10/09/2014 03:49 pm ET Updated Dec 09, 2014

Storytelling: The Most Human of Arts

It has been said that the most difficult time comes after a revolution -- a sentiment born out in the tough reality of post-apartheid South Africa. At a conference in Bloemfontein that set out to examine issues of freedom, responsibility and reconciliation, a young black South African man posed a difficult question. "I was born in a multiracial country," he said, "so why are my friends now fighting over race?" Another put it slightly differently: "Sometimes we think it would be easier if all the people from the past generation who experienced the apartheid system died and we could get on with living together."

There was a ripple of uncomfortable laughter in the room until the impressive professor Jonathan Jansen, Vice-Chancellor of the University of the Free State, addressed the subject of intergenerational trauma and pointed out that children in South Africa are born with the memory and pain of their parents. Posing the most fundamental of questions, he asked, "How do we teach people they are more than their color?"

As the first black dean of a South African university, Professor Jansen is a well-known and respected figure here. In 2012 he addressed studentsand their parents at the university's graduation ceremony, acknowledging that there is still a great deal of rage in South Africa and urging them to "never respond by rage. Respond through reason and you will have gotten not just a degree but an education."

These intergenerational issues surface continually here in South Africa. Guilt, shame and trauma are transmitted through stories and passed on down the generations. The noticeable lack of acknowledgement or apology on the part of whites doesn't help the healing process, and for those who bore the brunt of apartheid, this is still a source of deep hurt.

Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela, author of the award-winning A Human Being Died that Night and a senior research professor in trauma, memory and forgiveness at the University of the Free State, has come to believe that apology and acknowledgement are of the utmost importance when dealing with historical memory because, saying, "When people are wounded they feel as if they have been dehumanised. ... The recognition of the pain of the other is an evocation of empathy."

She suggests that perhaps it is because people are uncomfortable with their own shame that they are so afraid to acknowledge the past and apologize. The problem is that without shame, people can't feel or express remorse.

Then there is the problem of the hierarchy of perpetrators, with some white South Africans comparing themselves with violators in other countries and insisting, "We weren't as bad." Perhaps this is true, but the act of comparison blocks people from taking full responsibility and prevents them from opening their hearts to the hurt and pain of those who were oppressed.

Could a national apology of the kind that happened in Australia ever be possible? In 2008 Prime Minister Kevin Judd apologized on behalf of the Australian people for the "Stolen Generations" of Aboriginal children who were forcibly removed from their parents and made to live in institutional facilities or foster homes between 1909 and 1969. While most of the government's promises did not materialize, nothing can take away from the Aboriginal people the massive public "Sorry Day" movement that galvanized the media and pricked the conscience of a nation.

In South Africa a national apology feels a lifetime away, but in the meantime one way to break down the continuing and sometimes seemingly insurmountable race barriers is sharing restorative stories in order to help people overcome their differences and defenses. Professor Gobodo-Madikizela identifies this act as "making public spaces intimate" -- in other words, the sharing of healing narratives to foster empathy and understanding. In Bloemfontein the young South Africans heard from Ginn Fourie and Letlapa Mphahlele, two people from opposite ends of the historical racial divide who have come together in the post-apartheid era to promote conciliation and peace. They do this despite the fact that it was Mphahlele who gave the orders for the APLA attack on the Heidelberg Tavern in Cape Town in 1993, which killed Fourie's daughter, Lyndi.

Their partnership is a powerful tool when it comes to understanding the pain of your enemy, because hearing healing narratives like these can open up the intimate stories of others. When the American novelist and essayist Scott Russell Sanders described storytelling as the most human of arts, he concluded, "Through stories, we reach across the rifts not only of gender and age, but also of race and creed, geography and class, even the rifts between species or between enemies."