Peacebuilding in South Africa: Somewhere over the rainbow
Peacebuilding initiatives are flourishing across South Africa, a country which was once a symbol of racial disharmony and division.
Caritas helps people from different backgrounds tell their own story in a safe environment and look at the sources of conflict.
Following anti-immigrant violence in May 2008, the Damietta Peace Initiative in collaboration with Caritas Internationalis creates and nurtures peace groups and teaches them about non-violence and reconciliation.
“ We want to bring people of different origins, sex and religion together in one community,” says Sister Aine Hughes, “and we want to help them tell their story in a safe environment.”
South Africa has 11 official languages and up to three million migrants have come to the country from other African nations attracted by its relative prosperity. Archbishop Desmond Tutu once famously described South Africa as a “Rainbow Nation”.
But when dozens of people were killed and the men in the township of Alexandra went on the rampage with iron bars shouting “kick the foreigners out” in last year’s unrest, it showed that peace in South Africa still needs a lot of hard work.
“We want to build communities of diversity, peace and care,” says Sister Aine. “We help people from different backgrounds tell their own story in a safe environment and look at the sources of conflict – which they discover to be the same: power, neglect and poverty.”
Sister Aine says that once people start talking about their situation in groups, they discover that wherever they’re from, they all have the same story to tell.
Caritas initially funded the initiative to train 180 facilitators to lead peacebuilding groups of around 20 people for six months. Now the Irish Government has stepped in with further funding so the project can continue.
“The feedback has been incredible. People have told me that it’s been what they’ve longed for all their lives,” says Sister Aine. “We help them talk about diversity as an enrichment and we build on people’s similarities.”
Sister Aine has had a number of years of experience in peacebuilding , but she says this is the first time she’s used the Caritas Peacebuilding Manual extensively and she is impressed with how effective it is. She did the peacebuilding training in Lusaka three years ago, but had used parts of the manual before that in dealing with interpersonal and inter-group conflicts.
“One of the advantages of using it is that it gives our programmes a spiritual base. Other groups may start similar programmes but they don’t take root because money is at the foundations,” says Sister Aine.
Groups of children from 6-18 use the Peacebuilding Manual to combat ethnic tensions early on, but Sister Aine says she would love to do a programme for pre-school children too. “Our children know nothing but violence,” she says. “If we work from the age of three upwards, we can create a new non-violent generation that will think differently and as a result, act differently and have different attitudes.”
However, Caritas’ peacebuilding efforts are now focused on the more immediate challenge of the run-up to April’s national and provincial elections. Some say that the campaign will be used to fuel more Xenophobic violence.
“You can feel the stirrings of violence already, ” says Sister Aine. “We’re already preparing communities. We’ve trained enablers to pick up tension in communities and address it before it escalates into conflict.”
Despite these tensions, hopefully the activities of Sister Aine and her colleagues will nourish South Africa’s roots of diversity and provide the path for peace in the Rainbow Nation.