Fellow Since 1997
Victory Sonqoba Theater Company
This description of Bongani Linda's work was prepared when Bongani Linda was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 1997.
Bongani Linda a skilled community theatre person, sees opportunity to build trust within historically divided communities through cultural projects and events. Through joint participation in music, dance, dramatic plays and sports, the members of groups in conflict discover their commonality and come to accept one another. His approach represents a distinctive homegrown blending of prior "peace" interventions and "community-based" cultural projects.
The New Idea
After studying the conflict-ridden communities of South Africa's Gauteng province, Bongani Linda concluded that the two distinct factions of South Africa's black townships-"normal" township residents and the transit workers who dwell in large single-sex "hostels"-were ready to end the violent conflict that defined their relationships for many years. He then set about demonstrating how. Previous peace and reconciliation efforts had failed, according to Bongani, because they did not address the underlying lack of trust between the different groups. They focus, understandably, on stopping ongoing violence at times of crisis and, less understandably, do not undertake sustained efforts to create the conditions for lasting peace. Typically, leaders of community groups or political parties undertake negotiated peace agreements. The "man in the street," however, is hardly involved in the process. Demonstrations of support for the "treaties"-such as marches with supporters wearing peace badges and hoisting blue and white flags-usually provide the only occasion at which the treaties are respected. Considering the central role that culture and sport play in South Africa's townships, Bongani believes that cultural and sporting activities can be used to bridge the gap between warring community factions. Through participation in organized music, dance, dramatic plays and sports activities, members of the two groups can discover what they have in common and may thereby come to accept one another. Bongani is implementing this promising new method to build lasting peace in South Africa's townships.
Since the mid-1980s, thousands of people have been killed, injured or left homeless in the Gauteng region's black townships following violence between township residents, hostel dwellers and shack inhabitants. Some of the most violent communities are Tokoza, Vosloorus and Katlehong in East Rand, Kagiso in West Rand, Sebokeng in the Vaal Triangle, and the townships of Soweto and Alexandra. The conflict stems from decades of apartheid, which purposely generated social fragmentation within the townships through its migrant labor policy. This system was designed to preserve white minority rule and, originally, to provide the mining companies with a steady supply of cheap labor. To preempt the organization of black workers into trade unions, apartheid promoted division between the skilled workers and the unskilled temporary migrant workers. The government strategically segregated migrant workers by language group and located them in giant single-sex barracks on the edges of established black communities. Typically, hostel dwellers maintain a more traditional culture and rural frame of reference distinct from that of the prevailing urban culture of the townships. Migrant workers typically live in cold, dark, single-sex hostels, removed from family life, and perform the toughest and most menial work in municipalities, foundries and other heavy industries. In 1990, there were 130 hostels in the Gauteng region, most of them dating from the mid-1950s. Some are vast complexes, such as Diepmeadow in Soweto, which houses 29,000. The workers have approximately three square meters of their own living space. In the hostels, an average of six people live in a single room. In the late 1980s, the lifting of measures that sought to control migration of blacks into urban areas led to rapidly rising township population densities, dramatically increasing competition for housing and jobs and resulted in the expansion of squatter camps in the areas adjacent to townships. Deprived of basic services, sanitation, and adequate housing, these informal settlements become home to recent settlers, who are caught in the desperate cycle of poverty and are under constant threat of forced removal by the state. Under these bleak conditions, conflicts with the hostel dwellers were inevitable. The enfranchisement of the black population added a further level of conflict between the two factions. With the disbanding of the African National Congress (ANC) in February 1990 and the launch in July 1990 of Inkatha Freedom Party (the Zulu-based nationalist movement under the leadership of Mangosuthu Buthelezi), the stage was set for a power contest. By the time elections were held in 1994, over 10,000 people had died in township-centered clashes.
Bongani began by setting up a coordinating committee that consists of two delegates from each area of the Gauteng province affected by the violence. One delegate comes from the township residents and another from the hostels. They work together to establish joint cultural "task teams." The sports task team, for example, will start a soccer team consisting of members from the township and the hostels who will compete in a regional soccer league. The delegates are given training in leadership and administration, specifically in how to initiate and manage organizations made up of historically antagonistic members. The delegates organize drama, music and dance groups as well as soccer, netball, basketball and athletics teams. Bongani provides professional coaches and experts to visit teams in all areas at least twice a month. There are art festivals and sport competitions with prizes granted to those who reach the finals. The prize money is used for the development of cultural activities in the areas the winning teams come from. Affordable entrance fees are charged to help cover expenses. After an event (theater play, dance performance, music concert or sports contest) takes place, the project organizes follow-up workshops aimed at mobilizing the community to become involved in the effort to achieve reconciliation and peace between township residents and hostel dwellers. Having established a dialogue, Bongani looks forward to building on the cultural interventions by facilitating other development processes such as literacy programs for hostel dwellers and shack residents. The project also aims to help uncover the latent talents of the rehabilitated and the unemployed youth who are often the perpetrators of crime and violent acts. Bongani believes that his model project can be replicated in other areas affected by violence such as KwaZulu.
Bongani was born in 1966 in Alexandra Township. As a township teenager, he participated in several skirmishes with hostel dwellers. Violence and death were a common part of his youth. By the mid-1980s, most black areas were under a state of emergency declared by the beleaguered South African apartheid government. Schools had become so highly politicized that the state had virtually suspended all public education in the Transvaal. At the age of 19, Bongani formed a student cultural ensemble. He authored his first play, "Born to Suffer", to make youth more aware of the role that they could play in the fight against apartheid. Although Bongani won the PIDCO Drama Award, he was eventually arrested and detained because of the play and for his involvement in the Congress of South African Students. After his release, Bongani completed his secondary school qualification exam and registered at the university the following year. He earned a degree in dramatic arts from the University of the Witwatersrand and also completed a special six-month trauma counseling course for victims of violence as well as a conflict resolution course.