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Holistic approaches to ending violence




The international spotlight on South Africa has subsided, but gender-based violence continues; as do challenges for foreigners and refugees, who were evicted on Wednesday from their protest camp outside the United Nations High Commission for Refugees in Cape Town by police with stun grenades and rubber bullets.

Following global attention last month, the government put certain measures in place: no more bail for rape suspects; the military was redeployed to deal with gangsterism in the Western Cape; and President Cyril Ramaphosa formally apologised to Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari for xenophobic violence towards Nigerians.

But these are reactive and superficial measures. If gender-based, xenophobic, and gang violence is to stop, we need more than policies and diplomatic apologies. We need psycho­social approaches that recognise the pain of disenfranchisement; that heal, and build trust and empathy across difference. We need proper redistribution of economic power and land, for this violence is the legacy of apartheid and patriarchy.

We write as three peace and gender equality practitioners of different cultures, genders, “races” — and, in many ways — different worlds. Two of us were once inmates in prison; another of us worked there. But we share a conviction about what helps to stop violence and injustice. We know this professionally, and from our own histories of perpetrating or experiencing violence.

One approach is the Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP). The programme’s workshops create community and trust through sharing stories of physical or emotional violence. In a workshop you may find rival gangsters who have occupied the same cells for years sharing stories that have never been spoken aloud, let alone to each other: experiences of growing up in homes with domestic violence, or broken family relationships.

Gender Equity and Reconciliation (GER) is a similar but more intense process that brings ordinary people together in a carefully facilitated space to reflect on their gender conditioning, and share stories within and across gender groups. In so doing, it tackles the very roots of patriarchy.

How do these processes help? They transform perceptions of “otherness” and build empathy as people speak about and hear each other’s pain, fears, and hopes. They help people develop a capacity for emotional awareness that extends into their lives, initiating a healing process that is vital to stopping violent or discriminatory behaviour.

This may smack of a khumbaya idealism, but the effects are real. For one of us, a former gangster who was incarcerated for murder at 18 years old, and who now facilitates Alternatives to Violence Project workshops, this project has been the path out of violence into a completely new life.

“I thought after the first workshop that if only I had known these tools, I would never have murdered my mother’s partner and ended up in prison. I wondered why programmes like AVP aren’t available to young people. In the Cape Flats ‘coloured’ community I come from, many people walk around with anger and resentment that they don’t know how to deal with. It is so easy to re-offend, but these tools helped me recognise the good in me and the good in others.”

There haven’t been enough resources for comprehensive evaluations of these processes in South Africa. But one study found that 88.5% of Alternative to Violence Project participants have not re-offended, measured three years after release from prison. They can also help stop gender-based violence, as one of us learned firsthand.

“I recently told my wife, who I love dearly, that I had cheated on her. She is devastated. Our relationship is extremely rocky while she decides whether to stay with me. We haven’t been physically intimate since I told her. I lie in bed next to her at night, and it’s not easy.

“As men, we have been conditioned to believe that it’s our ‘right’ to be sexual with our partners and that it’s a wife’s ‘duty’ to ‘satisfy’ us. I grew up with a lot of violence around me — at home and in the streets. If it were not for AVP and other processes that led me to think about my masculinity, I might have raped her.”

Harmful masculinities are at the core of many kinds of violence. Helping men to emotionally connect with themselves and others is crucial to stopping it. This is particularly important in South Africa, where colonialism and apartheid have left a legacy of violent, almost militarised masculinities.

Research finds that during colonisation, certain features of British patriarchal masculinities were incorporated into Southern Africa. But this is rarely discussed, because it challenges mainstream Western discourse that Southern African men are more patriarchal than European men.

Unprocessed trauma is also at the heart of violence. So often, as our own stories reveal, men perpetrate violence because they have experienced huge amounts of pain that they have not dealt with. But because norms of masculinity discourage men from seeking help to heal, and instead to turn to alcohol or substance abuse, cycles of violence continue. Trauma is a key factor in addiction.

Patriarchal conditioning, trauma, and alcohol often intersect to produce a lethal cocktail of gender-based injustice and violence. The Alternatives to Violence Project and Gender Equity and Reconciliation include healing processes and techniques that can transform harmful masculinities and address trauma, interrupting these cycles.

For one of us, who served eight years for armed robbery, these processes led to abandoning violence.

“As a boy, without parents, looking after cattle in rural Eastern Cape, beaten by other boys, pain and isolation created a hardness in me. Although I was a gentle child, I developed a violent masculinity and began cash-in-transit heists and robbery. But these workshops changed me. I took responsibility for myself. I realised that the people I was robbing had their own families and I didn’t want to do that to them. Through GER I also developed empathy for LGBTQI communities, who I used to judge. I now facilitate in South Africa and Kenya.”

We are not suggesting these processes can “cure” or end violence. But they can help to heal people, and prevent it. As one of us explains.

“As a woman I felt pained by every­day male objectification, and that women’s bodies and our sexualities — even in subtle ways — are still treated as a form of currency. I saw that conforming to mainstream physical ideals of the female body gave women a strange kind of power; but not to do so made us invisible.

“Even this power seemed repulsive to me because it was never really ours: it is whisked away at a certain age or body size. I felt grief and even hatred towards men, and their ability to dehumanise us. I also saw how objectification can be a first step towards brutalisation. But GER allowed me to express this and be heard. In turn, I heard men speaking about the pressures of patriarchy to be tough, ‘together’, and successful. I began to see men as human again.”

Surprisingly few GER and AVP workshops happen. Despite their effect, they are still seen as “soft” and are not properly resourced.

It is time for that to change. A series of Alternatives to Violence Project and Gender Equity and Reconciliation workshops and other such approaches should be rolled out across the country: in local communities, police and law enforcement, businesses and corporates, tertiary education institutions, and prisons, together with impact evaluations.

This is the kind of work that the R1.1-billion that Ramaphosa committed to fighting gender-based violence should be spent on. After severe xenophobia in 2008, Alternatives to Violence Project workshops were held in refugee camps with positive results. But there were not enough resources to continue.

Other powerful programmes, run by Cape Town-based nongovernmental organisation the Southern African Development and Reconstruction Agency, address xenophobia through conflict resolution processes. These approaches should be held widely with migrants and locals together, including local community leaders. Regarding gangsterism, rolling out these initiatives in the Western Cape and elsewhere will be much cheaper than the more than R23-million anti-gang military intervention currently under way, and infinitely more successful.

Implementing this work requires not just money but political will across government, business, and civil society. It also requires willingness to get into the messy business of emotions, as we reflect on our personal and political histories, which often hold so much pain. All this sounds demanding, ambitious, and expensive — and it is.

But it is far more expedient than the state expenditure required to address the fall-out of xenophobic, gender-based and gang violence.

It also offers a real opportunity to build a peaceful, nonviolent, and just society, in which citizens can undergo collective healing, without fearing for their lives.

A shorter version of this article was published in The Guardian last week. Xolile Professor Zulani facilitates GER and AVP workshops in South Africa and Kenya; Antonia Michaela Porter is an interdisciplinary practitioner, whose multi­media project on masculinities is at; and Peter John Christians is an AVP facilitator and performer

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