‘Violence is everywhere’ – ‘what we live with everyday isn’t right’: 15 images showing a creative story-based method to include citizens in accountability

‘Violence is everywhere’ – ‘what we live with everyday isn’t right’: 15 images showing a creative story-based method to include citizens in accountability

by Nava Derakhshani and Joanna Wheeler

Background to creative story-based participatory methods to build accountability

SLF has been conducting an action-learning pilot in Delft, a township in Cape Town, for the past 10 months. We worked with an action learning set called the Delft Safety Group, made up of about 15 loosely organised and concerned citizens from all walks of life in Delft including young people, self-defined citizen activists (concerned with security), members of the Community Policing Forum (CPF), and members of the Neighbourhood Watch Forum (NWF). This pilot started with the experiences and perceptions of the members of the group about their daily experiences of safety and security. It considered what these experiences show about the structural context of marginalisation, violence and poverty in an urban context and how to build greater accountability. Crucially, this process supports the group to articulate how they believe this situation can change and who needs to be involved for meaningful change to happen. The focus of the pilot is on how to make cities and informal settlements safer and more inclusive, taking as a starting point the extremely high levels of insecurity and violence that characterise daily life for many within townships and informal settings. It shows how local level experiences and ideas can contribute to greater accountability and ultimately to the bigger impacts of policies and initiatives aimed at reaching the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). This pilot forms part of a global initiative, Participate: Knowledge from the margins, and is connected to other pilot projects in Ghana and Egypt. This pilot used participatory visual methodologies as part of a wider action learning approach. Specific methods included personal storytelling for transformation, collective visual power analysis and collaborative narrative-based film-making.

15 images showing a creative story-based method to include citizens in accountability

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1. The tiger behind the bars is Soeraya’s neighbour, who raped her son when he was 6. Her story is about how the justice system failed her and her family, and how she has to carry on.2. Amien’s story is about how he responded to his children being attacked by gangsters in Delft; his storyworld scene shows his children surrounded by gang members.3. The community safety group did a visual analysis of their own stories, connecting forms of power to characters.4. Different colours of thread represent forms of power in the stories: we found new meanings for power within, power to, power over and power with.5. The group developed dramas about how to create change in Delft.6. Based on their analysis. We laughed, we cried; the dramas gave us new insights.7. All of this helped the group discuss the deep causes of the problems in Delft.8. This helped us explore together how to address these problems.9. To make collaborative narrative films, the group learned each stage of filming process. 10. We planned the films by thinking about the themes we identified from the power analysis, and what the group wanted the audience to feel, see, hear and change.11. The group built a collective narrative to communicate their messages.12. To build their message they used the skills they had learned about how to tell powerful personal stories, including storycircles and techniques like storyboarding. 13. Translating the collective narratives into film was hard work.14. Everyone played a part, even though they didn’t always agree.15. Now we are planning together how to use the stories and films.

The role of the researcher: interlocutors and mediators

This pilot process has demanded a lot of us as researchers and from the group we are working with in Delft. We recognise that the role of SLF is partly as a mediator between different accountability actors at grassroots and national government actors. The careful negotiation of relationships with the group in Delft and with people within government has been critical, and we have been very cautious in putting much information into the public sphere about what has been happening.  Trust takes a long time to build and is easily destroyed. Critical attention to our own use of power is essential at every step. We also recognise that participants from Delft are navigating complex ethical dilemmas in their own lives quite apart from this research. Their realities oscillate between radically positive and negative outcomes (reflecting the blurred lines of their engagement in corruption/violence in their lives). A lesson for us has been the importance of sufficient time for engagement: to better understand the changes in the citizens’ lives, how relationships which each other strengthen, and how to articulate and sustain commitment to a shared process. The process has enabled the group to see how much that they have to deal with in their lives and the lives of others in their community. To be able to step outside of your environment, in this case characterised by high levels of insecurity, and recognise what needs to change is an important and difficult process. The process of methodological layering has enabled the group from Delft to recognise the enormous scale of the problems they face, but also helped them and us identify pathways into change. This kind of action-learning method creates a challenge for us as an intermediary NGO in terms of how to respond to the problems that people in Delft are facing. What will their recognition lead to and what is the role and responsibility of SLF going forward? We are still finding our way. Watch a short digital story made by a young resident of Delft about her personal experience of violence as she was targeted by assumedly gang members for murder. It is a powerful first account produced through our participatory visual process focussing on urban safety and accountability.

