Strong community interest is needed to address conflict-related issues

Home|News|Strong community interest is needed to address conflict-related issues


By Sivuyile Sitole

With the high prevalence of violence across South Africa, the collective effort of communities, not just isolated individuals, is necessary to make any meaningful progress in improving safety and security in ordinary people’s lives.  The scale and number of required interventions is such that everyone needs to get involved.

In our work the value of this kind of community-centered action and engagement is what   peacebuilders participating in our programmes witness daily.  Each time they are reminded that peacebuilding is a practical endeavour whose tangible results should always be demonstrable real-life benefits. The challenges they meet with on the coalface make them understand, too, that no one can do it alone.

In Makhanda, one of these challenges was the lack of collaboration among organisations and stakeholders working around the prevention of violence, particularly GBV. Because they worked in silos there was a duplication of efforts which weakened their impact. In fact, community members became visibly fatigued and were drowning in the incoherence. On the other hand, very little visible progress seemed to be coming forth.

The main problem was a lack of collective advocacy among stakeholders. While they shared common interests and pursued similar goals, a supportive environment that allows all stakeholders to play their respective roles was lacking.

Among others, what helped was the formation of the Victims Empowerment programme. It allowed stakeholders focusing on similar issues to share knowledge, resources and to align their strategies. At a practical level this meant that if a stakeholder was involved in one initiative, they would not find themselves isolated. Other stakeholders would be available to provide support in other priority areas in a way that ensures the initiative achieves its intended outcomes. This also means there was less competition for already meagre resources.

Among the priorities, areas that needed attention in Makhanda was how to mobilise community interest among men such that they see themselves as part of the solution. We soon discovered that instead of decrying their general lack of participation in GBV initiatives, we should instead target forums that already draw them in large numbers. These also had to be spaces where the number of overlapping interests meant that both men and women attend in sizeable numbers.

The targets in our case were community imbizos and service delivery meetings, forums where society-wide issues are actively addressed. And here we also got a chance to peel through certain negative perspectives that men often have about interpersonal violence and how it should be addressed.

These interactions were not without their surprises. We found that the belief that intimate relationships and whatever violence occurs within them is a matter between two people was prevalent. Men, especially, felt that poking their noses in other people’s business was unbecoming behaviour.

A lot still needs to be done to ensure that everyone sees gender-based violence as the society-wide issue that it really is, men included. What we discovered in these forums is that men are more willing to speak and share their own views when GBV is framed as a problem that affects the entire community.

What worked in Makhanda was a partnership we forged with influential community figures. Among these were councillors, ward committees and Community Policing Forum (CPF) leaders. Social media platforms focused on violence crime prevention were another tool we used to complement this approach.

This went a long way towards improving men’s participation levels in subsequent GBV events. A good example is a recent event we held that focused on unemployment and how it affects men’s mental health. Here we hoped for a meaningful engagement on how poor mental health is among contributors to GBV. In the conversations we had, men spoke of how being unemployed made them feel as if their worth and dignity is diminished. At home they wonder if they will still be treated with respect and valued the same way they were when they had a job.

In our communities, people usually say izwi lendoda engaphangeliyo alivakali – an unemployed man’s opinion does not carry any weight. It was also revealing to hear how their resort to violence against partners is an attempt to reclaim what they think is their weakened authority. And some were open about how idleness makes their homes suddenly unpleasant places where the only thing to do is wallowing in self-pity.

During the talk, we explored a number of things that men can do to restore their sense of worth. Among these was active citizenship and how it allows people to make a meaningful contribution in their communities. Playing a role in improving the lot of their communities and being part of positive change can help them see that they are still a valuable member. The little difference they make in keeping communities safe for example, can help them regain a positive and affirming perception of themselves. Afterall, men’s involvement as part of the solution in addressing gender-based violence is long-overdue. The country needs them too.

Changing the format of the events is another thing that has helped us improve our impact. Instead of convening talk-shops where community members just sat and listened passively, our events took the shape of Cultural Sensitivity workshops that allowed many to participate actively.

We’ve learnt that overcoming the challenges organisations have in their efforts geared towards conflict resolution in communities requires this perceptiveness. To understand that collaboration is the only means through which they can succeed, it is important to be mindful of the fact that engagement also involves positive interactions among organisation, especially on how they can help each other achieve shared goals. Acting in isolation makes it even harder to achieve a tangible impact and results that inspire confidence in communities.

Diversity at organisational level is also important. The unavoidable repetition of efforts that happens when stakeholders work in silos is a waste of resources that can be put to good use in other high impact areas. Sharing resources, expertise, best practices, and drawing from a diverse set of experiences can help organisations find innovative ways of navigating the choppiest waters.

In the same breath, we should localise programmes if we want to sustain community interest and involvement in peacebuilding initiatives over a long term. This allows them to resonate deeply with the community’s core values and context. In Makhanda, the cultural sensitivity workshops helped us address local stereotypes. Beyond this, we were able to tailor initiatives in ways that draw on peculiarities one only finds in Makhanda. Bearing in mind a community’s specific context is what makes initiatives relevant and more likely to succeed.

Programme ownership at community level, another critical factor, also becomes less daunting when people see that initiatives were genuinely designed with them in mind. Community members are thus able to lead initiatives with minimal support from organisations, even after the original programme concludes.


Sivuyile Sitole is the Programme Officer for Kagisano in Makhanda