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banner Monday, 12 November, 2001, 14:01 GMT
Quiz Joanna Thomas
Quiz Joanna Thomas
Joanna Thomas, a specialist in conflict resolution, set up a revolutionary course amongst the killers and rapists of South Africa's Pollsmoor Prison, in an attempt to teach them ways to avoid the violence they have lived with for a lifetime.

She took part in a live forum on 12th November.

To watch coverage of the forum, select the link below:

  56k  


Transcript of forum

Allan Little:
Good afternoon and welcome to this live webcast for the BBC's Correspondent. I'm joined by satellite from Philadelphia by Joanna Thomas who's pioneered the revolutionary Conflict Resolution Workshops, which we filmed in Cape Town's Pollsmoor Prison. In a follow-up film which we broadcast last night Correspondent followed two of the gang leaders who attended Joanna's course. They left prison and started on the very difficult road to rebuilding their lives free of crime on the outside.

Well Joanna welcome from Philadelphia.

Joanna Thomas:
Thank you Allan.

Allan Little:
In both films we saw you working very intimately, very courageously, with Mogamat Benjamin and Erefaan Jacobs, both of whom have terrible histories of violence and gaining their trust where, it has to be said, most other people completely failed. Do you really believe that men like Mogamat, who killed his father's lover at the age of nine, who claims to have eaten a man's heart, to have beheaded other prisoners in jail, can they really be changed by attending your course?

Joanna Thomas:
I have no doubt that men like Mogamat and Erefaan can be transformed but it will involve a lot of hard work and a real will on the part of community and society at large.

Allan Little:
What gives you the faith that they can be changed?

Joanna Thomas:
I believe that transformation is possible.

Allan Little:
Let me get on to some of the e-mails because we've had a flood of e-mails, as you can imagine, Joanna from the broadcast last night. And the first one here comes from Felicia Nebel who is a South African living in the United Kingdom and the same question from Christine Ferguson in Scotland and they both ask: can you update us now on how Mogamat and Erefaan are coping at the moment?

Joanna Thomas:
I spoke last with them on Friday. Both of them are doing exceptionally well. Mogamat has been clean for eight days now and ...

Allan Little:
Drugs you mean?

Joanna Thomas:
That's right, yes. And Erefaan just completed his life skills programme in the schools. As you know, our school system ends at the beginning of December so the learners are busy with examinations but he informed me that he already has his programme lined up for next year, he will focus on bullying in the schools.

Allan Little:
And Joanna given the way they were when we first met them, when we started the filming and you started your course with them, how much of an achievement does it represent for them to have been clean now for so long?

Joanna Thomas:
It's a dramatic achievement, unprecedented, certainly in their histories and also of gang leaders caught up in the things that they were caught up in.

Allan Little:
We've got one e-mail from a viewer in the United Kingdom who says: "How is Erefaan's tattoo removal programme going, have you got any update on that?"

Joanna Thomas:
Yes he told me on Friday that his face is clear, he will now be working on the rest of his body.

Allan Little:
That's great. Well Jo Harvey has e-mailed to write: "Am I being overly cynical, did the men receive any kind of perk for attending those workshops?"

Joanna Thomas:
I think the perk is their self esteem, their identity, the confidence and the knowledge that they can fulfil their purpose in life.

Allan Little:
So they weren't given any kind of privileges, prison privileges, it's simply attending the workshop is a reward in itself because it restores some of their dignity I suppose?

Joanna Thomas:
That's right. They've claimed respect by respecting themselves first.

Allan Little:
Jo Harvey, the same e-mailer, asks: "Has the culture of dialogue replaced that of torture and murder inside in prison? What has happened to levels of prisoner-on-prisoner violence in Pollsmoor since you started?"

Joanna Thomas:
It's dropped dramatically Allan. We saw the figures level out to on average one assault per month. Of course our target is to reach zero but that's quite a challenge in a prison that's chronically overcrowded, where the majority of the prisoners are members of both the prison gangs and outside gangs.

Allan Little:
Of course one of the things that didn't come across in last night's programme but which we focused on in the first programme was the extent of overcrowding, I mean there are something like 40 or 50 men to a single cell aren't there - that must put tremendous pressure on them does it?

Joanna Thomas:
Absolutely, it's the same at the moment. Just last weekend they had a raid on some of the townships to try and clean it up and well over 500 men were arrested. So it must be bursting at the seams.

