Rommel Roberts

Ashoka Fellow
Illustration of a person's face depicting a fellow
South Africa
Fellow since 1998
Individual South Africa
This description of Rommel Roberts's work was prepared when Rommel Roberts was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 1998 .


Having played a key role in the movement to bring justice and democracy to South Africa, Rommel Roberts has taken on one of the greatest challenges South Africa can offer a social entrepreneur: to bring it peace and safety to its urban centers.

The New Idea

While post-apartheid South Africa has seen escalating crime and violence in major urban areas such as Cape Town, community responses have been fragmented. Citizen patrols have been established on an ad hoc basis, but most do not function in sustained or disciplined fashion. The police lack sufficient resources to respond and are frequently the target of corrupting bribes. Other citizen’s associations, not knowing where to start, have stayed mainly on the sidelines. In the meantime, social conditions have deteriorated, talented professionals are fleeing urban centers, and city services are strained to the breaking point.

Rommel Roberts believes that the situation can turn around if only peacekeepers can harness some of the cohesive residual energy of the anti-apartheid struggle. New institutions need to be invented and supported, both at the neighborhood and city-wide level. New programs need to be put in place and targeted at youth. Civic groups and business have to make peace and safety their first priority. All of these are possible with resourceful planning and broad solidarity, and Rommel is working to enact both. He is building a strong coalition of government, business, and NGO contingents, harnessing the moral authority of the church.

The Problem

A city in which violence is the routine too often becomes a city sealed off into its component parts, unwilling and unable to communicate across racial, social and economic lines. Cape Town has moved in this direction quite sharply in the last several years.

Cape Town was deeply affected by the 1994 elections, which created serious divisions along cultural and racial lines. The fact that Africans supported the African National Congress and the Asian and Coloured communities supported the National Party helped fuel mutual resentment. This racial division has been the specific focus of a recent “One City” campaign, which is designed to cross cultural barriers and ease the existing tension between groups. But the city remains violent, and recent killings of refugees from Nigeria and Angola demonstrate an ethnic xenophobia that seems stronger now than ever.

Cape Town is currently a mixture of large numbers of West African refugees as well as large communities with Asian backgrounds and culture. This division, as well as the division between Christians and Muslims, is reflected in gang activity, and translates into visible and violent conflict. Cape Town is now regarded as one of the crime capitals of the world. The United Nations has singled it out as such and accorded it “Special Safer Cities Program Status.”

In the midst of this turmoil, South Africa is a young democratic society working to codify a judicial system respectful of human rights and due process. In mounting a coordinated effort to reverse the current social climate, it is critically important to strike a reasonable balance between legality and zeal.

The Strategy

Rommel is acutely aware of the need to integrate community involvement in restoring peace and stability to Cape Town with the formal, legal sectors of society. Key role players in this integration are the South African Police Services (SAPS), local government, councils, local businesses and non-profits, and religious institutions.

The Justice system has introduced legislation allowing the creation of “People’s Courts”, as opposed to the violent “kangaroo courts” that existed during the 1980’s. These courts will have statutory links and controls that will be monitored by the Justice Department.

Organized community tasks and court committees will also be linked to ensure that there is effective communication between the SAPS and the community. These linkages will hold stakeholders accountable for what they do. This is particularly important given the failure of the Community Police Forum in the townships in Cape Town. If the relationship between the SAPS and the community is built on trust and cooperation, effective community policing will be the first line of defense or proactive action with the SAPS being the last resort. Linkages with organizations like the Community Mediators Association for training of community mediators also ensures that more people in the community acquire skills and deepen their understanding of how to deal with anti social behavior.

These linkages between key stakeholders, saturating the communities with mediation, negotiation, and conflict management skills, are aimed at preventing the community groups from becoming thugs or vigilante groups. The link with religious communities is equally important. These institutions command enormous authority and respect and act as a unifying symbol, particularly during times of conflict. However, their credibility also represents a risk. Because the program is attractive the temptation may be grow and spread too quickly. Sustainable growth will involve careful training of key leaders in the community, and gradual expansion of their networks of support.

The pilot program will be launched in three areas: Crossroads, Nyanga and Mannenberg—all characterized by a high level of conflict and violence. There is also a natural link between these three areas and the Eastern Cape. Cape Town and the Eastern Cape have always been linked, historically and in particular during the resistance to the Pass Laws with the communities being harassed, and deported from Cape Town to the Eastern Cape. The methodology employed in the Pass Laws campaigns to support those who resisted deportation will be adapted and employed for the Peace Plan Initiative. A great deal of the supporting organization already exists because many who were involved in the resistance campaign will be involved in this initiative.

The city councils have indicated support for the initiative and have agreed to redirect existing resources to the program. The Special Safer Cities status will also channel funding and support directly from the United Nations.

The Person

Rommel, a social activist who graduated from the Catholic Theological College in Cedara, Natal, has spent his entire adult life fighting injustice. He was greatly influenced by his mother who was socially aware and who had a long involvement in transforming the health sector.

He worked closely with Archbishop Desmond Tutu during the time of massive internal resettlements and organized many of the mass meetings for him to publicize the resettlement program. His fast in the St George's Cathedral against resettlements and the Pass Laws resulted in the government calling a moratorium on the implementation of the Pass Laws in 1984. He trained and coordinated over 1000 volunteers in different risk categories and organized numerous mass actions involving many diverse communities.

He organized three major Cape Town Community Trade Fairs for the Muslim Assembly and Mannenberg Township which drew crowds of 250,000 people over a period of several days. In between these activities, he drove the Quaker ambulance into the Township war zones to rescue wounded for clandestine treatment. He was detained in 1978.

He has published numerous publications on shelter and resettlement and has a long and abiding interest in cooperatives.