/ 14 September 2004

Seeding self-worth

A group of teenage boys sit in a circle at a juvenile remand centre calling out words that describe their ideas about what violence is and is not. Interestingly, but not necessarily surprisingly, the words “family” and “marriage” appear in both columns.

This exercise forms part of an alternatives-to-violence workshop known as Hipp (help improve the peace project) run in churches, schools and juvenile-remand centres in Cape Town, Durban and Gauteng.

The idea is to seed self-worth among young offenders and to offer positive options to young people living in environments where unemployment and poverty are endemic and morale is often low.

“When you are stuck in an environment of negativity and hardship your expectations are so low that [all you know is to] work within those limitations of yourself,” says Judy Connors, a director at Phaphama, the NGO that runs the courses.

The workshops don’t aim to take the moral high ground by offering advice or suggesting right or wrong responses in any given situation. Instead they give participants the opportunity to think about how they react when confronted with a set of circumstances. “This is more important than offering solutions themselves,” says Connors. Individual who have embarked on the first steps toward self-reflection will then be able to formulate solutions that are relevant to their personal predicament, instead of trying to use solutions imposed from the outside.

Participants are encouraged to share their stories and explore their feelings in relation to these experiences. Towards the end of the two-day programme, most of the youths begin to expose emotional parts of themselves that have been locked up for many years, sometimes for a lifetime.

“Many people live in situations where every word they say is a matter of survival,” says Connors. “So opening themselves up in this way can lead to a lot of anger. But once this process has begun they start taking ownership [of their lives].”

Participants who complete the two-day workshop are eligible for the advanced course, and after that may train as facilitators. “The aim is to hand over the programme to the participants themselves,” says Connors. By becoming a facilitator they are “joining a group of people who are healing themselves by helping others”.

“Learning comes through sharing stories and issues. Young people in communities see a slow change in themselves and begin taking leadership and [demonstrate] practical conflict resolution,” she says.

During the tea-break a 17-year-old awaiting-trial prisoner tells me how he plans to apply these skills when he returns home. “I was cruel you see, now I have respect [for others] I’ve learnt how to make peace. I learnt that each and everyone has got his own truth. When I am outside I don’t want to go back to that life again.”

Another young man, who has completed the first phase, said: “It has taught me that to be a leader is not just about being the boss, you have to have respect. Since I did Hipp I have been chosen as a group leader to speak to the guys. It’s taught me how to control my temper, it’s not perfect yet but I am learning to be patient.”

Speaking to these young men — many of whom have been charged with crimes of violence and brutality — made me think of my own reaction several years ago when I saw a nine-year-old girl who had been beaten and raped. Her thin body looked like a lollypop stick holding up her thick, swollen head. The child had been brought to the rape survivors’ clinic by her grandmother.

I was overcome with rage at the perpetrator. “How can the government let these savages roam free, we need more prisons,” I ranted. People I spoke to nodded sagely. “We should lock them up and throw away the key,” we agreed.

Our response was typical in a society that is struggling to come to terms with inexplicable violence and cruelty. Fear of crime is a regular adrenalin-rich pulse that boils through our veins and prompts formulaic answers to crime and punishment.

South Africa already has a police force of more than 130 000; there are 238 government prisons and two private prisons. It is questionable whether more police and more prisons would have any serious effect on stemming crime. Most young prisoners will return to society with more criminal skills after a stint in jail and, unless the social mulch that germinates criminal activity is modified, will most likely fall back on those skills as a means of survival.

“South Africa is still very much a punitive state,” said Connors. “We have a lot of crime and the meting out of punishment is fuelled by fear. Putting more and more people in prisons is a quick-fix solution, but it won’t solve the problem. Jails don’t change people’s behavior.”

At the end of the workshop we form a circle by holding up our fists and linking baby fingers and thumbs. The result is a powerful ripple of knuckles without a beginning or end, a high-spirited continuum of alleged murderers, rapists, housebreakers and me — no one any more or any less of a monster than the other.

Ministry of hope

Sixteen years ago Jonathan Clayton was arrested on fraud charges. He spent seven months awaiting trial and in 1988 was sentenced to prison, writes Cheri-Ann James. In 1991, after serving three years and 14 days in prison, he was released.

Today Clayton is the director of Hope Ministry at Pollsmoor prison. “I can identify with the prisoners. My rights weren’t taken into consideration and I felt neglected by prison authorities,” he says.

In 1998 the ministry introduced a restorative justice programme, based on a concept used internationally. “The programme is based on Maori culture, where tribes believed that when someone committed an offence, all the parties came together to discuss the issue,” says Clayton.

Statistics show that 67% of perpetrators know their victims. “We are looking at the concept of victim and offender mediation, but it is a sensitive issue. We want to speak to communities about their take on addressing offenders.”

Inmates hear first-hand the effects of their actions on their families and communities. “What we are trying to do is rehabilitate prisoners for them to be accepted back into their communities. When I was in prison I feared going back, as I didn’t know what to expect,” says Clayton.