ICON drives dialogue on xenophobia

Clear leadership is needed to move South African society so that the recent xenophobic violence is addressed in ways that build peace for the long term.  On the 15th May the Innovative Leadership Programme at Durban University of Technology focused on lessons from the violence.

A highlight was the report of a group of three students working on a Migrants Project, that had started shortly before the violence.  The group, mentored by ICON Director, Crispin Hemson, had been the first to report the attacks to the media, and had then carried out a survey of the first group of refugees, to understand the nature of the attacks and the response to them by authorities.

Gabriel Kanyangoga, Mlungisi Mtolo and Siyanda Mthembu, members working on the Migrants Project

Gabriel Kanyangoga, Mlungisi Mtolo and Siyanda Mthembu, members working on the Migrants Projects

The members working on the project had developed an understanding of the difficulties of assisting in a crisis, and in particular the challenges of carrying out research in a situation of confusion and fear.  Perhaps the most striking learning, though, was that of Siyanda Mthembu as he struggled to communicate with refugees, and then found a group who said that they should speak to him in his home language, isiZulu.  They were from Mozambique.  At that point he remembered that his grandfather, who also spoke isiZulu, had come from Mozambique, and his sense of distance from the refugees vanished. ‘I felt as if I was also a victim’, he said.

Participants on the panel

Participants on the panel

These issues were further addressed in a panel of three South Africans and three from outside the country.  Participants from outside South Africa reported experiences of xenophobia in other countries also but also their desire to migrate for learning and for economic purposes.  One South African spoke of the hostility she has experienced as a Xhosa woman who has moved to KwaZulu-Natal.  It became clear that what we have encountered is a deep-seated hostility to other Africans, not just to foreigners.  One participant said, ‘How can people make friends if they cannot accept themselves?’

The discussion that followed probed the layers that underlie the explosion of violence and anger. What emerged very clearly is that building peace needs leadership – leadership first to think its way through this situation, and then to hold out a vision of a society based on acceptance of the self and the other.

Siyondla Sithole speaks on what he termed 'our broken society'

Siyondla Sithole speaks on what he termed ‘our broken society’

The Bill of Rights and engagement with students

The South African Bill of Rights is a marvellous document – recently a film by Abby Ginsburg Soft Vengeance of a Freedom Fighter, highlights Albie Sachs’ major role in developing what we now have as part of our Constitution.

Art for Humanity (AfH), based at Durban University of Technology, has developed an excellent exhibition on the Bill of Rights.  We had a public event there today, which Crispin Hemson chaired as Director of ICON, at the university’s Art Gallery.

This was an event that pulled together different areas of work – collaboration between AfH and ICON, students from the new Cornerstone module (ICON has been central to this) presenting their creative work, and people who came and then asked if they could present poetry on the issues.  Students started with a great song on challenging the stigma directed against people who are HIV+.  This was followed by discussion in groups.

Students sing to challenge stigma related to HIV/AIDS

Students sing to challenge stigma related to HIV/AIDS

Some of the groups, in discussion

Some of the groups, in discussion

The discussion went to the current issues we face in developing a society that truly reflects the rights of the Constitution.  We then had a poem by two students against xenophobia.


There was some impressive thinking.  One student spoke about the xenophobic violence as a way of people trying to express what is wrong in the lives of South Africans, like a cry of desperation. One student pointed out how we could decide to understand each other, and how irrelevant race is to ourselves as humans.

Others spoke about the need to think before you accept cultural practices. The final point was a student who pointed out how apartheid had been able to reproduce itself down the generations – if so, a positive culture of democracy could also reproduce itself.

This is one of the events that ICON will work on in the build-up to the major conference on nonviolence, in September 2015.

Some impassioned statements came for participants

Some impassioned statements came from participants

Students take leadership on xenophobic violence

On the frontlines of those responding to the xenophobic violence: three students on the DUT/ICON Innovative Leadership Programme.   Gabriel Kanyangoga, Mlungisi Mtolo and Siyanda Mthembu had formed a project group focused on issues of migrants, just before the statement by King Zwelithini and the violence that then erupted.

While discussing the project with Crispin Hemson, Director of ICON, on 30th March, Gabriel received a call from a shopkeeper to say that he was being attacked. He immediately notified The Mercury, who had no knowledge of the attack, and the group then went to Isipingo to meet people affected.

The next step was to formulate a survey to collect information on the nature and timing of the attacks, and on the response by police, officials and NGOs. Undertaking the collection of data was made difficult by the conditions.

Mlungisi Mtolo, Gabriel Kanyangoga and Siyanda Mthembu

Mlungisi Mtolo, Gabriel Kanyangoga and Siyanda Mthembu

On the 15th May the group will report back to the next session of the Leadership Programme on their experiences, on the findings of the survey, and on what the three – a Rwandan and two South Africans – have learnt in the process. For example, as Siyanda struggled to communicate with the refugees, and then found that with some isiZulu was easiest, he realised how close he was to them – they were Mozambican, and he then remembered that his own grandfather was from Mozambique. He began to see himself as someone who could easily himself have been a victim of the violence.

Such situations push students into taking leadership, demand new skills and bring important learning. ‘If we are to deal effectively with such breakdowns of the social order, we need leaders who can realise their own capacity for effective leadership,’ says Crispin Hemson.

What is being learnt from this project will be presented by the students at the international Journeys to Peace conference at DUT in September 2015.