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South Africa


Confronting a Culture of Violence:

South Africa Nears a Critical Juncture

San Jose Mercury, 1993, October 3, pp. 1C, 4C







IN THE AFTERMATH of the tragic death of Amy Biehi amid the culture of violence that permeates South Africa, I have been asked countless times, why would anyone want to go to there now?

It’s a fair question: South Africa is in a period of sweeping change. Laws that shaped people’s thinking and behavior have been swept away in the past few years. Roles and expectations have been radically altered.

With all this upheaval comes uncertainty and chaos. It is a time of great fear. It is also a critical moment in history - a window of opportunity to help a fragile and fragmented nation make its transition toward democracy. How could anyone refuse such an opportunity?

I was invited to work in South Africa by the Human Science Research Council; the universities of Cape Town, Natal and the Western Cape; and a small, impoverished black community just outside of Cape Town. They wanted to learn about empowerment evaluation, a new form of evaluation I've developed during my tenure as president of the American Evaluation Association.

Empowerment evaluation is designed to help people in various social and educational programs evaluate - or teach others to evaluate - their own programs in order to foster greater self-determination. I didn’t anticipate that this evaluation approach would play a role in South Africa’s struggle, but this is a time when everyone in this new nation is rethinking and re-evaluating everything - from social attitudes to land redistribution.

My hosts felt that empowerment evaluation would enable South Africans to chart and track their own course intelligently and independently in everything from reformulating national educational goals to helping impoverished townships improve their community services.

My first days in South Africa were spent in Kruger Park, a magnificent free game park. Majestic lions and elephants of awesome size were only yards away. Zebras, giraffes and impalas ranged everywhere. Without question, these wonderful beasts owned the land.

On the third day I saw more than a hundred buffalo crossing the road, and four lions trailing behind them. The lions had cornered one buffalo; I could hear the buffalo’s moans behind the brush as the lions devoured it.

This, I was told, was the law of the jungle. There was a stark, cold brutal reality about this experience. While it captured the essence of the jungle, it also was a poignant marker between the jungle and civilization, a reminder that the law of the jungle need not apply to human beings. I wondered if South Africa would suffer the viciousness and devastation that other new nations were experiencing.

I was a little surprised to find that normalcy and routine seem to characterize daily life in South Africa. People go about their business every day. Cities like Johannesburg, Pretoria, Durban and Cape Town are bustling with activity. Good people in urban and rural communities are addressing pressing problems and making plans for the future.

Unfortunately, acts of violence are also a part of daily life, and killing has become an aspect of the norm. Violence and fear permeate the consciousness of every South African. The newspapers have become a daily record of stonings, stabbings and shootings. Bullet holes in the windshields of cars in which two white lecturers were traveling to teach in the black township of Khayelitsha were poignant reminders of this culture of violence.

In addition to the daily physical violence, there is the subtler assault by white people who have never bothered to ask where their "coloured" servants live, what conditions they live in or even what their surnames are.

On an individual level, there is not only concern about physical safety, but also anxiety about the future and guilt about the past. Some young white students, trained to be the cultural and intellectual leaders of the future, are asking themselves "if I didn’t understand what apartheid really was, what else don’t I understand?" Many black people are asking themselves the same question, but from a different vantage point.

Many whites are reassessing their options for the future, wondering if there will be a place for them in the new South Africa, and if so, where. Some blacks are beginning to question the sincerity of black leaders and the likelihood that they will fulfill their expectations in a timely manner, economically and politically. Everyone is concerned about their safety as this new South Africa emerges.

My own sense of safety and security has been shaken as well. My drive to an impoverished black community outside Cape Town passed directly by Guguletu, where Amy Biehl was stabbed and beaten to death. The day after her death, while driving that route, I found myself thinking about the fact that only one road goes in and out of the community I was working in; it would be easy for anyone to close off my passage way.

My family was affected as well. My wife and my mother heard about Amy’s death before I had the opportunity to contact them because of the 9-hour time difference. When I did call, my wife told me that my mother had called to ask where I was that week and whether I had any guards. My wife repeated to her my reassurances about my safety even though she wasn't entirely convinced by them herself.

These fears slowly erode our sensibilities. They operate in the background of our consciousness and periodically confront us directly, as acts of violence erupt in daily life.

No one likes to speak of a culture of violence, but one exists here. In recent memory it began with the acts of violence committed under the institution of apartheid, including the dispossession of millions of black people from their land. Apartheid has so deeply permeated the consciousness of every South African that it is virtually impossible to conduct a meaningful discussion without tracing some part of it back to apartheid. So pervasive and systematic was this institution that every town has a blueprint that is easily discernible: the luxurious areas for the white community, the downtown area where the signs delineating black and white areas have mostly been taken down, the township for those referred to as coloured, and a rapidly growing community of squatters representing the black African community.

In most cases, the black townships are located out of sight and thus out of mind of the white community. However, whatever the white community may have claimed in the past, plays like Fugard's "Boesman and Lena" and novels like "Poppie" make it virtually impossible for any South African to say they do not now know how bad apartheid was.

Although it has officially ended, the legacy of apartheid continues. In its most invidious form it robs people of their future, focusing their passions and energies on the past rather than on what is to come. Apartheid still fosters oppression and dependency. Whites fear that the oppressed will become the oppressors, as they listen to the cry "one settler, one bullet" -- a phrase repeated only days after Amy Biehl's death.

Many people, however, do not accept the law of the jungle for human beings. They maintain a resilience despite this overriding destructive mentality. Black students abhor the violence that threatens to steal their education from them. They organize motorcades to escort their white teachers to school to ensure their safety.

There is a real spirit of hope in the country. This spirit was epitomized by Peace Day, when people all over the country stopped what they were doing at noon to stand for peace. Some held hands, others stopped their cars along the highway. It was a simple, unpretentious protest for peace. I felt privileged to participate in that expression of hope.

True, the past never can nor should be forgotten, but a radical transformation of thought and behavior is essential to reconstruction. South Africans cannot afford to continue to drive forward by staring in the rearview mirror. That mind-set is responsible for the continuing culture of violence that diminishes every South African.

In some townships and communities, a shift toward empowerment and self-determination has begun. Elections are on the horizon, and there is no turning back.

The new South Africa is emerging. It is a rich country, with people who are filled with both hope and fear as a new society emerges from a painful birth.

South Africans have no tradition of democracy, and they have not been served well by isolation. The new South Africans must carve out their own destiny.

However, they need not re-invent the wheel. Americans have some insight into apartheid, given our own history of oppression and racial segregation. In attempting to redress these social wrongs, we have learned important lessons about affirmative action, entitlement and reverse discrimination. Many of the lessons we have learned can be adapted to fit their needs. Americans have an important role to play in the reconstruction of South Africa. It is a delicate and fragile time. The momentum is in the right direction, but the underlying violence could overwhelm this nation at any time.

Amy Biehi clearly believed that we could and should encourage the growth of democracy in the new South Africa. Her family established a fund at Stanford to support scholarship by Stanford students in South Africa and by South African students from the Western Cape at Stanford.

I believe that we must continue to support the small islands of hope that may otherwise be lost in a sea of hostility.

-- David M. Fetterman is a member of the faculty and the director of the MA. Policy Analysis and Evaluation Program at Stanford. He is also a professor and director of research at the California Institute of Integral Studies. This op-ed piece appeared in the San Jose Mercury, 1993, October 3, pp. 1C, 4C.

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