CAPE TOWN, South Africa (Mennonite Mission Network) – Years of growing tension and regular protests by South African university students culminated in a series of institutional shut-downs last fall. A university library burned. Some buildings and equipment were damaged. Dissenters were arrested.
Students are angry about rising school fees and a continuing curriculum of White privilege. Service staff joined the demonstrations as they have lost contracts with benefits. These protests are a microcosm of unrest in South Africa, due to disenfranchisement and distrust across race and class divides.
Good leaders have realized these issues need to finally be addressed. Oscar Siwali, our director at Southern African Development and Reconstruction Agency, has been orienting colleagues with mediation skills. Dan and I became Peace Justice Witness observers, walking two of the four campuses in our region regularly, to document acts of violence. We also helped to organize the logistics for the mediation teams. Getting to know student leadership and school administrators, building trust for dialogue, and monitoring demonstrations have all been integral to preparing the ground for mediation.
Schools hired private security companies to patrol campuses and protect property. These militarized men in full riot gear broke down dorm doors, shot out windows, and otherwise terrorized campuses, which came to resemble war zones. Young women were left vulnerable in rooms that couldn't lock. People were arrested without fair process. Trash was not collected for two months. Students with no money to return home were stranded on campus.
Dan had a week of night shifts with other volunteers, and noted that these special security forces were mostly white-skinned, ex-military men with a history of abusing Black people under the apartheid system. They seemed eager to intimidate students. We were shocked by some of the things we saw. One evening, security delayed the entrance of our observer teams for more than an hour, and then insisted we leave the campus by midnight. Peace witnesses stayed by the campus walls, and 10 minutes after being escorted out, the firing of rubber bullets was heard.
Our Peace Justice Witness teams are made up of dozens of volunteers from churches, civic organizations, and concerned parents. They wrote up and shared their observations and eye-witness reports. Volunteers organized garbage pickups and clean-up activities. Universities realized they could not simultaneously be in negotiations with student leaders while paying private security forces who caused more grievances for the students. They agreed to drop "the big guns" and brought back regular campus security. Then our team decided to invite pastors from Khayelitsha, a nearby Black township, to join the teams in patrolling the campuses at night. A group of men and women church leaders were trained and took over the night shifts, walking the campuses while praying. Students welcomed this new interaction, even requesting counseling on the spot.
As exams started and the mediators continued to bring students and administrators together, a sense of calm prevailed. As pastors continued to volunteer eight hours a night, campus administrators had such positive feedback from the students that they decided to pay these pastors for ongoing prayer-walk patrols. This was significant as most of the township pastors have very meagre incomes, and the relatively small wages they now earned from the universities meant a great deal to them. The universities saved money on security while contributing to the livelihoods of their selfless neighbors, and the campuses were more secure. In a period of less than two weeks, the entire situation had turned around, thanks to many hands working to make a difference. From a coercive approach to a respectful one, from real fear to actual dialogue, from literal weapons to symbolic ploughshares, the outcome was beyond what we had all thought possible. But it's not over.
Mediators and Peace Justice Witnesses met in December to prepare for this year's anticipated unrest. Each of the four universities in our region is at a different place in the process of listening and dealing with the problems on their campus. Southern African Development and Reconstruction Agency has been invited to give conflict transformation workshops to student residence leaders in one of the universities.
The head of the student residences said, "Our campuses are where young South Africans learn to live together. If we fail to support them in these four years, how will we build a nation?"
As Mennonites, we believe the kingdom of God is now and that the peace and love of Jesus are for this moment in history. We are called to work for peace, for societal transformation, wherever we are. Even Old Testament prophecies about turning weapons into life-giving tools can happen today.