When Rommel Roberts first emailed me in the spring of 2018, indicating he would like to come visit in November, little did I know how life‐changing his visit would be. Initially, I even hesitated to respond because I had so many other projects, and I knew how involved I could become. I had first met Rommel 31 years earlier when I had the privilege of escorting him to various Quaker meetings and schools in the greater Philadelphia area. He was sharing the challenges of working for peace under the South African apartheid system. His message of learning to love in the face of fear and hate profoundly impacted my life. Now Rommel had written a book, Seeds of Peace, that he was hoping to share with Friends. Fortunately, I listened to that “still, small voice within” urging me to respond, and trusted that way would open.
Fortunately, I listened to that “still, small voice within” urging me to respond, and trusted that way would open.
I was not disappointed! Kendal Meeting agreed to host him, and he gave a community presentation that was extremely well‐received. The meeting also provided him a key contact at American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) that would prove crucial in organizing a nonviolent response to the South African elections in May 2019.
Rommel and I quickly picked up where we had left off years earlier, sharing the various twists and turns our lives had taken. Learning to love in the face of fear had become central to my many efforts. I had recently been certified as a coach and mentor in HeartMath, an innovative, scientifically supported approach to connecting to the heart’s intelligence by moving into a state of coherence between one’s heart and mind. I had been finding these skills essential to remembering how to shift from fearful fight‐or‐flight responses to love even in difficult, challenging situations. When I asked Rommel if there was anyone in South Africa who might be interested in learning about this approach, he immediately recommended his wife Robin.
Meeting Robin, via the modern technology of WhatsApp, has been an incredible inspiration in my life. Robin gave up the comforts of her California home to marry Rommel and live in rural South Africa and support his many peacemaking efforts—and to initiate many of her own. Together they built the Hilltop Empowerment Centre to improve the lives of South African people and others from around the world. She had had great success in training young rural and township leaders, recognizing their real potential and caring for their development and placement into jobs or small business enterprises over a period of 17 years.
In the meantime, Rommel had secured substantial support from AFSC to respond to the violence predicted for the upcoming South African elections. This would ultimately involve training 58 volunteer facilitators and 350 peace monitors for election day. Robin’s experience in mentorship and management at Hilltop, with the enhancement of her HeartMath training, made her the ideal candidate to support and counsel the volunteer facilitators in this project. Rommel and Robin were able to secure the volunteer service of HeartMath South Africa director Barry Coltham to provide two training sessions for the facilitators, along with their computer technology to measure an individual’s ability to shift into a coherent, heart connected to mental state.
The country had been going through a moral leadership crisis. On almost every front political and religious leadership was being undermined by corruption and self‐enrichment, distorting the values of our society. As a Quaker who had the privilege of working alongside great leaders like Archbishop Desmond Tutu, it became clear to me that I had a responsibility to share my skills and not wait for someone else to come forward and get involved. Through the Peace Centre (a Quaker‐founded organization with historical links to Philadelphia Yearly Meeting), our Hilltop Empowerment Centre, and other organizations, the opportunity to mobilize with a renewed energy based on old‐style volunteerism had arrived.
The South African elections, amid clear tones of violent rhetoric, hate speech, and demonstrations, contributed to rising fear, anxiety, and hate, and created a very tense atmosphere. This scenario required the injection of a different spirit. Fortunately, civil society was still a real presence and benefited from the Quaker influence of “respecting that of God in every person.” This type of spirit was fundamental, given the incredible mix of religious beliefs brought together. This included the racial divide between Colored people (remnants of the aboriginal San communities) and Black communities in that part of the country. The traditional Colored people claimed that they were largely being ignored by the new administration despite the massive role they played in the fight against apartheid. Careful management and facilitation was needed so that Muslim, Christian, Black, and Colored volunteers could be blended through carefully selected training modules that encouraged respect and a nonviolent spirit.
The way the young and the elderly embraced this concept and spirit was, for me, one of the most important hallmarks of the whole event.
The way the young and the elderly embraced this concept and spirit was, for me, one of the most important hallmarks of the whole event. Black volunteers afterward said, “We always feared the Colored community next door because they had a reputation of being angry and influenced by gangsterism, but through this experience, we have a completely different understanding and enjoyed working together.”
First, we needed to get a buy‐in from local leaders and community members in Khayelitsha and Mitchell’s Plain to ensure a sense of ownership and a commitment to peaceful outcomes. This meant facilitating a representative network of police, community organizations, and churches, with a commitment to recruit and send volunteers to be trained as lead facilitators and peace monitors. A detailed analysis of the target communities was shared by the police, who painted a very grim picture of violence, gangsterism, and general insecurity in these Cape Town townships, which statistics indicate is the most dangerous city in the world.
