What struck me most forcibly was just how young they were; 20, maybe 25 – really just a small group of kids. They sat as ‘the youth’ do; half-lying, legs thrown forward, chins resting in hands in that too-bored-for-life kind of way.
It was 10.00am but some of them were sharing a cloudy beverage from a plastic 2 litre Coke bottle; non-alcoholic of course. Some of them wore caps, others branded t-shirts. They all wore an air of scepticism; disapproval; militancy even. These are the presenting symptoms of the disease of desperation; a disease caused by the toxic combination of a lack of education, a lack of employment and the very dangerous boredom that results. The stifling heat in that small grey brick and corrugated iron rural community church was a perfect atmosphere for this gathering; thick, heavy and oppressive.
I was in this community with two colleagues at the behest of a Limpopo mine. Now in general, mines are seen as easy pickings for scores of unemployed, disenchanted and bored youth in our country. I am not saying that the mining industry doesn’t have a great deal to answer for; the violent and divided history of our nation is inextricably linked to mining and this legacy continues in spite of our journey into democracy. But mines are often viewed as a golden goose which can – nay must – deliver money and jobs. If they don’t – well – the consequences can be disruptive and even violent.
And so it had been with this group of local youth. A couple of days before this meeting a few of them had hijacked a mine vehicle loaded with high quality product and forced the driver to dump the valuable load on the side of a dusty road. When this happens, the product is as good as useless. It is a senseless act of barbarity that benefits no one.
We introduced ourselves and reiterated the vision of the work we are doing in their community; to create peace and stability. We began by listening to their voices and we allowed them the space and time to vent their frustrations and voice their anger. You see the inherent dignity – the basic lovability; the light and goodness in the human being – must always be affirmed first if we are to have a later opportunity to tackle the dark side. For the systematic stripping of dignity – the absence of love if you like – is what all violence is premised on; I will inflict on you what you inflict on me. As we awaken to this simple human truth – as this particular mine is – our nation will become increasingly more peaceful and stable.
And so we listened; hours of the same tortured and convoluted explanations of why they were owed explanations, feedback, money, jobs; owed, owed, owed – just for being them; for being in proximity of a mine.
A foundation of dignity laid, I begin my tirade. It was always contained – it must be in order that we do not ourselves become violent thereby tacitly endorsing their violent behaviour. But after 10 or 15 minutes they were left in no doubt that what they had done in committing violence against a truck driver and against a mine and its products was unjustifiable, would not be tolerated again and that should one of their group violate this they would all be presumed to have been involved. This tongue-lashing was aimed mostly at the 3 or 4 perpetrators, but beyond this we wanted to establish an alternative scenario for each of their lives; one in which they could begin to dream; see the world as hopeful; embrace peaceful dialogue and constructive debate. In this way mines and their surrounding communities could begin to work together to formulate solutions to the issues that bedevil our people. This would be a win/win for everyone.
But the purpose of this piece is not specifically mining related; it is to do with how we create peace and stability in general. What happened at the end of this tense and brutal meeting with these militant youth totally blew us away; it was the absolute opposite of what we expected and was so deeply painful that I felt like I had been kicked in the guts.
One by one they began to apologise to us. They asked for forgiveness for not helping us in our work to create peace and stability; they explained that they were lost; that we should please be patient with them as they tried to figure stuff out; they asked for our help and one even implored us by saying that a thousand kilometre journey begins with a single step. They wanted to shake hands and talk one-on-one. From arrogant, militant and criminal to humble, peaceful and willing.
Let me be clear; the necessary lambasting they received did not in itself produce this result. This could have gone another way altogether. What produced this result was the fact that 3 adults took the time – a whole morning – to speak into these kids’ lives. We took the time to talk; we cared enough to discipline them – to give them clear and defined boundaries; to present them with a future vision that was bigger than their current reality.
If love equals time then we loved them and they responded as people usually do to love.
Justin Foxton is founder of The Peace Agency.
This column is dedicated to the memory of 17 year old Anene Booysens: gang raped, mutilated and murdered, and our Mozambican brother Emmanuel Josias Sithole: beaten and stabbed to death.