What South Africans need from political leaders is a commitment to peace

Positive change is possible but requires ethical leadership from the new cabinet and a shared vision for a peaceful future.

01 JUL 2024  

The May 2024 elections that caused a seismic shift in power may leave the impression that there is very little South Africans agree on. Yet, the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation found that in 2023, 77% of South Africans, across race and class, believe there is more that unites us than keeps us apart.

One thing that unites us but is seldom expressed, is a deep desire for the peace that equitable development brings.

South Africans are collectively tired of violence and of living in fear. Violence undermines societal and personal development, and will hamper any efforts to reduce unemployment, provide equitable healthcare and strengthen our education system. While the country needs professional, respectful police who are present where and when they need to be, the solution lies in more violence prevention rather than more policing.

In June, South African professionals from government and civil society making up the Violence Prevention Forum met to share progress in preventing violence and craft a bold vision for peace and social justice. For nine years, the forum has provided a platform for government, non-governmental organisations, researchers, businesses, donors and development partners to engage with one another. We are united by a common desire to use our best knowledge and evidence to prevent violence.

77% of South Africans, across race and class, believe there is more that unites us than keeps us apart

At the June meeting we represented three generations and came from diverse backgrounds. We discovered three common grounds. First, we acknowledged the deep wounds from the past that cannot heal because of persistent injustice and inequality. Second, we felt hopeful for the future because change brings new opportunities, and there is a lot that is positive in our country that a new government can built on.

Third and most important, we shared a hunger for a just and inclusive peace. We want ethical leaders who denounce interpersonal, collective and systemic violence, and are dedicated to building an equitable, peaceful, united country.

Two years ago, the Violence Prevention Forum met in Soweto. We were troubled by the apparently negative narratives South Africans have about themselves. If you follow social media or read the news, it’s easy to conclude that South Africans are broken and inherently violent, and that there is little hope for a country so deeply troubled.

This concerned us because whether we came from government departments or community-based organisations, we knew this picture was skewed. Most South Africans are not violent, and many of us are working to improve our communities, institutions and country. Numerous examples show how this is having a positive effect.

One is in Hoekwil and Touwsranten in the Western Cape, where monthly dialogues are convened by the Institute for Security Studies and community members. Residents come together across race and class to build relationships, collaborate on issues like rubbish collection and substance abuse prevention, and hold the police accountable for maintaining safety and security in the area.

Another success story is the parenting interventions of Ububele, an organisation working with families in Alexandra, Gauteng. These well-supported parents are more likely to raise children who grow to become emotionally healthy adults, caring and supportive parents themselves and active citizens. Ububele is part of the South African Parenting Programme Implementers Network, which is forging close collaborations between organisations providing parenting support.

What unites us, but is seldom expressed, is a deep desire for the peace that equitable development brings

Yet another achievement is Phaphama Initiatives’ training in regenerative agriculture and conflict transformation, leading to greater food and human security in Limpopo’s Vhembe District Municipality.

All this work, and much more, is often invisible and may seem insignificant in the face of consistently high levels of violence. For young people attending the 2022 Soweto meeting, building a positive view of ourselves and rejecting violence is crucial for their future.

The first step towards creating a new narrative was to gather evidence from social media about how South Africans speak about violence in its many forms. The Centre for Analytics and Behavioural Change drew a data set of eight million social media posts from March 2023 to March 2024 that referenced violence.

Preliminary findings suggest that: South Africans tend to accept the use of violence against criminals and to resolve conflict; bullying is common and is experienced by children and adults; discussions about issues such as land redistribution and affirmative action – efforts to address structural violence – remain racially polarised; and there is little social media content on how violence is being or could be prevented.

These findings are challenging. Hearing them elicited fear, anxiety, shame and hopelessness because this reflection of our reality is symptomatic of how pervasive and normalised violence is to us. And how angry we are at the ongoing social injustice after 30 years of democracy.

How can the country move from here to a just society, respectful of personal dignity and with safe communities that foster development and sustainable growth?

Most South Africans aren’t violent, and many are working to improve our communities, institutions and country

The leaders, professionals, mothers, fathers, sisters, pastors, officials, researchers, counsellors and community workers who gathered for the Violence Prevention Forum meeting in June believe that positive change is possible. It will take strong, principled leadership and a shared vision for a peaceful and inclusive future. We need leaders who don’t shy away from acknowledging and addressing the harms of the past and present, and that build on South Africans’ desire for reconciliation and belonging.

To achieve this we need a new, realistic vision for our country – one that draws on our strong spirituality, the healing power of nature and our desire for unity, despite our differences. This is going to take courage.

The Violence Prevention Forum is committed to supporting political leaders who recognise that the violence affecting our homes, schools, churches and workplaces is a barrier to addressing unemployment, improving education, and reducing the significant and unnecessary financial burden of violence on the state.

We call on the newly elected leaders in our Government of National Unity to join us in using the evidence we have generated to collaboratively build the fair, peaceful and prosperous country we believe we can be.

This article is jointly authored by: Chandré Gould, ISS, Dellene Clark, Senzekile Bengu, ISS, Dr Patricia Watson, Dr Nwabisa Jama Shai, South African Medical Research Council, Thato Machabaphala, ISS, Wilmi Dippenaar, South African Parenting Programme Implementers Network, Judy Connors, Thamsanqa Mzaku, Phaphama Initiatives, Jenna-Lee Strugnell, Tales of Turning, Gareth Newham, ISS, Ayanda Mazibuko, ISS, Rev Dr Sidwell Mokgothu, Bishop of the Methodist Church, Kopano Moraka, Foundation for Human Rights, Ntombizodwa Dingiswayo

Chandré Gould, ISS et al. Violence Prevention


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