Allan Little:
Indeed. And there's a question here from Nicholas Peletier, I hope I've pronounced that right, also from the United Kingdom and it's a personal question in a way, people are very struck by your own apparent courage in going about that business and he says: "You say you have no fear of these men, what shaped your thoughts and ideas to enable you to do this work?" Where does your motivation come from Joanna?

Joanna Thomas:
Well I wanted to contribute to reduce things - crime and violence - in the communities in Cape Town and I was looking for a point at which to intervene. Now of course the problem has to be tackled from many angles and at many levels and I thought this might help to work in the area with the gang leaders because they wield enormous power and influence and my rationale was that if I can win a few gang leaders then they in turn can speak to their own following.

Allan Little:
Indeed tell us a little bit about that gang structure because it's very tight, very disciplined, very well rooted in the prison culture. How difficult was it to persuade those gang leaders, even to talk about the gang culture, never mind try to embrace the idea of change?

Joanna Thomas:
The key strategy is to form relationships and so initially I was focused on forming trust, as you can imagine, suspicion is very high in a prison. And so there are various strategies to simply form relationships with the men step by step.

Allan Little:
Marina Ragunath also e-mailing from the United Kingdom says: "Were you never scared of the men at any time?" There must have been some frightening moments in there after all we heard in the first programme that one of them wanted to kill you.

Joanna Thomas:
Yes. No, Allan, I was never afraid. I'm sure people struggle with this but you can't go into a prison with fear because that will undermine your work from the start. The men will pick it up immediately, you know they suss you out, they read your body language and so I do a lot of self-preparation before I go into the prison to clear myself of negativity and just to ask God to fill me with compassion.

Allan Little:
And what about your feelings as a woman, Joanna? Jennifer from Scotland writes to say: "How do you, as a woman, feel dealing with men who have serially raped other women and in particular women inside their own families?"

Joanna Thomas:
Yes I think it's those very horrific acts, the increasing violation of women, that also motivates me to really establish relationships of trust and respect with the men, to challenge them about the ongoing violence perpetrated against women.

Allan Little:
And do you think you've succeeded in making them think about why they do it, about what it says about their relationships with women?

Joanna Thomas:
Well I'd like to have the viewers be the judge of that, Allan, they've seen two documentaries now.

Allan Little:
What do you think?

Joanna Thomas:
I've seen dramatic change, I've seen remarkable change that inspires me to proceed with this work.

Allan Little:
Let me ask you, we heard last night on the film Mogamat blaming apartheid for what has happened to him over the last 34 years, at least that was a very casual remark in it but his wife disagrees. To what extent do you think the gang system was a product of apartheid?

Joanna Thomas:
I don't think Ragmat disagrees, I think she's challenging Mogamat not to blame apartheid and to take personal responsibility. Apartheid had wide negative influences on our communities, I think we sit with the legacy of apartheid today but my challenge to the men is to take personal responsibility for changing their circumstances.

Allan Little:
That was very striking, Joanna, about your work, one of the things that you do is you - and I think we said this in the film last night - you see the connection between poverty, the poverty that is the legacy of apartheid, and crime but you don't seem willing to accept it as any kind of excuse or alibi, you want the men to take direct charge.

Joanna Thomas:
Yes, well I think we have no option. Government moves at its own pace and I don't need to criticise, we've seen a lot of amazing changes take place in our country but I think as human beings we can also play our part and this is my challenge to the men.

Allan Little:
We've got an e-mail here from Claudia Zylbersteyjn who reflects the views of quite a few people who e-mailed us, she says: "Was any work done to help the step-daughter who Mogamat raped?" This is Fuzlin as you'll remember. "What attention is paid to the victims of these men's crimes? Or are the victims just pushed to participate for the sake of the perpetrators themselves?" Do you think you're focusing too much on the perpetrators and not on the victims?

Joanna Thomas:
In the prison we've started assembling a family initiative because we recognise that the role of the family is critical in the transformation of the men but also the family themselves, they've suffered enormously and they too need support. In the case of Mogamat I would say that all the family members in his household can benefit from counselling and we have been working on enabling that for the members - as you saw in the documentary - we started with the family workshops and we hope to continue with that process.

Allan Little:
And Libby Crew also from the United Kingdom writes to say: "Is it fair on the families that they should be forced to live with men like Mogamat again, with the fear of potential violence they have to live with day in, day out?"

Joanna Thomas:
They have not been forced, they have chosen to accept Mogamat. I have great admiration for them, they're very resilient. They want it to work, they want to be a family, there's no force involved.