My Nightmare Becomes a Reality from Sustainable Livelihoods Fndation on Vimeo.

When accountability is life or death: reflections from the city street

When accountability is life or death: reflections from the city street

“You continue to ask me where does that information come through. But if it comes up through the wrong people, people get assassinated. That is life.” Delft community safety group member

‘Accountability’ can seem to be a boring, technical term, far from the most important issue in peoples’ lives. But when you start to dig below the surface, as we have in the SLF pilot for Participatory Monitoring and Accountability for the SDGs, it becomes clear that real accountability is not just a ‘nice-to-have’:  the lack of accountability, for people on the margins, is a life or death kind of problem.

In the post-1994 (post-apartheid) settlement of Delft, in Cape Town, South Africa, there are deep frustrations. More than 20 years after the end of apartheid, exclusion runs deep. In Delft, which is ‘mixed-race’ in the categories of apartheid, levels of violence have reached epidemic proportions. Research conducted by SLF with the Delft Neighbourhood Watch between 2014 and 2015 found a homicide rate of 40 people in 6 months, from a population of only 36,000. Currently gang-based and police-based violence is on the rise, alongside already very high levels of interpersonal and intimate partner violence. Community activists and honest police officers are being threatened and targeted.

These acts of violence occur within a wider system of profound insecurity and uncertainty: opportunities for formal employment are low, and political parties mainly operate through patronage and populist strategies that leave post-election hangovers without doing much to improve conditions.  This social and economic exclusion sits alongside an invisibility of Delft in the media and public discourse. When people die in Delft, we just don’t hear about it.

Within this context, SLF has been exploring how to build accountability through an action-learning pilot as part of the on-goingParticipate initiative. We have focussed the pilot on Goals 5, 11 and 16 of the Sustainable Development Goals, and in particular on the theme of community-based safety. Since January, we have been working with a group of about 15 residents from Delft, including members of the Neighbourhood Watch, young people, and community leaders.

The group went through a powerful process of telling their own personal stories about their experiences of safety and insecurity in Delft. Together, we analysed their stories in order to better understand the structural roots of their experiences. Now the group is busy making two films about themes they have chosen and developed. The ideas within the group about how to address community safety have evolved, and we are working together to develop a shared strategy to address the lack of accountability they face.

Here are some of the emerging findings around what it will take to bring about accountability in the context of a South African township:

Bringing corruption into focus

A striking finding throughout this process is the extent of the effects of corruption. Corruption filters into the everyday lives of people living in Delft and is a major contributing factor to the erosion of social fabric and legitimate leadership.

What has become very clear is that there are actors within the township that can influence the outcomes of an accountability process through their relationships with other power-holders, but their ethics are often questionable:  they may be aligned with gangs, factions of the police using brutal force and extortion, or drug dealers. So people from the research process who are seeking a more accountable form of political leadership and want to see transformation happen are forced to choose:  make bargains with those who have the power, or be side-lined and keep hold of their principles.

The compromises that participants and we, as researchers, are having to make within contexts of corruption and violence are a reflection of the reoccurring need to face impossible choices – the question is how far are we willing to go to make a shift happen, and how can we set ethical boundaries we can keep.

