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