Allan Little:
Here's a question from a fellow professional, Joanna, Dr Mark Woodgate from St. Mary's Hospital in London has written to ask: "Can you explain a bit about the working theories that you use in your family workshop?" What is your own background - are you a psychologist, are you a doctor - what?

Joanna Thomas:
No, I have an undergraduate degree, I majored in psychology but beyond that I've learned from experience. I worked for 11 years at the Centre for Conflict Resolution and was exposed to many of the programmes as well as programmes from some other experts, one being the human dynamics work of Sandra Seagal and David Horne here in the United States and also the work of Peter Senge as well as action learning based on the work from local consultants.

Recommended books include "Human Dynamics" - Sandra Seagal and David Horne, ("The Fifth Discipline") - Peter Senge "Action Learning (for Development)"- local consultants (Alan Kaplan, James Taylor, Dirk Marais)

Allan Little:
So this is very much something that you've developed through hands-on experience?

Joanna Thomas:
That's right.

Allan Little:
Now when I was coming back from South Africa last time I bumped into some of your colleagues - Chris who's a prison officer who worked with you - there at the airport and he told me he was on his way to Denmark to take part in a workshop there. It seems now that South Africa having pioneered this is exporting it to other parts of the world. What are you doing in Philadelphia for example?

Joanna Thomas:
Well I was invited here by the Philadelphia Leadership Foundation to share some of my experience of the work done in Cape Town and I hope to be working with people, working in prisons, here in Philadelphia.

Allan Little:
Let me ask you this question, Gareth Parkes from the United Kingdom writes to say: "With rape and crime so prevalent in South Africa how can the limited support of people like yourself really make an impact?" Is there a sense in which the problem of crime is now so huge in South Africa that it's become so in-cultured in the community that it's really tilting at windmills, just rescuing a few people like Mogamat and Erefaan is not going to change the big picture?

Joanna Thomas:
We can't lose hope. I'd like to think that it's much more than rescuing a few people. If you take Mogamat he is a general in the 28s gang and in the American's gang - which is the largest gang in Cape Town. So with Mogamat embarking on a journey of transformation I believe that will pave the way for many of his followers in the gang structures.

Allan Little:
A lot of e-mails came in, Joanna, about that very thing, they saw Mogamat and Erefaan going back and being, in a sense, invited back into the criminal life by their old colleagues in the street gangs and of course the prison gangs - because they're quite separate as we explained in the film. What support can they be given to help them resist the call of their former criminal colleagues?

Joanna Thomas:
Yes the brotherhood is very strong and so the challenge is to enable them to form meaningful relationships outside of their gang network.

Allan Little:
Do you think they're going to make it - Mogamat and Erefaan?

Joanna Thomas:
I have no doubt Allan.

Allan Little:
Let me ask you this one last question Joanna. Helen House writes from the United States and she says that after watching the first programme, which we broadcast in the United Kingdom in April, she decided to change the direction of her own life and she says she'll be starting her first workshop in a United States prison in January. And she asks: "What is the one message you would like people to walk away with, having seen these two documentaries?"

Joanna Thomas:
Change begins with me.

Allan Little:
Just that? Just that one line "change begins with me"?

Joanna Thomas:
Yes. If I'm willing to transform myself then anything becomes possible. But the challenge is more to keep working on myself rather than expecting the change in others.

Allan Little:
Well that is something that we saw time and again which you persuaded your own prison students of and it seems an appropriate place to end today. Thank you very much for sending your e-mails in, they'll all be passed on to Joanna in Philadelphia. And than you very much to Joanna Thomas who, I can say from a personal point of view, whose work is tremendously inspiring and I've seldom, in all the years as a broadcaster, had such an overwhelming response as the response I had from those two - from participating in those two films with Joanna. For more information about the programme and to read a selection of these e-mails we've received on this subject please log on to Correspondent's website, it's www.bbc.co.uk/corresondent. Correspondent continues next Sunday with "Whose Life is it Anyway" - a report by Sue Lloyd Roberts about India's millions of working children. But from Joanna in Philadelphia and from me, here in London, goodbye for now.


If you would like to write to Joanna you can at:

Philadelphia Leadership Foundation
1700 Sansom Street, 11th Floor
Philadelphia, PA 19103
USA

You can also write to Erefaan and Mogamat at:

Erefaan Jacobs
39, 5th Street
Welcome Estate
7764 SOUTH AFRICA

Mogamat Benjamin
61 Assegaai Street
Bonteheuwel
7764 SOUTH AFRICA

The person co-ordinating support for Mogamat and his family is Stephen King, email: stephenk@sjc.org.za


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