I have worked in the area of peace and justice since the early 1990s when it was just emerging as a discipline. There were no courses yet to study nor was it called or seen as a “field”, and I struggled to describe to family and friends what it is that I actually do. A peace worker. It seemed contrived. By now, we face a vastly different situation where many young people coming into the work see it as a profession and have studied for degrees with the respective titles.
So, what I can offer is the street wisdom of having learned from the South African situation in the 1990s and the time of the TRC process.
I was blessed to learn from many teachers who in turn had their schooling in the peace committees and at the negotiation tables of the heated transition time in South Africa. Many of my teachers had little formal education, yet they knew how to walk into situations where literally bullets were flying.
Just by showing up on the scene, the entire moment would breathe out. The potential for dialogue would enter, sometimes lives were saved. From this direct action I also learned about the systemic dimension of the legacies of apartheid, the mechanisms of exclusion, the subtle racisms, including confronting my own whiteness.
I am grateful for the hands-on learning experiences with my colleagues at the Centre for Conflict Resolution, U Managing Conflict, the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation, the Healing of Memories and many more. The experiences and expertise they shared with me, and how it all has grown within me since then, is what I bring to any situation I am called into within the peacebuilding field now. I see peacebuilding work as ongoing, just like peace is an activity, not a final state.
In the vibrant and tough social environment of our South African reality, we have never ceased to strive for peace. We are not there and may not arrive in our life time, yet this inter-generational task is pivotal for the future. We must do what is ours to do and bring what we have learned to the younger practitioners. We need to practice our deepest listening to also hear their experiences and ideas which spring from another source and time. They point to the future, where we hold something of the past.
I love working in diverse teams. I see this as a prerogative for the work here on the African continent. We bring multiple eyes and ways of seeing to a situation. In the microcosm of our teams we see what is living in the broader field. We can discern what the next steps are and grapple with our own internal dynamics. Call it facilitation, art of hosting, space holding, action research, coaching, mentoring, diversity – our work has many titles nowadays.
The core remains – this is a practice that seeks to enable us all to bring forth our human selves, light and dark, and to learn and grow with one another. This often. happens through immense discomfort and challenge, but also through shared celebration and joy.
I look forward to connecting with you on your peacebuilding work and enter into collaboration.