Conflict on youth camps

Towards the end of the Apartheid era, I took a group of young black people from Alexandra and Mamelodi townships in Gauteng on a youth camp to Mpumalanga. Some of these people had literally come off the streets, and tension was rife.

On the first day of the camp, I took them into the bush and showed them some of the local fauna and flora. Was it coincidence that one of the first plants we encountered was Protea caffra?

At first I did not mention the Latin name, but simply called them ‘Proteas’.“Where does the name Protea come from?” they wanted to know.

“The early white settlers could not help but noticing these plants growing in abundance on the Cape Peninsula,” I explained. “They collected them and sent specimens back to Europe. Carolus von Linnaeus, the founder of taxonomy, named the genus Protea, after the Greek god Proteus. The many different forms of proteas fascinated Linnaeus, and, because Proteus could appear in many forms, he named these plants after the Greek god.”

“Oh, so Protea is a racist word. These are racist plants. We are not interested in racist plants.”

I reflected the anger I sensed, without commenting on their perception. I thought it wise at that stage not to elaborate on the species name!

The next day at lunch, I sat talking to somebody when I suddenly felt an icy silence descend upon the mess. The kind of silence I had known at the University of Fort Hare when riots were about to start. The kind of silence only Africa knows.

“Here comes phase two,” I commented to my colleague.

“What do you mean?”

She was soon to find out.

One of the youths had apparently complained about the food, and was told to be satisfied with what he got. Now they wanted to see the manager. We called him, and we had a meeting. All hell broke loose.

“We’ve been led into a trap,” they shouted.“This is all a plot by the Apartheid regime to indoctrinate us!”They were furious.

Fortunately the manager of the camp kept his cool, and his ability to speak Zulu also helped. I focused on bringing emotions into the open.

One of the instructors was terrified, and wanted to drop out.

“Don’t,” I suggested. “Just continue with whatever you were going to do. Phase two is on the way out.”

He went ahead and did the obstacle course. Both he and the youths actually enjoyed it. That evening we continued the group discussion, and the hatred and anger of the last few days gradually diminished. The evening had started with a sense of emptiness. Then, hesitantly at first, positive feelings started emerging. Eventually they were not hesitant anymore, and a dramatic swing in mood established itself.

Out in the bush the next day, I noticed a few youngsters scratching their names on the rocks. I called them together.

“Do you like this place?” I asked.

“Yes, we do!”

“So do I,” I responded. “And it is the beauty of the area that attracts me to it. That is the reason why I would like to bring more people here. However, the beauty of the area for me lies in its being untouched by human beings. Scratching on rocks changes that.”

“Oh, we did not realize that we were making it ugly! We will not scratch again!”

There was no need to coerce them. It was their own decision, although facilitated by my comments.


They didn’t scratch again. In fact, after that they felt decidedly protective about the place and would not allow anybody to do any damage to it. The environmental educator’s dream.

If I had said to them: “Stop scratching your names on the rocks. You are destroying the environment!” they would have ignored me. Perhaps they would not have kept on scratching there and then, but they are likely to have done it later, perhaps even on purpose (especially within the context of the perceived black/white conflict mentioned). This kind of reaction would have been particularly strong if it had occurred before the conflict phase.

I did not tell them that it was wrong, or bad. I simply stated my own feeling about it. This act of symmetry allowed them to make their own decision. Because there was no need to regain control, their reaction is likely to become permanent. By not judging I had far more effect on their behavior than by convincing them that they were wrong.

“This is the real power of the powerless. In our authentic realization of the truth of the moment lies our ability to deeply, if humbly, influence even the rigid systems built on automatism and empty phrases” (John Briggs and F David Peat, The Seven Life Lessons of Chaos).

On one of the later camps, I made the statement that blacks seem to care less about pollution than whites, leaving their litter all over the place. Decidedly not politically correct! Understandably this led to an intensely emotional reaction of hurt and anger, and a drawn-out discussion. In today’s society, as we have seen with the Penny Sparrow debacle, such a statement would be termed “racist” and totally unacceptable. Yet, it was merely a perception, one shared by many whites. During the discussion, the relativity of the perception was exposed, and that was all that was important. Whether it was right or wrong was irrelevant.

The effect, however, was dramatic. After that discussion, there was no more littering by either blacks or whites. The discussion, and especially the emotional intensity displayed, had led to a significant increase in awareness and consequent behaviour. No instruction not to litter, which would immediately have created the context of an unequal relationship, could possibly have had the same effect. And when we went back home there was a sense of shared belonging and cohesion unimaginable before.

As opposed to the normal tip-toeing and skirting around issues in order to avoid “hurting” each other or not to be seen as politically incorrect, as seems to be the order of the day, honest expression of emotions in a safe atmosphere, irrespective of how “negative” they may seem, always leads to better understanding and greater harmony.

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