South Africa: a land of hope and contrast

IssueJune - August 2001
Comment by Franco Perna

An article in the Quaker weekly, The Friend, led me to travel to South Africa with the prime motivation to volunteer and become acquainted with post-Apartheid peace-related initiatives in general, and with the work of the Quaker Peace Centre (QPC) in particular. An email exchange and phone call were enough to book a cheap one-month ticket. In retrospect, I wished I had gone for longer.

On arrival I found a friendly welcome, a pleasant climate and easy going people all around. During the first two days at the busy QPC, however, I felt confused, and was wondering where I could fit in.

Given the circumstances, I talked with Asma Haywood – the director's secretary, responsible for volunteers, and later with the director himself – Jeremy Routledge (husband of the SA Deputy Defence Minister).

Getting “programmed in”

I felt I needed to clarify my motivations for travelling to South Africa. This resulted in getting “programmed in” to visit and attend a number of places and events, in and around Cape Town, and getting involved in some ongoing activities. I welcomed this development and soon found myself in the midst of people's initiatives and demonstrations. These included: a march to parliament to ask for military spending cuts and more funds for social services (see PN 2442 p20-22); equal rights for AIDS sufferers; reparations for victims of Apartheid; and, finally, the World Court of Women Against War, for Peace. This last event brought together nearly 4000 women from the South, many of whom were victims/survivors of repression, injustice and violence.

Apart from these large public events which happened to coincide with my visit, I often joined the QPC staff and long-term volunteers in visiting specific projects which the Centre is responsible for. These included community gardens where people are encouraged to grow their own vegetables as an attempt to be self-sufficient; nonviolence and conflict resolution programmes in schools; and community mediation schemes.

A trip to Swellendam

A trip to Swellendam (220 km east of Cape Town) with a Dutch volunteer revealed yet another reality, only indirectly linked with QPC. We visited a convent farm with a retreat centre belonging to the Catholic diocese of Oudtshoorn. The farm is a bit run down, but it has great potential in that, if well managed, it could provide living space for over 100 people and also offer training facilities for rural development. The land here is very fertile and there is plenty of water. International workcamps – like those organised by QPC – could also be held here. The Bishop of Oudtshoorn is willing to give the property on a 99-year lease – for a symbolic sum of 1 Rand per year – to a new and efficient management team (for details of this project, email

The alternative tour

One last experience I had, just before returning to Italy – which confirmed my feelings about South Africa as a land of beauty, hope and contrast – was an alternative tour of townships. A journey into the heartland of resistance to Apartheid. These visits are organised by a committed team of people who operate through Western Cape Action Tours (WECAT). They believe that forgiveness does not mean forgetting and they take you to places that ordinary tourists would never dream of visiting.

During my tour the WECAT driver and co-ordinator expressed appreciation for what the government is trying to do to improve conditions within society, while pointing out that big gaps still exist between the rich and the poor and dispossessed. WECAT puts emphasis on transcultural dialogue and exchange in the hope that this can promote positive social initiatives in the most impoverished townships. However, this type of activity is not encouraged by the tourist board and so very few people ever hear about WECAT.

Training for trauma

In addition to domestic problems such as high unemployment and crime (30 people are murdered every day in SA), South Africa experiences large influxes of refugees from countries in the Great Lakes region – notably Burundi. I heard from Burundian people attending an Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP) and community mediation course that refugees often experience difficulties with the domestic Black community – particularly in areas where there is severe scarcity of jobs. Some of the Burundians on the AVP course had come to SA in order to gain further training in trauma counselling. They were returning to work for the Burundi Trauma Healing and Reconciliation Centre, a project of the Burundi Quakers and the US Friends Peace Team (see PN 2440).

A catalyst within SA society

While most of the QPC outreach activities are limited to the Western Cape, it maintains working relationships with similar initiatives – both Quaker and non-Quaker – across Africa. For example, there are plans to establish a similar centre in Nairobi.

I consider myself privileged and fortunate to have been able to have a varied and enriching experience in such a short time, largely thanks to the Quaker Peace Centre and its staff. If my immediate impression on arrival was one of confusion, I soon realised that the hectic atmosphere around the Centre was due to the fact that QPC serves a number of purposes and field projects, acting as a catalyst within South African society.

Topics: Global south