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Tackling conflict in quest for peace: ‘Nobody really pays attention until something burns’

Tackling conflict in quest for peace: ‘Nobody really pays attention until something burns’
Oscar Siwali, director at SADRA Conflict Transformation. (Photo: Twitter)

Out of recognition that violent crime and conflict are all too accepted in South Africa, Oscar Siwali is the force behind a small but resilient organisation guided by a strong ethic of nonviolence that works to train mediators and develop capacity for peace.

“If you continue to live in a violent situation, it becomes an order of the day. It becomes something that doesn’t move you. You get numb to it. When you get to that level, it’s very difficult to get people out of a violent situation.” Explains Oscar Siwali, a peace-building mediator, trained in conflict transformation. 

In the 1990s and early 2000s, Siwali’s work took him to countries like South Sudan, Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda, where helped build peace and heal divisions in the aftermath of intense violence and civil wars.

In 2012, as Siwali was boarding a plane to travel to Ghana for a peace-building workshop, he began to question why he was travelling so far afield to address conflict when his own communities in the Western Cape were afflicted by deep levels of violence. “I really felt that the wheels of peace and non-violence were breaking down in South Africa faster than we had recognised.” 

He saw that “South Africa lacks the capacity to deal with conflicts that erupt in our communities.”

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When he returned from Ghana, Siwali decided to act on the imperative to train people to build peace in communities close to home by founding Southern African Development and Reconstruction Agency, more commonly known as SadraA Conflict Transformation.

Local conflict support

Soon, Sadra established itself in the Western Cape’s Manenberg, Khayelitsha, Dunoon and Nyanga communities and worked in “building the capacity of community leaders and young people in skills of non-violence, conflict resolution, mediation and negotiation skills, and understanding issues of gender-based violence and xenophobia.”

Siwali works across a broad swathe of community members and groups — from schools to church leaders, to local government leaders, to gangs to universities.

Some of Sadra’s most successful work has been in resolving complicated conflicts in high schools. They worked for six months in Mannenberg’s Silver Stream Secondary School to rebuild trust and train students and teachers in conflict mediation. Since then they’ve worked closely with the Department of Education to address strife at schools. 


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During the Fees Must Fall movement, Siwali realised, “The universities are on fire and this little organisation can do something.” For months, they worked with students and administrators at universities across the country, but especially in the Western and Eastern Cape to find negotiated, non-violent resolutions to conflict on campuses.

Striving for peaceful coexistence

Siwali says that people sometimes assume that peacebuilding is designed to make communities meek and quiet, to stop demanding their rights. But he emphasises that the point of peacebuilding is not to pacify people.

Instead, he believes strongly that if people are no longer desensitised to violence, communities can engage constructively to negotiate needs. “There is an intense need for communities to express the challenges they are facing,” Siwali continues, “Is there something better than peace, something better than sitting down with my neighbour and resolving the challenges that we have?

“I think that the government has also got so used to the violence, that if people are just saying they’re concerned… nobody really pays attention until something burns.” 

But with peacebuilding and building up resilient communities and accountable leadership, Siwali strongly believes that this pattern can change for the better.

Bringing about these changes means working at all levels of society, from resolving conflict between families in the aftermath of a tavern stabbing to training religious leaders to stop violence on a regional level during elections.  

Youth conflict resolution

Across South Africa, Sadra trains community leaders to “work with the IEC to create an environment of peace within their communities, so that the IEC can conduct elections.” Now, they are preparing for 2024.

In four to six annual camps, Sadra brings young people from deeply conflicted communities in the Western Cape together “These are young people who are really divided in terms of where they live, where they go to school, you bring them to a camp and completely new relationships are formed…Because they now have friends in another community, another street, in a place that they would otherwise have been killed.”

“I’m hoping that by 2025, we’ll have about 500 young people trained in Mannenberg. Many of them will become gangsters. I already know some of the youth that were trained as mediators who have joined gangs but I am looking forward to seeing what that does to gang life. Does that mean that they will be gangs, who will be having negotiation and mediation skills, will that improve how gang fights are coordinated?”

Breaking the cycle of violence is slow and difficult work, but Siwali says that with peacebuilding, “you begin to see levels of robbery decrease, levels of murder decrease because there are people who are now concerned about the levels of violence, there are people who are thinking about how to intervene.”

Siwali explained that his practice of conflict resolution draws on well-established systems of peacebuilding that have a long historical precedent in Southern Africa.  

“We’re not bringing something new by building peace. We’re doing what our forefathers did… they sat under the tree and they spoke and engaged over and over. If there was no resolution, it would continue for 10 for 20 days for 30 days, until people are able to find peace. And so it’s not a Eurocentric concept, peace-building is an African concept.”

Partly because of a belief that South Africa is a peaceful democratic country, Siwali says that funding for peace-building work is scarce.  He says, “I think it just takes way too long to find the money to do the work. And by that time, things have gotten worse. So we just do the work anyway.” DM/MC

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