No one anticipated what would happen when we opened the doors of Doornkop community hall for our cultural event on Sunday 22nd March. The event was organised as a response to recent outbreaks of violence and anti-foreigner sentiment in the area. We had invited the surrounding communities to join together for this celebration of cultural diversity, and to map a long term strategy against xenophobia.
The day began slowly, and the relentless rain threatened to derail our enthusiasm, and keep the community in the shelter of their homes. The cultural exhibitions had to be moved inside the hall, which seemed large and empty as we prepared it for the event.
The local peace committees, stakeholders and some of the community began drifting in to gradually fill up the hall. The cultural event was only due to start in the afternoon, but throughout the morning the people kept on filing in, hour after hour until there wasn’t a free seat to be found, and every inch of space was packed with people from the local community. When chairs ran out people sat on the floor or stood at the back and along the sides and down the aisles. The steps to the stage were lined first with children and then with anyone who wanted a good view, holding cellphones high to capture the activities on stage. We squeezed our way between the crowds to get around the venue and competed with dozens of cameras and cellphones to get shots of what was happening. Even stepping outside into the dismal weather, the overflowing crowds swarmed around the venue, dipping in and out of the hall.
At the back of the hall were tables topped with cultural foods, arts and different attire, and at the front of the hall dancers, musicians and entertainers rotated with speakers, interspersing messages of solidarity, community and inclusion with cultural performances.
The entertainers played a key role in uniting the community, by creating an environment in which people could celebrate together and enjoy what people from different backgrounds had to offer. All around we observed excitement and enthusiasm, with people joining the singing, clapping and dancing, and mixing together. There was a strong sense of community solidarity.
Breakaway groups took the themes of moral regeneration, youth development, rights, leadership, peace and security to rooms where they engaged in in-depth discussion about the most pressing problems threatening local peace, and later brought the results of their discussions back to share with the rest who had remained in the hall.
The media were also present, capturing the event and interviewing speakers. It was a chance to tell a different story about the Thulani Extension 1 community – a story not about violence, shooting, looting and anti-foreigners sentiment, but a story about the immense numbers of local people who wanted to live in peace with each other, to eat, dance, laugh and celebrate together. In that space people were proud not only to show off their own cultural identity, but to be seen and interact with others of a different culture (see picture below).
This was the majority. We were also exposed to a minority group in the community who expressed concerns over the presence of foreigners. However, we hope that the contact made with this group will provide an opportunity to engage with them further, to invite them into a dialogue and into the continued process of working through local disputes.
So while we make no assumption that the overall impression of integration and peace at this event indicates that community tensions are over, we see the signs of majority support for living together, and most importantly we see the willingness and desire of the community to be involved in initiatives like this one that seek to bring people together to collectively address their community challenges, whatever those challenges may be. And so this event doesn’t mark the final stage of activities in Thulani Extension 1, but is rather a landmark along the way, with ongoing programmes planned. The formation of a Local Peace Committee here is already a significant step in the direction of building permanent infrastructures for peace in the community.
Watch this space for more news and events about this exciting work.
For more photos of the event, check out the album on Facebook