Winter Reception and certificate ceremony for the AHDA (Alliance for Historical Dialogue and Accountability)and HRAP (Human Rights Advocates Programme) fellows at Columbia University, Tuesday 5 December 2016)
It gives me great pleasure to share a few words on behalf of the AHDA fellows, on this occasion. The closing date of this fellowship has arrived all too soon in our calendars.
As the last days approach, we find ourselves racing to honour all outstanding commitments made and preparing for the journey back to pur various homes with departure dates looming large and close on the horizon.
In the work that we are all engaged with in our respective contexts, we are bound by our commitment to historical dialogue and accountability.
However, in this time spent in close proximity with the 11 colleagues forming part of this fellowship, I have also experienced the wonderful cohering power of the discursive strategy known as humour! Very early on in our relationship we recognised in each other the ability to laugh at ourselves, not only at others, and recognised the importance of this even as we embarked on this serious journey together. I suspect that at times we were not always laughing for the same reasons, but the humour definitely served as a welcome counter-point to the angst which was generated during the course of heated debates, discussions and sense-making.
Allow me to take a step back and introduce you to some of the characters who have formed part of our little 4-month long tableau.
Fellows, you will recognise the person who is always somewhere other than where the rest of the group- the person who goes to Kent when the schedule very clearly says ‘Knox’, and vice versa! You will recognise that text message that arrived with some regularity to the group chat asking ‘where are you all?’
You will recognise the mother hen stretching out wings to herd the chicks in one common direction, only to discover that they behave more like cats scattering in the opposite direction.
Then there’s the person who never has a pen, and starts off each session with ‘do you have a spare pen?’ (and sometimes even paper!)
We also have in our midst an agile balancer, who did damage to her leg as she tripped and fell but refused to let go of a newly-purchased phone and a precious cup of coffee. Apparently no damage was done to the phone and not a drop of coffee was spilt!
Then there was the fellow who had to be told that Mickey Mouse was not real – even though she did not realise that she had asked the question!
The solitary young North American in our midst who bore the brunt for everything American that annoyed / irritated / bewildered people. He took it very well, un-defensively, and has earned the right to take credit for the good things that can be attributed to his country as well, including hosting us so wonderfully on this fellowship.
And of course, the fellowship has its own president-in-waiting – of a part of that country called Africa!
We’ve all been that person at one time or another – or been the one on the train going Uptown when you meant to go Downtown; or locked out of an I-house room in attire that you would rather not be seen in, in public; or the one who dropped your phonen water, or left your bag on the train…
We’ve become accustomed to each others’ trigger words that could spark off a flurry of interchanges: transitional justice, ‘never, never again’, victimhood, war crimes tribunals, reparations, reconciliation, justice… and even ‘human rights.’
I came here thinking that the ability to find humour in non-humourous situations was a uniquely Cape Town trait, and would like to thank my international fellows for reminding me of humour’s universality.
Through it all, we have been able to share our humanity with each other. We have progressed from engaging with each other very cautiously at the start of the programme, to a point where we can challenge each other robustly and confidently. I have enjoyed this progression, and have also appreciated the respect and desire to listen to understand that has accompanied our engagements. I hope that we all are able to retain the ability to listen as carefully as we have had to each other.
Our needs in coming here have been varied. Some of us needed the space for research, introspection and writing; others needed to be more engaged in scholarship; others needed to make potential funding and collaborative connections. The programme has provided us with sufficient structure combined with the flexibility needed to respond to the varying need. A more thorough reflection will allow each one of us to evaluate how well we have achieved our goals.
Ariella, Elazar and Tim have our heartfelt thanks for shaping the programme with such care and diligence, and for their utmost attention to the details that have made our time here somewhat easier. Thank you for the many extra miles that you have gone in doing so. I can confidently say that each of the fellows has been grateful for this opportunity and has benefitted from our exposure to each other, the Columbia campus and the broader context which has been part of our leaning journey.
I am thankful to the fellows for their contribution to my own learning and growth, and look forward to staying connected as we have committed to doing.
As we approach the end of the programme, I find myself wanting more. But, I have accepted that we have done the best that we could in the time that was generously made available to us, and believe that it is a good note on which to move on. In the words of a song made famous by Rita Coolidge, “I’d rather leave while I’m in love.”