Walking Through Fire
by Sipho Ndabambi
The early 1990s, the period leading up to the first democratic election in South Africa in 1994, were characterized by uncertainty and instability. While "unbanned" black political parties and the white minority government were hammering out an electoral process, many parts of the country were wracked by violence between supporters of the contending parties.
It was in this environment of political turmoil that I started practicing Nichiren Buddhism in Johannesburg in 1992. At the time, I was working as an art gallery assistant and was a branch leader of a political party in my area.
I was intrigued by Buddhist philosophy and was also impressed by the SGI members, who were praying earnestly for peace and a smooth electoral process. They encouraged me to pray with the spirit of making the impossible possible, and I chanted with the conviction that we would have peace and democracy in our country.
By 1993, all the political groupings had committed themselves to a national peace accord but, on the ground, division and fighting continued amid an atmosphere of fear and mistrust. The peace accord promoted the establishment of regional peace committees, and in our area my colleagues and I took the initiative.
Because of the number of competing political parties and migrant laborers there, our area was considered a hot spot of potential violence.
On the advice of my deputy branch leader I began visiting leaders of other political parties to see if they would be willing to talk. We also approached religious leaders and peace and development organizations--anyone who could convey the message of a mutual will for peace that was beginning to be expressed. When I approached people, I did not do so on the basis of my political affiliation, but as a member of the community.
Dropping the Labels
My Buddhist practice gave me a lot of confidence and also the impetus to take this initiative. I suddenly began to see people in another light, and I found myself going to areas where I would not have gone. I felt confident that through dialogue we could resolve things. People also seemed to respond to me differently. Even though they knew I was a party leader, everywhere I went people accepted me as me.
Much of the violence in the country at the time was between supporters of the African National Congress, which had the largest following, and those of the Inkatha Freedom Party. In many areas where people were afraid and unsure of how to approach Inkatha supporters, Inkatha was left out of the peace initiatives. In our area, by talking to people, we found out who to approach and were able to bring in their leaders.
I remember the tension when we first approached them. Nobody was sure what would happen. But when we sat down together, we realized that we were all concerned about what was going on. As we shared tea and spoke to each other, we all began to realize "these are just ordinary people."
We set up weekly meetings where people could put forward complaints, and somebody would look into them. Rather than talk about our political organizations and positions, we tried to talk on a person-to-person level, as human beings and as people who were concerned about everyone living in the area. We called each other by our clan names, which cut across political and ethnic categories, and this helped create a sense of brotherhood.
Because of these efforts, there were few incidents of violence, none of which resulted in deaths. Elsewhere, it was a different story. It is estimated that up to 20,000 people were killed in politically motivated violence that year. The lessons we learned later aided activists in other areas.
My Buddhist practice and the SGI's philosophy of dialogue helped me play a part in building peace in my community. Today, 12 years after South Africa's first democratic election, I feel that the principle of "trust through friendship" remains a potent tool for confronting many of the challenges of our new nation.
[Courtesy January 2007 SGI Quarterly]