My therapist used to be amused, if not slightly annoyed, at my inability to understand why we needed to talk about the same issue repeatedly. I would try to move the conversation along by saying that we had already covered it and she would remind me with kindness that this was the point of treatment, to delve into the issues over and over until there was a sense of understanding. And this would invariably take multiple iterations.
These past few days, the two places I call home are reminding me of that painful process. On the one hand, Colombia saw the announcement of the formation of a “new guerrilla” challenging and threatening the relatively new peace agreement; on the other, xenophobic violence has ravaged the streets of Johannesburg evocative of the terrible attacks of 2008, while a young student woman in Cape Town became the latest casualty of horrific violence against women. Both situations are a reminder of the fragility of our social contracts and the heightened state of hatred and violence in both countries.
These are two societies grappling with old wounds, with new victims each day. In Colombia, a conflict older than 50 years seems to resist its demise. After a few failed attempts, in 2016 a peace agreement was signed with great fanfare –including a Nobel peace prize — giving a general sense of hope and a willingness to forgive. Likewise, I remember 2008 as if it were yesterday. It was my second year in South Africa and xenophobia had broken out on the streets of Johannesburg leaving looting and many dead in its wake. The response was swift, people organised and galvanised public support to defend those under attack and thus organisations and movements sprung up under the banner of “never again”.
Seeing both situations unravel highlights the fallibility of our human condition but also that peace is a sustained commitment. When the Colombia peace process was signed I wrote some reflections about peace not being ‘an event’ in light of my experience in South Africa and what I was seeing as a result of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission and other processes of reconciliation. Today, I am reminded of the precarious stability of such processes as a result of imperfect implementation of reparations and reintegration.
These deeply emotional events have been accompanied by the most poignant of all social forms of therapy: Music! Last week, I attended a concert by the Bogota philharmonic orchestra performing traditional Colombian music. It took place at the largest theatre in the city and the performance was superb. There was a moment I simply could not stop crying with emotion. It was a mix of remembering my late father, the many memories of childhood and the sentiment beautifully played music conjures. An older man on stage could not contain himself either. It was the day the announcement of a resurgence of fighting was made. It was clear we were united in our sense of sorrow, mixed with the joy this music produced.
I then had a conversation with Phillip Miller, an incredible music composer from South Africa, who happened to be in Bogota performing at the same theatre where the philharmonic played. He spoke about the power of music and how it is utilised to unify but also to divide people. I retorted by explaining that sitting in that music hall I felt a deep sense of connection with a place that otherwise, I find very difficult to navigate. Indeed, listening to South African music at the same stage brought about very similar emotions. Nostalgia, a sense of belonging which in this case is more as a result of time spent and relationships built, and a longing for a better state of affairs.
I am still trying to put all the pieces together, it might all just be an unfortunate coincidence of events taking place in two countries which have always been at war within themselves and which I happen to have inhabited for most of my life. What I do know, from talking to friends and watching social media, is that the feeling of both despair and a desperate desire for change is real in both places. Nothing else can be expected under such circumstances, what is left for all of us to do is to channel those emotions in constructive ways, both within and with others in the hope that this can lead to genuine healing and a process of continued search for peace.