Unrest recovery sparks renewed commitment to reconciliation efforts

News , Reconciliation , Storytelling

Although stories dominating the headlines from KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) after the July 2021 civil unrest reflected at best deep divisions, and at worst murder and mayhem, that is not the full picture. There are also wonderful stories of ordinary people reaching out helping each other, building bridges.

Church leaders in the violence-struck areas of Phoenix, Inanda, Ntuzuma, KwaMashu and Umhlanga/Durban North (dubbed #PINKU) came together in a two-day process at the end of September in a renewed effort to build bridges following the unrest that tore through the region in July.

Hosted by the NPC, Heartlines, and African Enterprise, and supported by the KZN Christian Council and Diakonia, 30 leaders from various denominations and all four major racial groupings grappled with the question of how to foster greater levels of trust and understanding amongst themselves initially, and then how to spread this further. The programme, called Bridge Leadership Engagement, comes out of Heartlines’ What’s Your Story? initiative, which uses personal storytelling as a tool to break down barriers and unlock creative strategies for change.

Groundwork for the Bridge event was laid through a process that started immediately after the unrest, where church leaders gathered on Zoom every Thursday afternoon for an hour of sharing, listening and supporting each other. In a departure from its usual work, Heartlines also put out a call for donations to set up a fund to support micro businesses that had been affected in the violence and looting. Having raised R750 000 in a short period of time, Heartlines called on its partners in the area to put forward names of micro businesses known to them which could benefit from a small injection of money up to R15 000. To date, Heartlines has paid out 48 grants in the KZN area, totalling R595 000.

The workshop was facilitated by two of Heartlines’ most seasoned mediators, Seth Naicker and Olefile Masangane, with Heartlines regional representative, Craig Bouchier. Reflecting on how 30 key people from strong networks were prepared to spend two days and a night away from home and their day-to-day commitments, Naicker said that there had been a sincere re-awakening of the need to maintain justice and reconciliation work in the province. “People realised that they can’t just respond when the fire is burning.”

The Bridge process includes creating safe spaces for participants to be able to share their personal stories. For many of the church leaders who are used to listening to others’ pain and helping them, it was an opportunity to literally and figuratively take down their masks, as one pastor, Clement Moses, from the Cornerstone Community Church in Phoenix, said: “We could unmask ourselves here. We often hide behind our masks, and it looks as if everything is so good, but dealing with your own story is another thing, understanding yourself first is really important”. Pastor Lucky Mchunu from Calvary Christian Church in Ntuzuma said, “This is the first time in my life I am engaging with pastors from other cultures”.

Beyond the River

On the evening of the two-day event, participants watched Heartlines’ film Beyond the River, which tells of a young black man and an older white man sharing their stories while competing in the Dusi Canoe Marathon, which takes place in the very area where the workshop was held. “We must never underestimate the power of a well-told story,” commented Masangane on the impact that the film had in terms of sparking deeper conversations amongst the participants.

On the second day of the process, participants worked in groups to plan strategies for tackling the issues facing the communities in which they work. Five key issues that they identified were poor leadership (religious, political and societal), negative mindsets, systemic injustice, lack of love-in-action and despair. Reflecting on the process, Pastor Lyndon "Monty" Gregory from the City Hill Church Newlands in Durban, said that it was a “great opportunity to interact, to hear about challenges that we haven’t even heard about, and to consider what other people have to say”. The leaders made a personal committment to go back to their churches and address the issues that they could. Kerry Janse van Rensburg from Project Exodus in Durban North said that she had benefited greatly from the process. “The diversity of stories and the diversity of backgrounds was really enriching. It was an amazing opportunity to hear different experiences of the unrest.” She committed to keep creating moments of diversity and listening and use the tool of storytelling in her work. Craig Bouchier added that he was inspired to see the spirit in which everyone engaged with each other and said he believed a foundation has been laid for authentic collaboration going forward.

Ongoing work

As part of the ongoing work to bring peace to the region, the KZN Christian Council was asked to organise a National Day of Interfaith Prayer for forgiveness, reconciliation and healing on 20 November 2021. This day will focus on issues such as corruption, loss of ethics, crime, gender injustice, poverty, xenophobia and racism, and the backlog of grief and mental stress, shock and widespread anger following the July violence. Heartlines will be joining the KZNCC in organising this National Day of Prayer. Another Bridge leadership engagement has also been set up for a further group of church leaders from a wider area of KZN.

“There is absolutely no doubt that we have to continue this important work,” said Olefile Masangane. “While we were down there, we met with three of the grantees of the micro fund in Phoenix, who had lost everything in the violence. It is amazing, that with just a small injection of funds, businesses which would otherwise have folded completely, were able to get back up and running.” The psychological impact of the violence is not going to be so easy to fix, however. The team were told of a pastor in Phoenix who took his own life after two men were stabbed by a mob in his yard.

Heartlines has also committed to working with the recipients of its grant funding to access other non-financial support on issues as mentoring, wellness and leadership. Other Heartlines programmes such as Values & Money, which encourages healthy behaviours around money, and Fathers Matter, which encourages the positive presence of men in the lives of children, are also seen by church leaders as tools to help tackle some of the underlying issues that led to the breakdown in personal ethics that fed into the July violence and looting. One of the first steps in this regard will be to work with the KZNCC to hold a provincial Fathers Matter workshop, involving five heads of churches from each of the six KZN regions. After this provincial workshop, they will return to their regions to mobilise local leaders and prepare for regional workshops.

Although it is never possible to attribute change to one particular initiative, Heartlines will continue to monitor the impact of interventions such as the Bridge Leadership Engagements, in the hope that inspiring people to live out positive values can help prevent a repeat of the violence witnessed in July 2021. The funding that makes this work possible is gratefully received from the Templeton Religion Trust.

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