Here I am, a shallow, cynical hack attending “ensemble building” workshops in America. But an old dog can learn new tricks.

The idea is to get a cast of actors to act like an organic unit; to interact, support and complement one another. After the second workshop it struck me that ensemble building is a metaphor for building peace, stability and harmony in society. Or conflict resolution. And this was what I was doing here: attending a summer institute on alternative conflict resolution hosted by the new Global Arts Corps, a body with strong South African roots.

One of the first exercises that New York theatre director Michael Lessac – director of the acclaimed play Truth in Translation based on South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission – has his actors do is have them paired. They have to tell each other a personal story of forgiveness, then the other has to tell that story in the first person to the group.

It demands intense listening, because the storyteller has to get as close as humanly possible to the emotions and meaning of the person he heard the story from.

The exercise engenders trust, understanding and empathy. There are several other exercises that help the ensemble get to know and care for one another, to lead and to follow, to take a cue from one another and to promote communication and confidence as a group and as individuals.

Then Lessac turns to them and says it is equally important that each member of the ensemble be “director-proof”: able to build and sustain his/her own truth and take the lead, although the director has to give the overall direction of the play – a proper metaphor for how we should treat political leadership.

As South Africans we had a great start in our quest to build a national ensemble: the TRC. We heard one another’s stories and had to “hold” them for one another. We listened to one another’s pain, resentments, dreams, explanations, remorse and confessions. We started seeing others, even our enemies, as human beings rather than adversaries, as part of the same nation, and we made the first steps towards forgiveness and empathy.

But we didn’t realise that this time of truth, forgiveness and reconciliation was not an event, not an isolated exercise. It was merely an opening of the door to a long journey that had to be made if we really wanted our gains to grow and our nation-building to be an ongoing process.

We drifted apart again, each returning to racial, ethnic or class bunkers. We did not listen intently enough to one another; we did not develop sufficient empathy; we did not learn properly to trust and understand one another. We did not fully comprehend that we also needed an economic revolution that would bring liberation from abject poverty.

We are paying the price for this with a sharp decline in social cohesion and even a threat to stability. We created the space for demagogues and cheap populists to whip up emotions along racial and class lines that could see our economy seriously undermined.

Ensemble building is also a metaphor for conflict resolution and reconciliation in post-conflict societies. Societies have to be helped to see the humanity in enemies, to really listen to other’s pain, anger and aspirations, to take a cue from one another, to “hold” one another’s stories, to support one another, to develop empathy.

We have ample evidence that governments are limited when they try to resolve or defuse conflict in other societies. They have political baggage and vested interests and they are undermined by diplomatic convention. South African and AU efforts to broker peace in Libya are good examples.

The future of conflict resolution in a polarised world lies with private initiatives that can operate under the radar and take risks; that can be flexible and innovative.

There are few, if any, institutions doing this work through the arts, which is what makes the Global Arts Corps such an exciting venture. It has a strong presence in Northern Ireland, South Africa and the Balkans and plans to do the same in seven other countries in the next few years.

The initiative was stimulated by Truth in Translation, with a South African cast, which premiered in Rwanda and has been performed in nine countries. Every tour is combined with workshops with local actors and dancers, but also with victims and perpetrators of political violence.

Lessac is the brain behind it and South African actor Nick Boraine is a senior associate.