Watch the MennoCon23 seminar 'Toward the May/June 2024 South African Election' above!

By Travis Duerksen
Friday, July 7, 2023

Oscar Siwali sees a lot of similarities between the United States and South Africa. "More than you know," he said with a smile at the Thursday afternoon MennoCon23 seminar, 'Toward the May/June 2024 South African Election.' Some of the similarities are good. Both countries are symbols of democracy, and the peaceful transfer of power. Yet other similarities are concerning.

South Africa's charismatic former president, Jacob Zuma, insists that the upcoming 2024 elections are already rigged, and faces multiple corruption charges. Distrust of major justice institutions is on the rise. On January 6, 2021, Siwali watched the D.C. insurrection riots unfolding on TV – and then in July, saw similar riots explode in South Africa.  

"When things go sour [in the U.S], it does shape the world," Siwali told seminar attendees. "When people see on their television screens people climbing on the walls of your most important structures, people shiver in the rest of the world. What will become of us if this can happen to America?"

Oscar Siwali, founder and director of SADRA, leads the MennoCon23 seminar 'Toward the May/June 2024 South African Election.'

As the founder and director of the Southern African Development and Reconstruction Agency (SADRA) Conflict Transformation, Siwali works in teaching powerful restorative justice methods like dialogue and mediation. Mennonite Mission Network partners with SADRA in training students and communities in peer mediation, as peacekeepers during riots and working to diminish xenophobia.

SADRA has also played a role in South Africa's national and provincial elections. The agency worked with church leaders to identify communities that could be political 'hot spots' for intimidation and violence during elections. SADRA worked with church leaders, Siwali explained, because they knew their communities better than the government or police ever could. Once they identified the potential 'hot spots,' SADRA trained the church leaders in conflict management, and helped them to provide explicitly neutral spaces in their communities where government representatives and community leaders could be brought together and engage with one another in the years and months leading up to the election. This effort helped to deescalate tensions and encourage dialogue instead of violence.

When polling day for elections finally arrived, the government offered to send soldiers alongside SADRA mediation volunteers to the polling places in communities that had historically been plagued by violence.

"It was a beautiful thing when [the government] said, "But it's very violent, do you want us to accompany you with guns? And we said "No. Keep your guns." Siwali savored the statement. "Because engaging and talking to people brings peace, not the guns."

Siwali then had a question for the seminar attendees. In the context of the U.S., how could churches be involved in upholding the democratic process?

Attendees weren't quite sure. "My concern is that the churches themselves have become quite political," said one. Another thought that the first amendment understanding of the separation of church and state would make a similar effort in the U.S. difficult.

"As Anabaptists in this part of the world, maybe begin to think about what else can be done," Siwali responded. "If all else fails, if the miliary cannot respond, because their response would be too excessive, who would be the best person to talk to people, to engage people, to sit people down? There is a need for somebody to hold that space, so that the democratic process can be delivered."

 

 

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https://www.mennonitemission.net/news/4930/Peacemaking-agency-director-challenges-U-S--churches

​Travis Duerksen is a writer and multimedia producer for Mennonite Mission Network.

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