Breaking the Cycle through community Healing


In this article Michael Abrams* concretly discusses his approach to reconciliation and building new relationships focussing on work with communities in the Western Cape.

Over the last 10 years, Hands On has developed an approach to fundamental reconciliation which we call Cooking up Community that seeks to mobilise all ages and sectors of the community simultaneously to generate new relationships, and ways of being and doing.

Personal and social change

The approach we use has been influenced by M.Cabrera’s work in Nicaragua, where there had been an armed conflict. Cabrera argues that there cannot be social change without personal change because one has to fight every day to achieve change. Her approach has four aspects that focus on the personal sphere, which is where crises, wounds, health, the conception of healing, life style and holistic health habits come in. The second focus is historical and cultural, in which we try to understand how our personal life is marked and expressed by the country’s history and the national culture. The third focus is organisational and the fourth is about development. These four aspects cannot be understood separately and there is a need to make connections among them.

History and the Present

In each community we work in, we undertake aseparate analysis of what the legacy issues are and how are they presently affecting citizens. This leads us to develop strategies of personal and community psycho- social healing that attempt to deal directly with legacy issues. Working with Cabrera’s concept of multiple- wounded societies we have used story telling, learning through play and wilderness camps to provide members of the affected communities with an opportunity for their stories to be heard and acknowledged. This creates spaces of inspiration and hope that support participants to develop strategies to discover and create new forms of the self and community. However, these strategies need to be linked to sustainable livelihoods as this provides the energy and hope necessary for healing and the possibility of material improvement in people’s lives. History and memory projects are important tools, a means for putting the past into perspective but to empower a brutalised and traumatised nation we need to“deal with the past”in a way which changes the circumstances of the present to ensure a future better than the past.

Youth in Cape Agulhas

An example of this provided by our work in the Cape Agulhas Municipality over the last four years. The municipality is situated on the southern tip of Africa with a population of 27000. We were initially invited into the area as part of a government intervention aimed at preventing school drop outs, estimated at 62%. In the initial baseline study it became clear that high school drop out rates were due to poverty, social dislocation and trauma. The intervention aimed at tackling the problem from a number of points simultaneously:

  • Support for families experiencing abuse [substance and domestic violence] through home visits, parent workshops and dialogues and men’s groups.
  • Intergovernment partnerships with agencies to provide support for youth and families including training and employment.
  • Whole school development and support for the affected high schools and primary feeder schools aimed at altering the meaning and purpose of schools by making them into fun places for learning to occur.
  • Leadership programs for youth who had left school for more than 1 year.

This first phase of the project was poorly managed by provincial government resulting in consistent financing problems and the eventual closing of the project in 2010. However, the local authority became involved in the project through its Human Development Unit. A number of new initiatives were also launched to consolidate some of the gains of the original intervention. Public participation was initiated to draft a youth development policy for the local authority. This process drew together 75 youth leaders from representative councils of learners, sports, culture and faith based organisations. This was the first time that youth leadership was brought together in this way thus laying the foundation for ongoing mobilisation and the growth of a dynamic and vibrant youth leadership. The new Cape Agulhas Municipality youth policy identifies the intersection between legacy issues of family dislocation, unemployment and poor education and seeks to address this through strengthening families and overcoming social fragmentation. The partnerships which are at the foundation of this initiative represent a significant step forward for the local community in creating sustainable relationships with government . In addition, these partnerships create a “development space”which is not driven by political competition but allows civil society organisations to come together and begin a process of building social cohesion and a new way of“being”and“doing”as communities.

The vehicles which will drive the consolidation of this “development space”are a youth council and a youth centre.

Community Healing Network

Community Healing Network in the community of Vrygrond in Cape Town. The network’s activities are based on the belief that the legacy of apartheid cannot only be addressed through socio-economic projects or electoral processes. South Africa is a multi-wounded country, as manifested by the multiple divisions and conflicts across groups (racial, ethnic, gender, generational or class), and poverty and violence. The CHN sees drug abuse, crime and violence as indicators of the wounds that need healing. Through programmes that build informal social networks between women, youth and families; a development space has been created which is healing in the sense that it allows for a practice of grassroots democracy based on tolerance and diversity. This has led to the development of new partnerships between residents, with NGO’s and with organs of the state. This has significantly reduced violence in the community especially during periods of intense social and economic stress.


The work ofthe Community Healing Network and Hands On are two examples of an approach to deal with legacies of the past as part of social reconstruction. The growth in the last 5 years of community healing as a practice is cause for optimism.

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