Oak Fellow Zandile Nhlengetwa in class first semester.
Oak Fellow Zandile Nhlengetwa in class first semester.

Zandile Nhlengetwa, the 2012 Oak Human Rights Fellow, is a longtime human rights activist and educator in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. The region has been plagued by political and criminal violence since the 1980s, when the apartheid government supplied arms to foment conflict. Post-apartheid, supporters of the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) and the African National Congress (ANC) have clashed, along with splinter parties and local factions. In addition, criminal violence and revenge attacks plague the lives of people living in extreme poverty in informal settlements. 

After losing her husband, brother, and adopted son to violence, Nhlengetwa chose to try to stop the cycle of violence in the region. In addition to working with heavily armed rival factions in community-based reconciliation programs, Nhlengtwa, who has received numerous threats on her life, has founded an organization that works with widows whose husbands have died in political and criminal violence, and she assisted with the truth and reconciliation process in Sierra Leone. In a conversation with Colby editor Gerry Boyle ’78 she recalled the challenges of beginning the reconciliation process.

This seems like an overwhelming task. How did you begin? 

Youth are in the forefront of violence, so the approach for me was to start with the youth. That was the mandate. I had to look for the best point of leverage, for maximum impact in the community. Was it taking one person at a time or was it taking one group of young people together? If this was healing and peace building and reconciliation, was I going to work with one [political] party and leave the other? Those were challenges in my mind.

You were responsible for the planning?

They employed a white psychologist lady who was also an activist. We went together to the first community. At the first meeting we went to the structures, the committee structures of the IFP and the ANC. We said we want to have a residential workshop with young people for healing, in a nonthreatening environment. We hired two mini-buses for each group because they’d kill each other. They were enemies.

But you brought them together? 

Yes. And we brought facilitators.

So how did it go? 

They didn’t trust us. It was the first encounter. People had been called in meetings and they were ambushed. So they had to be very careful. When we came there, the guys were fully armed—AK-47s, both sides. My goodness, how do we handle that? You could see the body tensions, how they moved. These guys were ready for action.

And you were in the middle of it.

We sat around and we tried to come up with ground rules. We planned the workshop to be five days but for two days it was ground rules about the guns. That is intimidating, even for them. They’ve come here to talk about their pain. They went through pain, both of them. Both of the parties lost a lot. Both of them had hopes about their future. And when they were here with guns, we cannot work around guns. When they leave they can take their guns away. So it took us two days to negotiate that.

And they did agree to that?

They did. But still the first night they didn’t sleep. We had a big bonfire. They all sat around the bonfire. We had to sit there for two nights. And facilitators, during the day we had to sleep in shifts.

Did they begin to speak to each other? 

They would not. But that night when there were no guns, I think their defense was down. I used the tree of life. It’s when we allow them to talk about their experiences, which are common. The roots of the tree. Each person is allowed to draw their own tree and begin to tell his own story. They would be divided into groups of five.

Mixed groups?

They were mixed groups, with a facilitator. The roots would be your background. Where were you born? Who was the strong person in your life? What were the value systems you were brought up with? What is your identity? And then they would share those stories. And that is where they started breaking down. Because as they were listening, they could connect. “I was also raised by a grandmother. Yes, my father also deserted us. Both my parents were killed.” There was connection.

At that point did you think the project would work? 

No. It was just too painful. It triggered your own unresolved stuff. Your own pain, your own anger. I remember one facilitator was white. She was sitting there and they were telling stories. She said one guy related a story of killing a farmer. And he named the area. She said, “That was my uncle.” The person who did it was never known. There she was, sitting next to the killer. So it challenged us at the core of what we’re doing, at the core of our beliefs. The core of the vision of what we wanted to do. It was not easy. We had to reflect every night, to talk about it.

And then start again.

Yes. Then, at the end of the week, we would say to these guys, you go back and think and reflect. South Africans, we sing. What brings us together, we sing a lot. We’d sing in those meetings. Common songs that binded them together. These guys were coming from the same community but different areas because the communities were now divided. So when they left, they were now together. Not as friends but there was this kind of understanding and vision of healing and reconciling. That was not there in the leadership back home. And they felt that they needed to influence the leadership about the powerful experience they’d had.

So they did? 

Had we known, had they shared that with us, we would have said, “Wait. Let’s reflect on it before you can go that big.” One group was from the ANC. The IFP is very patriarchal. It’s the leadership that takes decisions. Whereas the ANC, it’s very liberal. The youth have been given power to think, take decisions. Those decisions, those recommendations, they take them to their leadership. The ANC guys went ahead. They said, let’s meet in the city because we can’t meet in the community. Let’s come and meet in a Wimpy [restaurant], that’s a neutral place. Just to chat and talk about our experience and also strategize.

The restaurant was thought to be safe?

Yes, but these guys were in self-defense units. They were groups that were feared in the community, both of them. So they went into the restaurant and the employees knew them and saw them together. One employee phoned the leadership from the ANC, said, “You know what? Those guys are sell-outs. They are sitting here with IFP.”

They thought they were being double-crossed.

Yes. In seconds, a combi-bus came full of young people, fully armed. They shot everything that was there.

Were they all killed?

They killed them. They killed those guys. One or two escaped. I’ll never forgive myself. It was painful for us. What is it that we didn’t do right? Did we push them too much? We had all those questions.

But you didn’t give up.

We didn’t give up. We knew the impact that those young people, and the two that survived, continued.

Were the two survivors one from each side?

It was. And it was both the leadership of the groups that survived. I think because of the experience of fighting they were able to run and defend themselves. But they had to leave the community. They could not return to those communities.

Was that enough of a seed to continue the process? 

It was a powerful seed to continue the process of reconciliation in those communities. They were determined to continue influencing the young people in the community. And today some of them are counselors in their communities, actively involved in issues of development.

Did you repeat the same process? 

We repeated that same process but in the communities. We knew that it had worked.