Can higher education be based on nonviolence?

A group of students draw accounts of the educational journeys they have made, and then each explains what has been drawn to others in the group.  These accounts say so much about the challenges they faced before they could come into higher education, or about the role of advantage in ushering them onto the next level of study.

A student presents the drawing of her journey

A student presents the drawing of her journey

As they listen, the students extend their awareness of the range of possible lives. Those who have not thought much about disability, of growing up in a country wracked by war, of what middle class privilege really entails, of what it means to be gay, or even about the challenges faced by women in education, now find themselves engaging with the ways in which these experiences have shaped others.

We ensure that we develop attentive listening through the educational work; part of this entails seeing others as worthy of our respect and attention

We ensure that we develop attentive listening through the educational work; part of this entails seeing others as worthy of our respect and attention

Imagine if higher education was a place in which those who enter bring in these experiences and what they have learnt in response to those experiences.  Imagine if higher education was seen not as a route out of poverty in rural areas or townships, but as a tool for transforming such areas.  Imagine a society that truly could accommodate the full diversity of experience, and marshalled the full potential for thinking and creativity of its citizens.

Achieving such possibilities is the task that ICON is presently pursuing within the Durban University of Technology.  At present the ICON Director, Crispin Hemson, is leading the piloting of a new first year course, the Cornerstone module, with a group of senior students and some staff members.

This may be the first time students have had a choice to review the years they have spent in education

This may be the first time students have had a choice to review the years they have spent in education

The Design of the Cornerstone module is based on the idea of journeys.  It focuses on the wide variety of journeys that we take in society.  Early in the pilot four people connected with the University, as staff, students or ex-students, spoke on a journey they took.  The journeys have been journeys of education, physical journeys, or journeys of self-acceptance.  Listening to these accounts brings a sense of privilege at understanding the richness of resources that people bring into the institution, and questions as to the extent to which universities draw on such resources.

From a different perspective, this can be seen as postcolonial education.  While acknowledging fully the role of our history in forming our society, it operates on a basis of a set of assumptions totally different to those of colonialism and apartheid.  While those systems made the lives of the majority of people hard, in all contexts where such people live there are resources and understandings that can inform the lives of all citizens.  It treats with respect the many diverse ways people have responded to those contexts, and encourages their questioning and creativity in addressing the challenges that modern society faces.

Writing extends the process of reflection

Writing extends the process of reflection

To do this work, we need to build a sense of safety and trust in the classroom, in a society where there is ongoing violence and insecurity.  Students comment on how they become more open with each other, and the need to feel safe to be able to do that.  Building trust is central to nonviolence within education; we do so in quite practical ways by spending time at the beginning of the programme in negotiating agreement on the values and practices that underpin our time together.

This work falls within the General Education initiative of DUT.  It aims not to replicate the work of discipline-specific programmes, but rather to extend that work and to assist in integrating what is learnt in those programmes with society more generally.

Director speaks at Steve Biko conference

The ICON Director, Crispin Hemson, spoke on 17th September 2014 at the annual Steve Biko Conference at Durban University of Technology.  His speech addressed Education and Morality, and he drew in particular on personal memories of Steve Biko – including the time Steve Biko gave his room for him to sleep in, during a seminar at the Alan Taylor Residence in Wentworth, organised by Crispin.

The Director spoke also about the need for us to tell the stories of where we came from, and what shaped us, and to listen to such stories from others.  He spoke about his own heritage, shaped by British imperalism, and how we need to leave some things behind.  Education is still formed around the assumptions of such backgrounds, and it often carries the violence of exclusion.

He spoke also of listening to the journey of a DUT student, who as a small boy, a refugee from Rwanda, had walked across the DRC.  He had endured appalling experiences, but now says that instead of blaming people, he focuses on hope, as he still has life.

The question then posed is whether academics seeing this young man in the lecture room see him as someone who has not yet learnt, someone with a deficit or lack, or as someone who brings wisdom into the room.

Other speakers were Professor Saths Cooper, President of the International Union of Psychological Science, Veli Mbhele, Black Consciousness activist, and Lebohang Pheko, Managing Director of Four Rivers.