Gaps in representation and uncertain legitimacy

In our pilot, a key issue has emerged around gaps in representation at the local level. To constitute legitimate representation at the grassroots level is difficult for a number of reasons: entrenched patterns of party politics; the influence of armed actors including the police and gangs; and the daily struggles to survive and to make ends meet for leaders and their families. It isn’t necessarily the case that grassroots representatives have legitimate political power to speak on behalf of others in their community, and constructing that legitimacy is not easy. Through the pilot, there have been some important and promising developments:

  • Participants describe how they feel more able to speak to others in their community about issues of community safety, and their sense of their capacity to represent issues in their community is growing
  • The action learning process is contributing to the necessary conditions to build the basis of legitimate representation in order to build answerability and enforceability for accountability
  • We have all seen the importance of constructing a more equitable basis of representation that doesn’t leave out certain voices and experiences (which is what is happening through the formal political process). We have all become more aware of the issues of people being silenced and or edited out of the process

Accountable political leadership and the action research process

On the other hand, we have also encountered the precariousness of political alliances and promises, and there is still much to come in terms of what we can learn about how more accountable political leadership can be sustained in Delft and in South Africa.

Local community leaders from the research group are exploring how they can move into political roles, and they have been using the action research process as a platform to gain political legitimacy. This raises tensions between the potential for co-option of the research process and need for legitimate political representation at the local level.

Within the action-learning group, there are divisions along lines of political affiliation that are at odds with an emerging shared position in terms of the issues facing Delft. It is difficult for members of the group to align with party positions that are motivated by struggles for national political control and are contrary to what they see and want to change in Delft.

As we move into a more public engagement and dialogue with policy makers and community residents, we will continue to explore how to contribute to the shifts needed for greater accountability. For the group in Delft, and for many others living on the margins in South Africa, these shifts are what really matter.

Image credits: Sustainable Livelihoods Foundation

Cups of love and cups of courage: facing up to the everyday realities of violence

Cups of love and cups of courage: facing up to the everyday realities of violence

This blog was originally posted on openDemocracy Transformations

Structural solutions are vital, but real security starts inside each one of us.

“This story is about the pieces of my cup. Growing up in my grandmother’s matchbox house with five other cousins, cups were an important part of my life especially during breakfast. My cup was red and no one could drink out of it in my presence. My fondest memories were shared with Tilly in my grandmother’s garden, sipping away at our make-believe tea from my cup brought to me by my gogo [grandmother] from Uhmlanga [a town in eastern South Africa].

We didn’t play together on this day. Tilly had gone to see her mama. The uncle known to my family and I crept in slowly while I was taking a bath. The cup broke, leaving me with a bitter introduction to womanhood.”

Thuli told this story at a workshop on daily experiences of insecurity that I ran in 2012 in Cape Town, South Africa. Her story describes how violence interrupts the rhythms of daily life—and how it can find you even as a child in the bath.

When we read a story like this, we can feel a small part of the insecurity that Thuli felt. But violence isn’t just a problem for others or ‘over there.’ All of us may know parents in our neighbourhoods who go too far in hitting their children, or watch videos of police beating suspects on our streets, or shudder at the scenes of war and bombings on our screens that involve people we might know.

Increasingly, violence is all around us, whether you come from a matchbox shack in Johannesburg, a favela in Rio de Janeiro, a village in Syria, or sit at a café in Paris. We all face violence in our lives, and increasingly we watch it unfold in other places in full digital detail.

How can such everyday violence be confronted? Mostly, these problems are answered with superficial and top-down responses:  France increases air attacks on IS in response to the Paris bombings. The US builds more “supermax” prisons to hold inmates in almost total isolation, while the overall prison population reaches epic proportions. Rio de Janeiro creates a crack police force to ‘pacify’ its favelas, while police violence continues at record highs.

Even more alarming, those responsible for controlling violence may be those who use it most. Violence often comes from those who should be providing safety and protection: a parent, a police officer, a neighbour or a lover. Despite the improvements that have been made to policing in Brazil, for example, levels of trust in the security forces are extremely low. A recent study found that 80 per cent of Brazilians are afraid of being tortured by their own police force after their arrest.

In South Africa, large sums of money are being poured into upgrading townships while centres that provide direct support to survivors of rape are in danger of closing from lack of funding. Meanwhile, levels of distrust in the police have reached a crisis point, and popular protests have led to an independent commission of inquiry appointed by the Western Cape government to investigate policing in the township of Khayelitsha, Cape Town’s largest township.

