CSVR: Building Peace Through a Culture of Human Rights

Tuesday, 9 May, 2006 - 16:09

The repression of the 1980’s created the incubator for the birth of many NGOs including the

The repression of the 1980’s created the incubator for the birth of many NGOs including the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation (CSVR), which was formally established in 1989. This was a challenging era in South Africa’s history where there was widespread political resurgence in communities that responded violently to the harsh and rigid enforcement of apartheid laws, which at one stage included the incarceration of 3,500 children.

CSVR’s role in responding to this crisis as well as its ability to deal with violence and crime in a contemporary context has seen the organisation grow enormously over a 17 year period. Currently, the organisation employs 56 staff and has two offices in Johannesburg and Cape Town (CT). It is kept afloat by an annual budget of approximately R20 million.

Led by a Deliberate Activist with a Quietly Impressive Career

Ahmed Motala, who heads up the organisation, has a quietly impressive career. Motala started out as a lawyer working for Lawyers for Human Rights, where he was based for six years before an international career opportunity beckoned.

He then went on to spend seven years in the UK, working for Amnesty International and Save the Children UK before returning to his motherland to take up the post of Executive Director of the Human Rights Institute of Southern Africa (HURISA). After a three year spell at HURISA, Motala took over the reigns at CSVR where he has been since June 2005.

Motala refers to himself as a human rights lawyer and deliberate activist arguing that this distinction is important to highlight the difference between genuine activists with a human rights commitment and lawyers who get involved in political cases motivated purely by financial incentives.

Motala describes the key development challenge in South Africa (SA) as a lack of social and economic rights and argues that we have not given genuine meaning to the Constitution in relation to health care, education, shelter and related social services. Motala contends that while there are many good development initiatives out there, few care to explore whether the rights of communities are being fulfilled. Advocating a rights-based approach, he argues that it provides accurate indicators for the fulfillment of needs, as opposed to being fixated on quantitative delivery measures.

The Relationship between Development and Violent Crime

CSVR operates in six programme areas and its work is based on three pillars, viz., research, intervention and advocacy.

CSVR’s research programme studies the causes of violence and crime and initiatives that may be undertaken to prevent violence and build reconciled societies. As a social justice NGO, it is also keen to understand the impact of violence and crime on development, exploring amongst other things, the relationship between the lack of development and crime.

As an organisation, CSVR is also interested in researching the extent to which individuals and communities have a say in how they are governed and how this prevents conflict from arising. Motala refers to the recent Khutsong uprising as a clear example of lack of participation in government decision-making. 

CSVR has also been one of the foremost organizations in the country investigating the causes and effects of gender-based violence.

The organization’s advocacy work is primarily concerned with effecting long term sustainable change through campaigning for reviews of legislation and policy, effective implementation of legislation and institutional transformation. According to Motala, the intention is to develop the Cape Town office into a parliamentary advocacy post.

CSVR’s intervention initiatives concentrate largely on providing psycho-social support to victims of violence including refugees who have suffered torture in their own countries.  Other intervention initiatives include workshops that prepare youth offenders for reintegration into society and training learners and teachers to create a safer environment in schools.

Transitional Justice and Peacebuilding on the African Continent

While CSVR was originally established to deal with South African conflict, it has expanded its geographic reach to other parts of the African continent to include countries such as Liberia, Sierra Leone, Ghana, Zimbabwe, Democratic Republic of Congo, Angola and Mozambique. In these locations, CSVR tends to work with partner organisations sharing the experience of its work in South Africa including on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC).

An important focus of its work in the rest of Africa is that of transitional justice. Motala clarifies that transitional justice refers to the status of justice in the aftermath of a civil conflict where official institutions collapse and increased efforts are required to strengthen institutions like the courts and the police.  The transitional period is marked in many countries by the establishment of special mechanisms including truth commissions and special courts to deal with atrocities of the past. 

CSVR is also working with partner organizations in Southern Africa to develop the capacity of local communities to engage with their own government, to influence policy and to develop sustainable peace in these countries.

The Challenge of Building and Retaining a Strong Civil Society

During its transitional phase, while SA was largely spared from overt violence, many challenges remain, which threaten the overall stability of the country. According to Motala, a major challenge for SA is building and retaining a strong civil society. He argues further that civil society must also claim its space within the political arena.

Motala contends that the relationship between civil society organisations and the state is problematic for two reasons. Firstly, many organisations were eager to assist the new government in the period post 1994, but became compromised due to their closeness to the state. Secondly, in cases where organisations have voiced criticism against the state, there has been a severe back lash from the government. Citing the example of the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC), Motala argues that the critical space with government is occupied by social movements and that NGOs could learn much from the strategies of this particular social movement.

In Motala’s view, we need to develop a new generation of activism as well as a social consciousness around a common cause that profiles the eradication of poverty. He contends that no matter how benevolent a government is, human rights are never delivered on a platter. Human rights are delivered through struggles against social injustices.

Rising to the Challenges of a Truly African Organisation

Motala submits that two challenges prevail in CSVR’s overall goals. One relates to the racial profile of its senior staff. In this case, Motala is keen to transform CSVR’s current staff profile into one that is more demographically representative. He has set his sights not only on recruiting new staff but also on developing internal candidates.

Another challenge is strategically increasing the organisation’s work on the African Continent. In this regard, Motala is particularly interested in examining the African Union and the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights

While not really highlighted as a challenge by Motala, he does acknowledge that the future sustainability of the organisation depends on its ability to build relationships with new donors as well as develop viable relationships with NGOs outside of SA, to meet the needs of its R20 million annual budget. This will be complemented by an increase in income generation initiatives.

Bold Future Plans Aim to Topple the North/South Status Quo

Motala argues that CSVR is the only Southern organisation with a high level of expertise in transitional justice and it is internationally recognized for this. However, he also contends that credit for work done by Southern NGOs is often usurped by international NGOs whose financial and related resources propel them into the limelight.

Going forward, Motala sees CSVR and other similarly strong African organisations displacing such international agencies on the Continent. He argues strongly that the South must have its own voice and set its own agenda and that international NGOs should support the work of Southern NGOs, giving credit where it is due as opposed to appropriating it.

Finally, Motala cautions that with international donors demanding a physical presence on the Continent for work related to African development, Southern NGOs could soon witness the mushrooming of a number of offices on the continent belonging to international NGOs hotly in pursuit of international funding.

- Fazila Farouk, Deputy Director/Portal Editor, SANGONeT

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