CAPE TOWN, South Africa (Mennonite Mission Network) – After a year of laying groundwork, the Peer Mediators Program for the secondary schools of the Manenberg area in South Africa launched in April with a four-day training. This program is part of the ministry of Southern African Development and Reconstruction Agency Conflict Transformation, a Mennonite Mission Network partner.
The innovative program brings students together from three schools – Manenberg, Phoenix, and Silverstream – for the purposes of cross-community learning, relationship building, and support as mediation training begins. Each of the schools has similar issues related to gang violence that spill onto their campuses. The training provides a foundational understanding of the nature of conflict, as well as equipping participants with practical skills and confidence for resolving conflicts nonviolently.
Two-thirds of the 37 participants speak Afrikaans at home, and most are from a Muslim background. Prior to coming together, some of the youth were nervous about meeting those from other schools. Overcoming this barrier and providing them with a way to build relationships in a safe space was important. By the end of the second day, attitudes were changing – protectively crossed arms gave way to hugs and laughter; school boundaries evaporated.
Each day of the training included many hours devoted to conflict understanding and the skills needed for nonviolent conflict resolution, such as active listening, paraphrasing, and negotiation. These skills were practiced in role plays of familiar school and home situations. Each student had a chance to practice in every role. Group games were used for recreation, team building, and learning, and daily activities broke up the lesson times.
Shenay Botman said that the training gave her tools to untangle many of life's problems. "I will walk with the key of a problem solver," she said.
Mosaic crafts were a big hit. Employees of Douglas Jones Mosaics in Cape Town donated all materials and showed the youth how to make mosaic art on panels and pots using glass or ceramic tiles. The calming effect of the project allowed for deep conversations. Sitting with a table of young women, I heard each one tell a story of losing an immediate family member to a painful, premature death. These stories were shared as we sat elbow-to-elbow, patiently gluing tiles.
While the olive farm where the training was held was only an hour from Cape Town, the youth had never been this far from home. At first, they were uncomfortable being outside. But within a day, they were taking a tour of the farm, playing sports (soccer and netball), and hiking about five miles to a reservoir.
Eyes wide, they poked at rocks, admired flowers, and jumped at imaginary snakes. We watched them breathe deeper. But the biggest transformations came from working with the material.
Nearly half the students started our workshop saying conflict is a negative thing and trying to avoid it at all costs. Then they learned how to analyze conflict, how to speak to it, how to contribute positively to resolve it, and their excitement was tangible. Shy girls found their voices. Bossy girls learned to give others space. Boys said they learned how to communicate and listen.
On the final day, it was exciting to witness their enthusiasm and ability to implement mediation. All of them left believing they can use peer mediation and help others resolve conflicts.
"It [this workshop] has put so much change in my life. Now I am able to solve conflicts that are happening, and I'm now starting to believe in myself," said Zanele Kolo.
After the four-day launch of the Peer Mediators Program, follow-up has continued on a weekly basis. A certification ceremony is scheduled for May 20. Two of the three schools have already done mediations of student conflicts, and students are sharing stories of using their new skills at home.