Small NGO with big clout tackles new challenges

2009-10-14 00:00

FOR a small organisation, the Pietermaritzburg Agency for Christian Social Awareness (Pacsa) has a big footprint. In the 30 years since its founding, it has helped save scores of lives, improve the lives of hundreds of others and inspired hundreds more to change their own lives for the better.

Pacsa was founded by the late Peter Kerchhoff­, who left his job as an industrial chemist with the Huletts ­Aluminium factory to establish what was to become an important centre for resistance to apartheid after the Soweto Uprising of June 16, 1976. The handful of volunteers who joined him saw their mission as being to create opportunities in Pietermaritzburg for white Christians to collate and to disseminate information on vital­ issues … and to support people in non-violent resistance to oppressive discriminatory structures, according to a circular in November 1978.

That commitment soon took on controversial forms in response to the rising tide of oppression: the cruelty of forced removals of about 40 000 people who had been dumped in remote and inhospitable wastelands in rural Natal from 1970 to 1979; the mounting wave of attacks by vigilantes and police in Mpophomeni in the wake of the 1985 strike by workers at the Sarmcol rubber factory in Howick; the killing in 1988 by New Hanover police of 11 people in the Trust Feed community; the Seven Day War in the Edendale Valley in March 1990 in which more than 100 people were killed, and about 20 000 people who fled their homes. Pacsa offices became a crisis centre for victims and their families.

The political violence between 1985 and 1994, which involved Inkatha, the United Democratic Front and the security forces, killed as many as one in every 100 people in greater Pietermaritzburg.

Monika Wittenberg, a former Pacsa staff member, says: “At times, during early 1986, Pacsa looked more like a first aid station than a resource centre or offices. Youths with stab wounds, slash wounds and of course bullet wounds came running straight to Pacsa­ to report the matter.”

Kerchhoff photographed and recorded all the details. As the oppression took hold on South Africa, writer Christopher Merrett says: “Pacsa became known to the police as a haven for those being persecuted by the state and a place where information was collected about human rights violations.”

On June 12, 1986, Kerchhoff was detained for 96 days, 32 of them in solitary confinement, but no case was brought against him. During those dark days, one of the darkest for Pacsa­ was the assassination in February­ 1992 of one of its most active­ community workers, peace monitor S’khumbuzo Ngwenya Mbatha­ (after whom Slangspruit Road was renamed).

With the transition to democracy in 1994, Pacsa saw its mission as being to engage in the healing and rebuilding of society. It ran a successful programme of voter education that took in far-flung rural communities in the midlands ahead of the April 27 election. It took part in the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and turned its attention to a gender project to address the high levels of violence against women and children, the spread of HIV and Aids and the empowerment of poor communities through economic literacy training. It took a more critical stance towards the government as its focus shifted towards poverty and unemployment, land distribution, flaws in the education­ system and the need for a deeper understanding of democracy. By that time, Pacsa was no longer a volunteer organisation. It had a staff of nine, which was to double by 2002 when it moved into its new offices in a modest house at 170 Hoosen Haffejee (Berg) Street.

In July 1999, Kerchhoff died after a motor accident. The leadership crisis that resulted brought the end of an era and saw Pacsa expand its programmes to include conflict transformation, especially among the youth, and poverty and economic justice.

Today, Pacsa’s staff of 24 directly affect the lives of at least 6 000 people in the city and the midlands. Its influence, spread through churches, youth groups and local community organisations, is felt among at least a third of the 995 300 people living in uMgungundlovu District. More than ever, its beneficiaries are people living with HIV/ Aids, victims of gender violence and xenophobia, and the poor.

Food security among the households in peri-urban communities around Pietermaritzburg comes especially high on Pacsa’s agenda — with good reason. Ninety-two percent of poor urban households in Msunduzi­ District suffer food insecurity, compared with 42% in Johannesburg and 80% in Cape Town, according to the findings of an African Food Security Urban network baseline survey presented at a conference in Johannesburg­ in June. Pietermaritzburg was found to be the fifth poorest of the 11 cities in southern Africa in the study, which surveyed more than 6 500 households.

Little wonder that poverty and inequality are seen as the new apartheid.

Looking back over the 30 years of Pacsa­’s founding, director Daniela Gennrich says: “Acting with the marginalised, asking questions about justice and what God expects of us, is no different from what the founders of Pacsa felt called to do … Pacsa began 30 years ago deeply conscious of entrenched inequality … then it was entrenched through a racially ordered society. Inequality persists today. Now it is not so clearly linked with race. But its consequences — the dehumanisation of the many and the super-privileging of the few — remain the same.” • Pacsa is celebrating its 30th anniversary today with the launch of a commemorative book, Journeying for Justice: Stories of An Ongoing Faith-based Strugg le, at the Pietermaritzburg City Hall at 2 pm.

The book  will  be  sold  at   the   launch for   R150,   and   is   thereafter   it   will   be available at R180 from Pacsa at 033 342 0052 or from Cluster Publications at 033 345 9897.

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