Despite this, the spirit of the peace initiative touched a nerve and a need for leadership. Four hundred volunteers showed up at a call to action, despite fears of being shot at or insulted by their own community members. This was a challenge we were all prepared to face, and as a leader, I had to be in the forefront. One cannot ask others to risk if one is not prepared to risk oneself. This meant being visible on the ground, both during the training and on election day. The general coordination and facilitation of the event was left in the hands of a collaborative network of the Peace Centre, Hilltop Empowerment Centre, AFSC, and SADRA (Southern African Development and Reconstruction Agency, a community training NGO).
The community buy‐in was effective. There were two rigorous training phases: first, training 58 lead facilitators over five intensive days in a live‐in facility near Stellenbosch University, situated near a beautiful mountain backdrop; second, training 350 volunteer peace monitors selected from both target communities intensively over four days with a great emphasis on role plays and various forms of interactions with practical applications.
A further follow‐up training occurred to deal with the application of the communication app and the general communication management needed during election day. AFSC’s financial support was invaluable in making this possible. These trainings were a platform that set the tone and spirit of the entire program. It included elements of AVP (Alternatives to Violence Project); the Quaker Manual on Peace Education for dealing with actual violence; various intervention methodologies that strongly focus on personal empowerment; and HeartMath.
Election morning was cold and rainy, yet 300 volunteers showed up. The volunteers were full of excitement, purpose, and a strong sense of working together. This group cohesion was most evident at lunch. The meals that were prepared by the Muslims, having run into many logistical challenges, were late and completely vegetarian. This raised fears among many of the organizers that there would be a backlash. Yet, there were only expressions of gratitude.
The key to the success of the entire process was communication. Using an app developed by Swiss volunteers based in Zurich and linked to WhatsApp, volunteers and voting stations were connected together. The Swiss volunteers were able to map potential hotspots based on the information they received in real time. Robin provided the direct line of communication between monitors and the Swiss team, and sent notices directly to everyone in the field. The mapping process provided warnings for monitors and targeted interventions by our management teams who were in roving vehicles with two support communication centers. There was also a direct line to the police gang unit, as agreed upon during the stakeholder sessions.
The key to the success of the entire process was communication.
During all of this, there were reports of successful interventions when potentially violent tensions arose at some of the voting stations. At one point, random gunshots in Mitchell’s Plain resulted in the evacuation of volunteer monitors until police could declare the area safe. Peace monitors reported suspicious vehicles around voting stations and assaults of voters. At one station, state officials, alerted by the peace monitors, were required to stop the intimidation of voters by one of the political parties.
Amazingly all of these dramas only served to add to the heightened excitement, with volunteer comments such as “What drama!,” “How exciting!,” and “Please count me in for any other similar action!” There was a very positive response by the teams of volunteers.
Being part of the management support team with a focus on the personal development of the individual volunteers, I had the opportunity to enjoy close relationships, gain insights, and reach a deep understanding of the people we were tasked to assist. Behind many of the smiling faces lay a mix of pain, frustration, and even despair. Building hope and affirmation became a key task, tinged with empathy and careful nurturing.
HeartMath formed an important aspect of the entire training, which was focused on the personal empowerment of each group facilitator. It proved highly successful as the 58 lead facilitators were able to apply their new skills in helping train the 350 peace monitors. This was no easy task. The facilitators had to deal with extreme dynamics among the volunteers from varying backgrounds and experiences, some even coming from families of gangsters. They learned how to identify their own heart intelligence, intuition, and deeper calm from the HeartMath training they received. The spirit and energy they generated ultimately impacted all the volunteer peace monitors, resulting in a strong sense of group cohesion among all the volunteers on election day. These skills have even carried on in their personal lives after the elections.
Postscript from Rommel
The entire group originally thought that this was science fiction and not possible. After this experience, however, their confidence took a huge leap. Volunteers felt empowered, and a number started finding jobs. One volunteer from Mitchell’s Plain is currently a new manager at a top restaurant. That she had managed a team of volunteers during the tension‐filled elections and been exposed to HeartMath was the turning point in her interview for the job. At the time of writing, we’ve also learned that HeartMath will be sharing this story as a case study on averting violence at a workshop sponsored by the Division of Multilateral Diplomacy UNITAR (United Nations Institute for Training and Research).