In October the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, witnessed a profound intersection of history and education as Roelf Meyer and Mohammed Bhabha, negotiators instrumental in dismantling apartheid in South Africa, visited UT to meet with student groups, departments and host the first-of-its-kind CGE Signature Global Dialogue.
Organized by the Center for Global Engagement and endorsed by various academic departments and units, the event, titled “Lessons from South African Constitutional Negotiators: Moving Beyond Toxic Polarization in America,” became a unique exploration of dialogue, mentorship and the power of shared narratives.
Meyer and Bhabha, both associated with Civic Genius and Beyond Conflict, an organization that has “created powerful and innovative frameworks to open pathways for progress in peace talks… for over 75 years,” transitioned from being historical figures to mentors and a voice for compromise to UT students.
Meyer’s role in the apartheid government and subsequent service in Nelson Mandela’s cabinet, coupled with Bhabha’s experiences as an African National Congress negotiator, set the stage for an engaging exchange that went beyond the confines of a lecture hall or keynote event.
Their visit included a tapestry of interactions with students, starting with a breakfast with the VOLeaders Academy, a program comprised of student-athlete leaders aiming to make positive global social change throughout sport. The session proved to be timely, as this year’s VOLeaders cohort is visiting South Africa for the international service immersion experience portion of the academy. Meyer and Bhabha shared insights into South Africa’s collective past with these student-athletes with hopes they will take that knowledge to South Africa during the immersion experience.
The morning continued with a panel discussion at the International House with students and faculty from the Department of Africana Studies. The talk delved into the negotiators’ experiences resolving conflicts across Africa based on the South African model, the impact of apartheid on South African society, what role students and young people can play in the resolution of conflict on the continent and the political and economic atmosphere in South Africa today.
In the late afternoon, the Alumni Memorial Building became a stage for the CGE Signature Global Dialogue titled “Lessons from South African Constitutional Negotiators: Moving Beyond Toxic Polarization in America.”
Bhabha and Meyer shared their experiences negotiating conflict and building relationships across political divides. More than 200 UT students, many of them studying political science, attended the event and had the privilege to interact with the former constitutional negotiators with a question and answer session to close out the dialogue. The focus of the talk centered on finding humanity and common ground in the midst of deep disagreements and how those lessons can be applied to current day affairs in the U.S.
The next morning, Meyer and Bhabha ventured across campus to finish up their visit at the university.
A discussion with the Campus MultiFaith Council began the day, which brought together campus ministry leaders from a variety of backgrounds to hear how issues of faith and morality underpinned decision making when crafting the new constitution for South Africa.
Over lunch, the former constitutional negotiators met with student leaders of the Student Government Association. Meyer and Bhabha shared lessons on how young leaders should seek consensus. A practice they learned from Nelson Mandela, one of the most recognized and notable leaders of the twentieth century.
The most interactive session during their visit, Meyer and Bhabha participated alongside students in a simulation on building a constitution. The event, led by the Baker School of Public Policy and Public Affairs, presented real issues negotiated at the Convention for a Democratic South Africa. Students were then charged to decide how they would have negotiated a compromise if placed in that moment. Meyer and Bhabha closed out the event by describing their personal experiences on how the real-life negotiations and compromise actually occurred.
The heartbeat of Meyer and Bhabha’s visit lay in their engagements with students across disciplines. From the Department of Africana Studies to the Baker School of Public Policy and Public Affairs, they offered hands-on, real-life lessons in the intricacies of building a constitution and negotiating across deep disagreements.
Meyer and Bhabha’s visit to UT sparked vibrant discussions. Their time on campus injected fresh ideas gleaned from their own personal experiences into classrooms and lunch tables across campus. Their presence acted as a catalyst, blending history with the present and leaving behind inspiration for students to pursue unity, dialogue and meaningful change on their own terms. It was a powerful demonstration of how global leaders can help UT students find solutions to challenges faced in the U.S. and abroad.
About the Center for Global Engagement
The Center for Global Engagement works to lead, coordinate and support the university’s strategies for global education, research and engagement. Initiatives include developing and managing international partnerships, welcoming and assisting international students and scholars, providing education abroad opportunities to students and creating international and inter-cultural programming for campus and the broader community.
Jason Moody (865-974-5752, email@example.com)