Panel at the conference: Veli Mbhele, Crispin Hemson, Saths Cooper, Lebohang Pheko

Panel at the conference:
Veli Mbhele, Crispin Hemson, Saths Cooper, Lebohang Pheko

Innovative ways of addressing empathy

Dylan McGarry (learning forward) listens to a participant at the recent Forum

Dylan McGarry (to left of window) listens to a participant at the recent Forum

The recent meeting of the Peace Education Forum was led by Dylan McGarry, who is a specialist in the use of Social Sculpture with diverse groups.  This works enables participants to achieve greater empathy, using their thoughts, feelings and experiences as the material from which the sculpture is formed.

One of the purposes of the Forum is to develop a wider range of skills and techniques that member organisations can use in their work.  Another role is that of fostering collaboration amongst organisations; the next Forum will deal directly with that.

Reflections on working with young people on leadership and violence

A session with the Masakhane School Leavers programme at the Edgewood campus of the University of KwaZulu-Natal this afternoon focused on leadership in relation to violence.  With about 150 young people, mostly from schools but with a group of facilitators from the University, it was, as always, compelling and thought-provoking.  I started the workshop in a light-hearted way and then set up the conditions under which people might feel safe in speaking about violence, through a full discussion of guidelines we could follow.

I asked those present to speak about any experience of violence that they had had, or witnessed, in pairs.  The next phase of the discussion was about what it was like to speak, and what it was like to listen.  There were such profound insights into the process of talking about violence – the contradictory emotions, the breaking of isolation, the sense of being pulled back into the original hurtful situation, the sense of connection that one develops as you see the other person in a new light.

I kept reminding people to hear the importance of what they were saying.  They are in an education system that often undermines their sense of intelligence and worth, but the insights went straight to the heart of what we know about violence, and were in themselves such a force for nonviolence.

I then asked people to speak about the leadership they had taken for nonviolence.  There were at first long, and I think, necessary, silences.  Then people began to speak, and it became clear that some young people feel an intense need to have the violence against themselves heard.   In the tears and anger there was also such clarity; a girl speaking about how she continues to love her abusive mother, and the need to remind herself that there is life, poetry and beauty beyond the abuse.   Other young women spoke of the struggle to forgive themselves after rape.

I spoke briefly of the need for men to face up to the damage done by not speaking about their lives.  One young man spoke with such gratitude of what he had learnt from the session, and how he had always tried to put things out of his mind, but without success.  Another, who had spoken with feeling of how the conversation with his good friend had brought a change, a sense of humility, also spoke of the difficulties faced in Black communities when there are no safe spaces for people to speak.

We are serious about tackling violence.  In a society racked by violence over long periods of time, that means creating spaces, even temporary like the one today, where people can speak, be acknowledged as who they are, and can be affirmed in their ability to recover.  The capacity for leadership is deep; we need to remind ourselves of that and validate the work of young leaders.

Crispin Hemson

Major strategic change for ICON

ICON is to sharpen its focus and grow considerably in size and influence, as a result of decisions made by the Board of ICON.  The key change is that the Board has accepted a proposal from the Vice-Chancellor of Durban University of Technology (DUT) for the establishment of ICON as a centre of the University.

This will make the International Centre of Nonviolence the only such centre at a South African university, and will make Durban the focal point of South African organisations for peace and nonviolence.

The existing work of ICON will continue, but it will expand into undergraduate and postgraduate teaching, which will be closely linked to its work in community engagement and action research.  What has strengthened the process is that the Postgraduate Programme in Peacebuilding at DUT is to be included within ICON.  This Programme, headed by the internationally known Professor Geoff Harris, has a large doctoral and masters grouping.

ICON will be a centre, not based in any faculty, and where necessary students will be registered with one or other faculty.

The proposal has these aspects:

1 The Board will change; it will become an Advisory Board with representatives of key partners in the area of peace, specifically ACCORD, Gandhi Development Trust, the Denis Hurley Centre, World Conference of Religions for Peace and the Durban Leadership Initiative.

2 The work of the Durban Leadership Initiative, which includes a nonformal course for students at DUT, will come under ICON.  At present ICON is developing a further nonformal programme for another tertiary institution, also focused on student leadership.

