Church backs ex-combatant initiative to tackle violence in South Africa

By Ecumenical News International
January 18, 2008

A South African church-backed group that helps former combatants involved in violence during the apartheid era to play a peaceful role says its life skills programme is needed in a country where those who have not found a place in the system often resort to violent crime - writes Kerry Swift.

The late 1980s and early 1990s saw the final days of apartheid. At the time, the apartheid government used surrogate forces to unleash violence in numerous black areas.

Entire communities were attacked, and there were high death rates as a result as well as considerable attendant psychological trauma. As a result of the violence, communities were militarised.

The military wing of the now ruling African National Congress, Umhhonto we Sizwe (MK), groups aligned with the ANC, known as Special Defence Units and the Azanian Peoples' Liberation Army sought to end apartheid by making ungovernable black residential areas on the fringes of white towns, as well as black homelands created under the apartheid system.

There were also the, mainly-Zulu, Inkatha Special Protection Units, which were accused of being agents of the apartheid system and which opposed the ANC. All played a role in militarising communities during a time when the education system in many black areas virtually ceased functioning.

Maggie Seiler, director of the National Peace Accord Trust, which runs a rehabilitation programme, told Ecumenical News International, "We have to look at the circumstances in which ex-combatants find themselves, listen to them and put projects in place on the ground to support them in their desire to reintegrate."

During the violent days in the late 1980s and early 1990s, education and skills acquisition were sacrificed as communities were on a war footing. This took a major toll on the psyche of affected communities and society as a whole.

Working with local churches, which are well-established in many communities traumatised by political violence, the programme, says Seiler is to "provide all ex-combatants with life skills and vocational qualifications so that they can be absorbed into the formal job market or set up ventures of their own".

Basic life skills include, for example, adult education (60 percent of all known ex-combatants require adult education training), acquiring drivers licences, computer training and gaining financial know-how. The overall goal is to provide new opportunities through training so that ex-combatants can be reintegrated into society as responsible citizens.

"The involvement of the churches is critical," says Seiler. "The churches are ideally placed to identify disaffected ex-combatants in the communities they serve. This is a first step. The churches also have trainers working in many of these traumatised communities as part of their pastoral mission.

The NPAT programme builds on existing capacity within the churches and works with church trainers to encourage disaffected ex-combatants to turn their lives around."

Gift Moerane, the provincial overseeing secretary of the Gauteng Council of Churches, said the government is making efforts to build a better life for all.

"However, there are people, like ex-combatants, who feel left out in the cold," he declared.

"These people approached the South African Council of Churches raising concerns. The SACC [which represents the biggest Christian churches in South Africa] is founded on the Gospel imperative of respecting the dignity of all people and, where it is in the interests of the poor, to cooperate with other relevant role-players, such as the National Peace Accord Trust."

[With acknowledgements to ENI. Ecumenical News International is jointly sponsored by the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, and the Conference of European Churches.]

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