SGI Quarterly

Issue 66 | October 2011

Building Peaceful Communities | Sarah Motha

  • Human rights education

Sarah Motha is the founder of two pioneering human rights education initiatives in South Africa; the Human Rights Education Centre and the Umphakatsi Peace Ecovillage. Find out more about the peace clubs.

My interest in human rights stems from my experiences of grappling with the social and political issues in the village I lived in during the 1990s near the South African borders with Mozambique and Swaziland. The familiar challenges of crime, poverty, unemployment and disease faced by the community were complicated further by the position of migrants, especially women, crossing the border in search of a better life. In their vulnerability caused by civil war and economic destitution, they became targets of crime and discrimination.

In 2002, I began studying International Human Rights Law at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. After completing my degree, I worked as a researcher and Human Rights Education (HRE) officer for Amnesty International before deciding to venture into grassroots peace education to enable ordinarily vulnerable groups to access justice, human dignity and equality. I have since set up two organizations, the Human Rights Education Centre (HREC) and Umphakatsi (meaning “community”) Peace Ecovillage in a rural area of Mpumalanga Province.

While at university I discovered Nichiren Buddhism and the SGI, and found in them the philosophy and social movement I had been searching for; it grounded my work in a bigger vision of peace, in an emotional and spiritual and not only intellectual sense. This has become a driving force in my work.


Launch of peace clubs in Ngilandi High School. [Photo credit: Sarah Motha]

The Root Cause

In 2010, the Human Rights Education Centre received requests to work with young learners at a number of schools that were experiencing behavioral challenges ranging from smoking, bullying, experimenting with drugs and lack of discipline to teenage pregnancy. At the same time, we began having dialogues with 45 groups of unemployed young people in Mpumalanga who were practicing cultural activities such as music and traditional dance in an effort to battle the complex challenges of HIV and AIDS, crime and poverty and the psychological stresses of these that afflict these communities. Peace clubs are an initiative developed to respond to these multiple challenges. The clubs are based on a concept of creating just, peaceful and sustainable communities in a holistic manner where youth and children are empowered.

This process begins with listening. Where there are existing groups, we build on these. In the schools, away from teacher involvement, learners form groups of about five or so and are asked to identify and role-play the key issues as they understand them using drama, poetry or other means. Issues identified by each group in this way might range from learners talking disruptively in class, to hunger, to teenage pregnancy.

The next step is to ask what is the root cause of the problem. We hear, for example, from the group that identifies disruptive students as the issue, about students who have no interest in learning but come to school only to get food rations, as there is no food at home. From the group identifying pregnancy as the issue, we hear that some male students come to school in order to find wives and have children so that they can get the meager social grant provided by the government.


Young peace club members, who are mostly orphans, involved in an organic orchard project at the ecovillage. [Photo credit: Sarah Motha]

Part of the broader social context of these problems is indicated by a study conducted in one of the schools which revealed that 87 percent of the children have lost at least one parent due to HIV and AIDS. Many of the youths live without parents, by themselves or with a grandparent.

The groups then discuss solutions to their problems based on their particular interests. These may include starting a vegetable garden, raising goats for sale, starting an income-generating recycling project (which in turn motivates other students to recycle), creating a performing arts group. The groups identify a teacher or member of the community with the relevant knowledge who can act as a mentor.

A program of regular group meetings is established for the purpose of reflection and ongoing dialogue. Through these meetings, the club members rotate tasks and responsibilities and learn communication, coordination and organizational skills. The clubs learn to manage finances and are encouraged to exchange surpluses with other clubs.

The youth are also invited to visit the ecovillage, where they can see the principles of sustainability in practice and interact with and learn life skills from volunteers from different countries and cultures.


An HREC volunteer (left) with peace club members visiting the ecovillage. [Photo credit: Sarah Motha]


Key objectives of the peace clubs are transformation and healing. We recognize that underlying the challenges of African youth today is the fact that they are part of a society that has suffered multiple wounds due to exploitation, conflict, lack of education, colonialism and war. The psychological and emotional scars related to these factors are by and large not addressed in a systematic manner by our institutions.

When young people are able to read, question and engage in ongoing dialogue about why there is poverty, violence, HIV and AIDS in their communities, solutions will be found. Why is there such a lack of learning centers and sports facilities in our communities? Why is agriculture not a valued profession? Why are children pinched, caned and slapped by teachers and parents in a country that has outlawed corporal punishment? In our analysis, the trauma and violence continues to be transferred from generation to generation.

The peace club model is based in a search for a deeper analysis of social problems, and a consciousness of the law of cause and effect. It is based on listening to problems and together finding a solution. There are no “experts” but a sharing of knowledge and skills, with ongoing reflection and action.

Because respect for human rights is based on acceptance of differences, a significant focus in the youth peace clubs is multicultural education, social cohesion and pluralism, entrenching the value of respect for diversity. Using the South African constitution and international Human Rights instruments, youth engage in dialogue about the theory and practice for inner peace, coexistence, and allowing diversity of culture, backgrounds, sexual orientation, languages, appearance and religion to flourish.

I work in collaboration with the Department of Education whenever possible, which has committed to infuse human rights education within the school curriculum. In April 2010, they attended a human rights education dialogue that saw the formation of five peace clubs in Ngilandi High School.

The Human Rights Education Centre has a policy of recruiting staff from different cultures in order to encourage the experience of diversity and mutual sharing and learning. Diversity in all aspects is viewed as a strength rather than a point of conflict.

Highlights of Our Achievements

In 2009, the Council of Europe invited the center to give a presentation on community-based approaches to human rights education.

We received a grant from the Foundation for Human Rights to host national women’s rights awareness in rural villages of Mpumalanga in collaboration with Community Healing Network.

I was invited in November 2010 by the University of Western Sydney to give a keynote address at an International HRE conference on how human rights education contributes to intercultural dialogue and peace.

Peace clubs are flourishing in Mpumalanga, where teachers reported more cooperation and a sense of peacefulness in the classrooms, while the unemployed young people are making a living from staging live music and dance performances.