CAPE TOWN, South Africa (Mennonite Mission Network) — Oscar Siwali, founder and director of SADRA Conflict Transformation, has dedicated his life to equipping communities with skills that embrace nonviolence and peaceful methods of resolving conflict.
"In the old days, our elders knew what to do with problems, and they taught us, and it was passed on well," said Siwali at a recent mediation training session for community leaders in Lwandle, South Africa. "Now, we don't have that [inherited wisdom], so I'm sharing it with you so that you can take this learning back to your communities."
It's a good sign when mediation trainings are translated into several languages to include foreigners, like this one was. As xenophobic attacks continue throughout South Africa, questions such as "What is it to be African?" need to be discussed in many languages, especially when talking about community conflict.
Racial tension is growing and moving toward crisis in South Africa, especially when the discussion turns toward Zimbabwe, a country to the north. The people of Zimbabwe have suffered sweeping human rights violations and economic decline for the past 30 years. Many flee into South Africa in an attempt to escape these desperate conditions, where they become scapegoats for the lack of security in South Africa.
A father from Zimbabwe participated in the Lwandle training.
"Our family taught that you always respect other families, and that's how we all lived. If you stole something that wasn't yours, it followed you the rest of your life. So, I've never stolen anything," the father said.
South Africa participants listed reasons why they don't trust immigrants from other countries. Immigrants don't have to uphold their families' reputations, because no one knows their relatives. They can just move out of a community because they have nothing to lose after committing crimes. They take jobs away from South Africans. They grow drugs.
Siwali intervened to stop the litany of wrongs committed by foreigners in South Africa, "Why don't we like Zimbabweans? We were raised under apartheid brainwashing, which taught us that terrorists come from neighboring countries, such as Angola, Mozambique and Zimbabwe. This still affects our thinking."
Black South Africans were not allowed to travel, or even have passports before 1994, Siwali said. Nelson Mandela, the anti-apartheid activist who went on to become South Africa's first Black president, had to obtain a passport from Ethiopia in order to attend African Union meetings.
Siwali repeated Mandela's challenge to create of South Africa a nation where all Africans feel welcome and at home. He encouraged participants in the conflict mediation training to learn at least several words in the many languages of the region.
"In the past, other countries helped South Africa in times of need, and welcomed her refugees — it's now our turn to help our fellow brothers and sisters," Siwali said. "We must remember that today's national borders are a colonial construct — needlessly dividing [ethnic] groups and even families."
In discussion, participants imagined a world of renewed relationships, especially in the light of ubuntu, a Nguni word that reveals a worldview where a person can only find their humanity in community.