3 The Peacebuilding programme will be part of the new ICON.

4 ICON’s existing work in general education at DUT will be recognised formally, with ICON involved in teaching on three modules: the Cornerstone module, which will become compulsory for all incoming students, Leadership, and Violence and Nonviolence.

5 We envisage some new areas of growth: first is a Peace Forum, to which all the diverse organisations in the Durban area will be invited.  The aim is to facilitate collaboration amongst these groupings, and to link them where possible to research initiatives or collaborative projects.

6 Another growth area we hope to achieve is in Peace Education within the DUT School of Education.

7 A programme of income-generating courses is possible, through collaboration with such organisations as ACCORD.

The status of the proposal is that it has been approved by the ICON Board and will be submitted to the Senate of DUT for its approval.


ICON’s interventions to promote nonviolence in schools

How ICON works against violence in schools

If you visit the a workshop run by ICON you are likely to see young people sitting in groups, talking; staff may or may not be with the groups.  What is the strategy ICON is pursuing?

What we aim to achieve

We want young people to recognise their potential for positive and confident action in a context that is affected by violence. We want them to develop skills that enable this action, and a sense of hope that they can address the challenges of life without the fear of violence and without resorting to violence.  We want them to disconnect from the violence they experience, and to develop new connections with others on a hopeful and confident basis.  We also want them to work within their schools to build positive relationships with each other and with staff.

It is critical that young people find their own voice in this process

It is critical that young people find their own voice in this process

What we do

Most of this work has been undertaken in response to requests from young people themselves. We involve young people in a series of workshops at whatever venue we can find, often in a school over a weekend. The work we do always starts with a slow process of reaching agreement about how we will work; we find that all groups want to work in ways that are respectful, where people are heard and where personal issues are kept confidential.

We are often playful, but also create opportunities for youngsters to speak about issues that may be deeply painful.  We have found it necessary to work at first in groups separated on the basis of gender, to avoid stereotyped patterns of gender interaction that cut across what we are doing.  However, once alternative ways of working are established, that no longer becomes necessary.

To some extent we find it necessary to work separately by gender, especially early in the process

To some extent we find it necessary to work separately by gender, especially early in the process

Much of our work can be described as storytelling.  Young people need to, and want to, tell their own stories.  Some of these stories are painful; to our surprise, once the guidelines for how we work are established, some wish to tell the most painful of these immediately (the ethical implications of this are addressed below).  The staff also usually share their own stories, even if they come from very different backgrounds.

There are also stories of achievement – for example, from a girl who spoke of her success: ‘I have made friends with a boy’, in a context where gender is so rigidly structured around boyfriend/ girlfriend relationships.

So we tell each other stories of our lives, in groups or in pairs.  We also work in the full group, identifying what we are learning from this process, and connecting the thinking that emerges with theory.   We build up concepts that clarify, for example, how language relates to acts of direct violence.  We relate the young people’s thinking about nonviolence to South African leaders of nonviolence, like Mahatma Gandhi.

We spend some time towards the conclusion of the workshops on setting goals at a personal and school level for how they will work individually and collectively to bring peace.

Balancing work and play is important

Balancing work and play is important

What results from this approach

We find that young people gain visibly in confidence.  They also start to articulate what they think should change in their lives, and in their schools.  We notice that boys and girls change their patterns of interaction, at least while in the group, and start describing the way they relate in terms of friendship.  They tend to come back to us with requests that we work with them again.

Work with young people is very rewarding.  Often the breakdown of relationships becomes evident early in the workshops (typically, through boys undermining girls), but there is an openness to change that is very heartening.

Why ICON does this work

There is no way in which ICON can provide a service to young people in schools in an ongoing basis.  We can reach only limited numbers of students in a few schools (out of the 6 000 schools in KwaZulu-Natal, where we work).  We have to find ways of scaling up what we do.  So the rationale for this work is not service.  Instead it aims to do three things:

A To produce knowledge about interventions that address violence. This work involves action research that both changes a situation and produces valuable understanding. We disseminate information through journal articles and conference attendance.  In particular, we aim to influence teacher education by raising questions over ways in which these issues can be addressed more generally.

B To provide opportunities for the training of facilitators in this work.  We are building a network of people who understand and can work with this approach.  Not all of these work at school level; some are in tertiary education, for example.

