The year 2008 saw South Africa and the world mark the 10th anniversary of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. One of the burning questions had been to what extent some of the lessons had managed to improve the manner in which citizens engage with their experiences of the past. It was at this time that the reconciliation and social justice process in the country had begun to be characterized as a two-pronged challenge.

In essence the argument was that the challenge of social relations that the country had inherited from its apartheid and colonial past necessitated a concerted effort to work through psycho-social traumas as well as attitudes across many diverse dimensions of political, race, class and other dimensions amongst our citizens. However, the observation was also made that due to decades and centuries of economic injustice, there were historic material challenges of the exclusion of the majority which were equally or even more important to address.

And so, then as now, the nation has struggled to engage with both the relational as well as the material or economic challenges with equal importance. And so whilst former President Nelson Mandela championed the Reconstruction and Development Programme for its local economic development targets, he also very eloquently spoke, at his delivery of the Steve Biko Lecture, of an ‘RDP of the Soul’.

The IJR’s Community Healing project, as it began to recruit community leaders from across the Western Cape province at the end of that same year, had in essence been the  attempt by many communities to pursue that ‘RDP of the Soul’. Having been the birthchild of one of the witnesses who testified at the TRC as a victim of Apartheid’s brutality and gone on to lament the lack of collective sharing of testimonies of the past, the project had created such social story-telling spaces in communities from Cradock to Bonteheuwel and Langa in the Western Cape. Stories had for years featured the reflections of those who had been uprooted from racially integrated residential areas through the ‘Forced Removals’ of the 1960’s, pass laws, detentions, loss of family members and more, but unlike in the TRC, they told, listened, empathised and found more therapeutic conversations that helped to heal together. 

This approach to nation-building had gained much social momentum by 2005 through civil society networks that began to include government. Having identified what were the most vulnerable communities in terms of poverty, crime and drug abuse trends in the province, the Western Cape government then started a programme aimed at enabling these communities to craft visions of unity amongst residents as well as between themselves and government known as the Social Transformation Programme. It was for the purpose of strengthening leadership’s capacity to unite communities that in 2008 the provincial government commissioned the training of leaders in community healing principles.

Throughout the 2009 training course, leaders met from across geographic, racial, class, generational, political, religious and other social boundaries and engaged in  collective healing processes.

In 2010, after a change in WC government, a select group was taken in by the Institute for extended engagement to see them explore in practice these processes and collaborate across their communities.  Now back in their communities, their ability to work together to solve societal challenges continued to be hindered by deep-seated divisions, which had led, in many cases, to the formation of two or more local development forums separated along party political lines, racial and language divisions amongst residents of the same community, lack of co-operation between generations, which limited the success of crime fighting programmes and so on.

For over six years until 2016, these leaders continued to grapple with varied challenges guided by this community healing vision and tried many strategies on how to best structure themselves to offer their acquired skills learning. In the main, they structured themselves along two main programmes. These include one dedicated to healing the social fabric through addressing gender, generation, race and other identity-based divisions and another dedicated to pursuing socio-economic enterprise such as co-operatives and offering social engagement services such as research at a cost.

In the past two years the forum, through the Institute, has deepened their skills to facilitate dialogue and deeper social enquiry. In 2015 they conducted a social cohesion survey with a large sample of almost 2000 respondents in over 20 of their communities across hundreds of kilometres in the province. This survey produced over 40 social behaviour indicators for how to identify the prevalence or absence of social cohesion or the ability for communities to heal their own social divisions as a way to inform the design of more effective programmes that attempt to deepen unity or social cohesion.

Their relationship with the Institute continues but as a way to empower themselves institutionally, they have now registered as a Non-Profit Organisation that is able to partner and negotiate in its own right.

According to the IJR’s SARB, one of the topics that separate opinions starkly along racial, generational and class lines is to what extent reconciliation can succeed if the economic injustices of the past are left unaddressed. The same survey highlights over the years that the lower one goes on the socio-economic ladder, the rarer the opportunities for social contact with people of another race. These observations highlight just some of the contexts within which the Siyakha Forum has to work, trying to deepen their activities highlighted above to deepen the healing and in so doing assist our troubled nation to find our path back to that journey of the ‘RDP of the Soul’.  

That the Siyakha Community Healing Forum is to sign a Memorandum of Understanding with the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation is no small feat. It catapults the forum and its community-rooted members to be able to engage, reflect and offer new insights to help deepen our potential for honest reconciliation and historical justice.

Ivan Pololo Kula is Chairperson of the Siyakha Forum & Kenneth Lukuko is the Senior Project Leader at the Institute for Justice & Reconciliation

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