Reflections on nonviolence in South Africa in 2013

Nelson Mandela’s first visit to Durban after his release in February 1990 took place in the local rugby stadium.  The area had been the scene of constant warfare, with many thousands dying as the apartheid state and its allies took on the UDF.  The jubilant crowd listened carefully, and then Mandela said, ‘My message to those of you involved in this battle of brother against brother is this: take your guns, your knives, and your pangas, and throw them into the sea! Close down the death factories. End this war now!’  There was a rumbling of discontent; how could people throw away their weapons, when under such attack?

This moment marked the point at which Mandela insisted that the struggle would from now onwards take a nonviolent form.  He was undertaking major political risks in making the statement; victory for the ANC in a national election was by no means assured, and his words provoked strong disagreement amongst the base of his support.  Indeed, more attacks were to follow.  Yet part of Mandela’s striking success was in his management of the transition from a highly violent and repressive state to a democracy, with a gradual reduction of violence, assisted by the strengthening of the South African economy as confidence grew.

Mandela’s death must raise questions over the contrast between his leadership during that period of emergence from violence and the country’s leadership in the present situation.  The contrast was made obvious in the reaction of the crowd at the memorial service, with marked discontent over the quality of our current leadership.

Indeed, at best one can take the view that violence in South Africa is static, with limited evidence of improvements in some areas.  What is disturbing though is the reality of state violence, with evidence the inquiry into the killings at Marikana raising major questions over the intentions and strategy of the police.   At a different level, there has been constant harassment of people in informal settlements, sometimes in flagrant disregard of court orders, by the eThekwini municipality in Durban; protestors have been killed by police and by unknown assassins.

South Africa is thus persistently a country in a state of what Tani Adams (Chronic violence: toward a new approach to 21st century violence, NOREF policy brief, Norwegian Peacebuilding Resource Centre,, 2012 ) refers to as ‘chronic violence’;  a state with high levels of violent deaths, and with violence encountered across different sectors of the society, including in education.

This year ICON initiated what we hope will be a series of national conferences on nonviolence in education, Strategies for Nonviolence in Education, with the Peacebuilding Programme at Durban University of Technology and with the Association for Bahá’í Studies (Southern Africa).  This drew over 100 delegates from a range of educational sectors.  Perhaps most striking was the enthusiastic and determined participation of young school students from rural and township schools.

What the conference revealed was the depth of the problem of violence within education.  Instead of schools and universities being at least islands of relative peace, they often serve to socialise young people into violence.  As one young delegate said, simply, ‘We do not feel safe.’  Two recent major studies set out the nature and extent of violence in South African schools (Burton, P. & Leoschut, L., 2012 National school violence survey, Cape Town: Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation, 2013; Mncube, V. & Harber, C., Dynamics of violence in South African schools, Pretoria: UNISA, 2013,

What becomes clear is that to make education a place which advances nonviolence in the society, certain elements are essential:

1 The emergence of leaders with a critical understanding of the nature of violence and a commitment to address it, at all levels of education, amongst teachers, parents, students and officials.

2 An understanding that nonviolence cannot be limited to one area of the curriculum, but requires systemic change in teaching, in school and university management, in relationships amongst and between staff and students, and in teacher education.

3 Space within educational institutions for people to talk about their experience of violence, and to find ways of disconnecting from that experience.

Crispin Hemson

Director, ICON

What is needed for young people to take leadership

A workshop of young people in the Impendle area, near the Drakensberg range, was held on 31st August 2013, drawing on student leaders from Mantomela and Luthando High Schools. We were joined also by Philani Dladla, student leader from Dhloko High School in Umlazi, who wanted to visit those he had met at the recent conference, and Saydoon Sayed, of Religions for Peace.

There had been a light snowfall in the area overnight, and conditions were chilly but sunny, so we sat out in the sun, huddled against the wind, to avoid the cold rooms of the school. The focus was on how those present could take the lead in their commitment to a hopeful society. There were accounts of challenges to young leadership, as well as accounts of successes in breaking through. For example, one student reported her ability to form a non-romantic friendship with a boy as a breakthrough, while another spoke of being criticised and undermined for taking a formal leadership position, but choosing to handle the attacks in a confident and relaxed way.

ICON cannot always be there to support such young people, and we need to see developing a generation of young leaders who can overcome their experience of the violence of society, in its many forms, and in so doing take greater control over changes in their lives. The focus is less on training in specific skills (though some is needed); instead we work on the basis that the young leaders will themselves identify what needs to be done and what they need to achieve this. ICON’s role is largely in building networks of trust, reducing isolation and building confidence.
Nolthando and others
Some of us huddled against the wall while we talked with each other



Part of the group over lunch






Philani talking about his leadership

Issues the conference will confront

One of the most challenging issues – if we are to address violence within education – is to bring balance to issues of gender. If you see the programme (below) you will notice the number of papers dealing with issues of gender and violence.

At ICON we are using peer counselling.  YGuys counsellingoung guys find it very hard at first to provide support to other guys. But they quickly find that they are good at it. By the way, these photos appear only after discussion with, and agreement from, the young people who appear in them.

Filming for Nonviolence

Mthokozisi Lembethe and Sandile Nzuza, film-makers for ICON.

Mthokozisi Lembethe and Sandile Nzuza, film-makers for ICON.

ICON is developing modules for teaching in the area of violence and nonviolence, and part of this work involves developing materials. The first initiative is a film on the ways in which South Africans responded to the violence of apartheid, and involves interviews with four South Africans, three of whom served on opposing sides in the Apartheid wars, and one of whom went to military prison as a conscientious objector.

‘We need to capture, especially for young people, the events and choices made at the time, and their implications for how we understand violence and nonviolence now,’ said Crispin Hemson, Director of ICON.

Further filming will include an interview with Ela Gandhi on how the legacy of nonviolence is relevant to the present context.

Remembering the legacies of a stupid system


Apartheid was both nasty and stupid; it still though has its legacies:


Put an end to stupidities of the past
By Crispin Hemson Hemson is the director of the International Centre of Nonviolence, based at Durban University of Technology.
The Mercury
8 Apr 2013

A RESEARCHER from New York met me to understand the assassination of a friend in 1978. He knew in great detail the events of the time – he even had the Security Police records of the same events, a mixture of useful factual information, cold hostility… read more…

© Mercury & Independent Online (Pty) Ltd. All rights reserved.