I recently saw a car with a bumper sticker on it that read Stop Crime Say Hello. This warmed the cockles of my heart because it was a campaign that I began nearly a decade ago. The message was very simple; at the end of the day, crime is simply a lack of love and respect for people and their things.

If we work together to restore these values to our society, crime will drop quite naturally. And for a country that has traded in disrespect and hatred for centuries, we need to focus the process of healing and restoration on restoring these simple values. We can create a peaceful society by reaching out to one another in the smallest ways and even the humble ‘hello’ has the power to build bridges between people.

The point of the campaign was of course never to negate all those big and necessary words/practises like multidisciplinary task forces, visible policing etc from the fight against crime in South Africa. But if we don’t add ‘active bridge building’ to that list we are – as my dear Dad would put it – peeing into a force nine gale.

Nearly a decade on and we are a markedly different country to what we were then. In some ways I think we were the kind of country that would quite naively give birth to campaigns like Stop Crime Say Hello. You might remember another campaign called EGBOK. It stood for Everything’s Going to Be Okay! We have grown up a little since then and we have begun to realise that whilst such positive ideas and slogans would provide a useful start to the reconciliation process, they were limited in how far they could take us.

Now, we are giving birth to things like dialogue forums that give people the time and space to discuss everything from white privilege to ethics and values. Now, groups of black and white friends meet weekly for meals to wrestle with and better understand their unique perspectives on the world. I am proud to say that even my local Anglican church is beginning a process of talking about the issue of land expropriation and what that means for people.  Thank God the church is finally starting to talk about politics in a meaningful way.

But just in case you have a picture of everyone holding holds and singing Kumbaya, these conversations can (and indeed should) get very messy. Quite often our inherent – in some of us overt and in others dormant for years – racism, bigotry, patriarchy and sexism come flooding out and we get a sense that we are going backwards. But we are not. Conversation – or what we perhaps more richly refer to as dialogue – with all its dissenting voices and opinions – is really the only way that we generate new ideas and heal old wounds. We begin to see ourselves as connected with others rather than as beings separate from the whole.

We are given the opportunity to experience our own vulnerability and lack of knowledge of one another and to cringe at our own blind spots. It is in doing this hard but necessary work – spending time with people who look and behave differently to us – that our beliefs, opinions and behaviours start to shift. I have noticed that even people’s language changes when they start to expand their view of people and the world; it becomes more spacious and gracious. And of course, our purpose changes from one of acquisition and protection of assets to one of sharing.

Why do I write about all this now? After some 8 years writing this column – a column whose impetus was the Stop Crime Say Hello campaign – this will be my last piece for the Mercury. This news has given me the opportunity to reflect on many of the ideas I have had the privilege to express on these pages, and on the conversations that I have had with many of you as a result. Not all of them have been pretty but I have loved the interactions and I have grown as a result. A column gives a writer the chance to learn and mature in a way that few other disciplines ever can. I am very grateful for that. 

I would like to end with a challenge for all of us to redouble our efforts to build bridges between people. I include in this, bridges between the poor and the rich. Because it really is impossible to build the type of society that we all wish to live in whilst we still have this hell-like gap between those who have and those who have not. If you have money, give more. If you employ people, employ more; if you care for people, care for more. And if all else fails and you have nothing left to give or do – just say hello to every person you pass.  

Let’s continue the dialogue on my blog www.justinfoxton.com

Justin Foxton is founder of The Peace Agency.  His writing is dedicated to the memory of Anene Booysens, Emmanuel Josias Sithole and Suna Venter.