Real solutions don’t lie through top-down directives or actions that pour yet more violence on the flames. Instead, we need to look at the things that help people to confront everyday violence in their lives, and then support them. In Thuli’s story, her experience of insecurity was deepened through her relationship with her father:

“It was later decided that I move to my mother and my father’s house. It was safer there after all. All that I knew, all that I was, was left behind. Over at the parents’ house they argued. I often saw it. They fought. How he slept at home sometimes.  How I gradually stopped being the centre of his world. How he completely ignored me. The cup was smashed into a million pieces. Pieces of betrayal, love, pain, rejection, pity and lord knows what else.

It was at this point that I realised that I’m a fatherless child. It’s all I’ve ever been, it’s all I’ll ever be. And I hope that you know that I will never, ever unlove you.”

Patterns of violence seem to repeat themselves through generations. Some children are abandoned, mistreated and abused, and some of them take out their anger and frustration in destructive ways as they grow older. Yet even in places where violence is pervasive there are people like Thuli who are willing to confront it.

Thuli now works in community development and violence prevention and is committed to gender justice. She has helped other people from the townshipsto tell their own stories about how violence affects them and how they can respond, using creative approaches to help different groups in the township identify problems and solutions.

What makes her and others like her take action when everything and everyone around them continues to let the violence take over, to become normalized and routine? A community activist in Khayelitsha put it to me like this:

“…we must try to help ourselves…Your child, your children, get raped, it is not somebody else’s child, it is your child. So, you get abused from your husband, so you have to stand up. So we are trying our best to do it.”

Working with people who have made the choice to confront violence in this way, I’m constantly inspired by their courage and commitment. What seems to help them even in the face of overwhelming odds is their inner strength and the support they receive from those around them:

“Why do I do this? To love people, I can’t say, because it is not about the money, honestly, I just take their pain and make it mine, that’s my problem. But this is why my sister says you are going to get sick some day, because you go and take some people’s problem and make [it] yours.”

“I want to change people’s lives. I want make them understand and accept themselves and their lives. To change their way of thinking…like thinking it was accepted for people to be hit – changing this and making them feel comfortable in their homes, and making people feel comfortable as themselves.”

But personal efforts aren’t enough when the causes of violence are structural in nature. Although people use violence for many reasons, most of them boil down to power. In Rio de Janeiro, the military police, the drug traffickers and the militias all have long histories of using violence against each other and against those living in the favelas. Activists have to negotiate with those with guns in order to find the space to do their work.

In South Africa’s townships, some people use violence to get what they want – toilets, jobs, sex, or money. Many don’t believe that society offers them any other option to secure a living. Insecurity in an urban context has many dimensions—the threat of physical violence for sure, but also the violence that breeds in systems that don’t provide enough opportunities for young people to find decent work, for parents to feed their children, or for girls to get to school without having to use sex to hitch a ride.

Ultimately, confronting violence means transforming the systems that encourage it by building economies and social relationships and security systems that include everyone in ways that are just and effective in reducing violence and the conditions in which it festers; systems that don’t provide even more incentives or role models that portray violence as rational and successful.

That doesn’t happen from the outside in or the top down alone. It requires the bravery of people who decide to act differently, who decide to eschew violence and help others to do the same. And then it requires these acts to be scaled up, to inspire others, so that the whole system begins to shift. And that’s why Thuli’s story is so important.

Here’s how it ends:

“I have since collected the different pieces of my cups. The broken pieces. Also along the way, I’ve found other cups. Cups of different forms, ever changing cups. Cups of love, cups of courage, cups of peace.”

When someone decides to break out of a destructive pattern to confront the violence that surrounds them, something important is sparked off: the recognition that love and courage are potentially revolutionary in their effects. That’s the moment when Thuli collected the pieces of her broken cup and put them back together again.

Image credit: Khayelitsha township, KennyOMG/licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.