Maverick Citizen


Peace Dialogues help to mend Alexandra’s broken community

Peace Dialogues help to mend Alexandra’s broken community
Khulisa Social Solutions conducts peacebuilding dialogues with correctional services officials. (Photo: Khulisa Social Solutions)

‘The community of Alexandra is a broken society that needs healing and many people resort to substance abuse, violence to resolve issues in their lives,’ says a peacebuilding facilitator in Alexandra.

The non-profit organisation Khulisa Social Solutions has been working to build peace and social cohesion for 22 years with the residents of South Africa’s most densely populated township, Alexandra, which is just a stone’s throw away from the opulent Johannesburg suburb of Sandton.

With more than 900,000 people crammed into the township with few services, Khulisa’s peacebuilding efforts became even more critical during and after the unrest of July 2021.

Alexandra was reportedly one of the worst-affected areas, with widespread looting of shops and the burning and destruction of public facilities and private homes.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Civil unrest and a state of inconsistency: Deal urgently with the root causes of a violent society

Khulisa’s founder and managing director, Lesley Ann van Selm, told Daily Maverick that their work was aimed to be therapeutic for criminal offenders and affected residents.

Van Selm said that it was critical that when listening to offenders the focus was not on just asking what they did, since this was merely a symptom, but rather asking what happened that caused them to become offenders.

Alexandra Peace Dialogues

Alexandra is the most densely populated township in South Africa. (Photo: Dean Hutton / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Participants in the dialogues were asked questions such as, “What would it look like to live in a harmonious environment?” and “What would it take to fix things in your community?”

She pointed out that environmental factors were often key to how residents interacted with each other and that an ecological model that consisted of different stakeholders within the community was the only way to address the current issues faced in the township.

“Through partnering with NGOs, local police, the Department of Correctional Services, the Department of Social Development and the Department of Education, we hosted a number of dialogue circles which gave community members an opportunity to voice their perspectives. This gave us valuable insight into the factors of the violence and a chance for community members to implement solutions to rebuild social cohesion,” Van Selm said.

The NPO’s initiatives for social cohesion and peace were built on the tenets of restorative as opposed to retributive justice.

During the dialogue circles, participants sit in a circle facing each other to facilitate open and direct communication. The circles provide a safe and supportive space where members can talk about sensitive topics, often through storytelling, work through differences and build consensus.

A beneficiary of the Khulisa Social Solutions peacebuilding dialogues, 32-year-old Mandla Mnisi, says he founded a gang called Siyabulala Siyabaleka (We Kill, We Run) and used to be involved in house robberies, hijacking and car theft.

He says “a lot of blood was spilt” during his time in the gang until he was arrested in 2010 and received a 15-year sentence, which he says led him to contemplate suicide.

While in prison, however, Mnisi tried to turn his life around by forming a group called Eagles of Hope in which he and fellow inmates did art and other courses that would help them to not be repeat offenders once released. After his release he continued the work and met Khulisa Social Solutions where he participated in and facilitated peacebuilding dialogues with ex-offenders.

Finding inner peace

“The first Peace Dialogue that I attended gave me a different view and made me find my inner peace. After discovering how amazingly the dialogue worked for my anger issues, I thought I should start sharing the knowledge and the experience with others and using that strategy to help more people to break the anger and stigma cycle, also mentioning how effective the peace dialogue is for mental health,” Mnisi said.

Van Selm explained that the NPO’s initiatives for social cohesion and peace were built on the tenets of restorative as opposed to retributive justice. This enabled the victim and offender to engage on the causal factors of the offence. It was found during the dialogues that offenders were often abused during childhood and that this mostly went unacknowledged or was ignored.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Restorative justice in South Africa could benefit both victims and perpetrators of violence

Tshilidzi Godfrey Mashamba (37), a resident of Alexandra and dialogue facilitator, said: “The dialogue circles allow us to impact a large number of people and the peacemaking circles create a safe space for deep-rooted issues troubling the community at large or personally to come to the surface, allowing us to deal with the root problem of the issue.

Alexandra Peace Dialogues

Participants in a Khulisa Social Solutions peacebuilding dialogue. (Photo: Khulisa Social Solutions)

“The community of Alexandra is a broken society that needs healing and many people resort to substance abuse, violence to resolve issues in their lives, and the community of Alexandra has limited accessible social workers who offer psychosocial support.”

Alexandra resident Chris Ndlovu (43) said: “Alexandra needs more peacemakers to bring change to our townships. We have a lot of broken families, broken women, confused and hurting youth and kids. It is a peacemaking programme that can bring change. There is a huge need to better Alexandra.”

Reflecting on the unrest of July 2021, Van Selm said that it was about the growing frustration of people wanting to be heard.

It is encouraging to see where the Alexandra community is now, two years after the July 2021 riots. Through our Alexandra Peacemaking Programme we have a much greater understanding of the factors that contributed to the violence.” DM


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