C To develop young people as leaders.  From this work we see young people asserting themselves and taking leadership.  For example, current research being undertaken by ICON demonstrates how young people took the lead in bringing change to their schools, drawing on the skills learnt here.


Why we follow this approach

A central assumption is that we are in a context with a very high level of violence, in international terms.  There is ample evidence of this from the literature.  South Africa can be described as a society in a state of’ ‘chronic violence’, with very high levels of homicide, with violence spanning different sectors of society, from community to workplace and educational settings, and with violence crossing generations (Adams,  2012).

We assume also that the problem of violence is not limited to the behaviour of a small minority; rather, violence is normalised and sanctioned.  Research findings indicate that violence against young women by their partners is ‘normal’ (Collins, 2013), and that violence against gay and lesbian youth is not marginal, but central (Msibi, 2013).

Thus we have to create a safe space, with norms that are based on respect and a sense of equality.  The norms are also, crucially, negotiated and not imposed.

A third assumption is that we need to recognise the complex relationships between cognition, emotions, physicality and spirituality in addressing issues that are so sensitive and so central to our sense of who we are.   Related to that is the need for people to be able to speak about traumatic experiences, and to be able to do so in safety.  Such speaking is part of the process of recovery.  We find that part of the problem for young people is that as youngsters they are not expected to have their own voice, or to have their views and experiences taken seriously.  They have important stories that need to be heard.

A fourth assumption is that, despite the fact that much South African society emphasises the group rather than the individual, on sensitive issues people experience a great sense of isolation, in part because of the insecurity over gossiping and over people humiliating you for your experiences.  A particular factor that limits honest communication is homophobia; boys say that they cannot be open about their problems with other boys without being targeted as gay.

A fifth assumption is that victims of violence are also often perpetrators of violence.  Our task is thus not punishment of the offender, but rather to ensure that people become drawn into different ways of relating to oneself and to others.

Further, all violence is related to issues of gender, and not just gender-based violence.  Our work always comes up against the socialisation that sets rigid land damaging messages on how boys and girls are expected to behave.  Thus violence amongst boys and men we see also as related to gender.

Finally, there is no need to use techniques of persuasion to inculcate nonviolence.  The fact that there are norms that sanction violence does not mean that young people are happy about violence.  They are keen to articulate different ways of relating, when given a chance to do so.  There are also innovative ways of working that emerge, that draw on the indigenous knowledge of young people, and that may be truly creative.

Developing young leaders as facilitators is a central element

Developing young leaders as facilitators is a central element

Limitations of this approach

The key limitations we see are these:

1 The requests are coming from township and rural schools, and from African youngsters.  The same determination is not evident from suburban schools.  This is problematic; while township and rural areas have ample exposure to violence, there are problems in all schools both of violence and of socialisation that promotes violence.

2 The requests are coming from youngsters much more than from teachers.  We believe that most of their teachers came from similar backgrounds and have had similar experiences.  The prevailing climate in education is often not conducive to exploring such issues.  Potentially this sets up a conflict between young people who are finding their voice and teachers who resent that, as we have seen in the one case.

3 There must be ethical concerns of creating opportunities for young people to speak about experiences of violence.  For this reason, we have links to professional agencies should referral be necessary.  So far, we have used these in only once case; the individual concerned has since worked with us as a facilitator.  The guidelines we develop tend to work, for example, so far we have had no complaints over violation of the guideline on confidentiality.   There are of course also ethical concerns if we shy away from doing this work.



Adams, T. (2012). Chronic violence: toward a new approach to 21st century violence, NOREF policy brief, Norwegian Peacebuilding Resource Centre, (accessed 18 November 2013).

Burton, P. & Leoschut, L. (2013)  2012 National school violence survey, Cape Town: Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation


Collins, A. (2013). Understanding gender-based violence among residence students at UKZN, paper presented at the Strategies for Nonviolence in Education Conference, 1–3 July 2013, Durban,


Mncube, V. & Harber, C. (2013). Dynamics of violence in South African schools, Pretoria: UNISA. (accessed 18 November 2013).


Msibi, T. (2013). Homophobic violence in South African township schools: beyond heteronormative discourses of violence, paper presented at the Strategies for Nonviolence in Education Conference, 1–3 July 2013, Durban,