Project building bridges between communities

The Institute for Justice and Reconciliation (IJR) hosted a recent public dialogue in Khayelitsha as part of the Ashley Kriel youth development programme.

The injustices left by apartheid are so visible that efforts to overcome them have to be as equally visible, says Eleanor Du Plooy, from the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation (IJR), in Gardens.

Ms Du Plooy has been involved with the Ashley Kriel Youth Leadership Development Project since 2013, and she believes dialogue is vital for reconciliation.

The project began unofficially at the IJR in 2004, but at that point it was only an annual memorial lecture.

“We started thinking about how we could make this into a fully fledged leadership project. We had our first interventions with young people in 2013,” she said.

The project is part of the IJR’s mission to build an inclusive society and now 30 young people sign up for it annually.

“They are young people who are already thinking about issues such as social justice and reconciliation issues,” Ms Du Plooy said.

The programme involves a five-day camp where participants mix with others from different backgrounds. The group usually includes university students, unemployed youth and young working people.

Relationships are forged over those five days and ideas shared on how to heal a still deeply divided country.

“It was really nice that it opened space for inter-racial engagement, which then opened up space to talk about the past and how it manifests in the present,” Ms Du Plooy said.

Away from their comfort zones during the camp, the youngsters are asked to write personal stories and share them with a stranger.

“In that moment, they will sit across from someone from a different race or class,” said Ms Du Plooy.

“They get to see the individual person. We were able to separate the issues from the individual and that was very important.”

A recurring theme in those stories, she said, was the spatial division caused by apartheid. And that’s also a theme that came up again in Khayelitsha two weeks ago when the IJR and the Social Justice Coalition held a youth dialogue to hear reaction to the president’s State of the Nation Address.

“It was a dialogue with older and younger people. There were also people from Elsies River, Bonteheuwel, Manenberg and Mitchell’s Plain. What came out was that the social spatial division becomes such a huge barrier. It is a physical barrier because of the distance but it also causes a mental barrier.

“Perceptions of the other are left unchallenged and these really bad stereotypes of the other are left to blossom. That was a huge theme in our conversations.”

Ms Du Plooy said that was a challenge because when people did interact it was when relations were skewed, such as the office or school.

“It becomes hard for people to connect to each other and it makes the conversations difficult. It can’t just be a once-off, it has to be sustained over a period of time. There needs to be trust because there is a lack of trust between people.”

Ms Du Plooy believes the way communities are designed needs to change.

“There needs to be a re-think on urban design. The RDP house system also needs to be interrogated, looking at where these houses are built. On a more practical level, we need to create more common public space where people can interact. Because the social, spatial divide is so visible the attempts to challenge and change it must be equally as visible.”

Ms Du Plooy said the Ashley Kriel Youth Desk also wanted to create more inter-generational dialogue.

“As much as youth are the future it doesn’t have to be in a vacuum. There are generational tensions that exist and the #FeesMustFall movement bought that to the fore. We need to take lessons from the past and explore new innovative ways of activism.”

One of the young people who joined the Ashley Kriel Youth Desk in 2013 was Carla Bernardo. She said she wished it was something every young person could be a part of.

“Under the leadership of
Dr Fanie du Toit, the now-executive director Stan Henkeman and Eleanor, we got right into the heart of South African conflict and division – race and class,” she said.

“In addition, we dealt with these sensitive topics in every way possible. We joked, we cried, we wrote poems, we created dances, we reflected on camera, we had one-on-ones, we debated,” she said,

“Four years later, the basics still apply. Repeatedly, the IJR, through their Ashley Kriel project, provides a safe space for me and for young people like me. We come from across the province with our own lived experiences, with our own perspectives and prejudices, and we sit down and we engage. We tell each other why we are hurting, why we sometimes feel hate, and then, we work through those feelings,” said Ms Bernardo, adding that the experience had given her “insight into lives I will never live”.

Ms Du Plooy said the country could not afford to give up on dialogue and reconciliation.

“It must not be de-linked from socio economic justice. It is about living better together.”

Ms Du Plooy said the format for this year’s project would be different. Instead of the five-day camp, the organisation would instead be working with different communities around Cape Town, holding dialogues on matters relating to reconciliation.