PremRawat.com writer, Marcia Newman, speaks with Ernest Leketi, a passionate peace advocate and community activist. He is based in the Soweto township of Johannesburg, South Africa. The following interview took place via Zoom on October 9, 2023. The conversation follows Ernest’s younger self while being challenged by the inequity of apartheid, fighting underground for justice as a teenager, finding personal healing through the Peace Education Program and developing a unique relationship with Prem Rawat.
PremRawat.com: Hello Ernest! Wonderful to see you, again. Thank you for being available to talk, even with this nine-hour time difference between Los Angeles and Soweto. How are you doing?
Ernest Leketi: Thank you so much for the chance to have this conversation. I’m well and happy!
PremRawat.com: It’s been inspiring to watch and learn more of what is happening in South Africa. Your involvement with the Peace Education Program is clearly making a difference in these continued challenging times.
Ernest Leketi: We are getting there! As we speak, more Peace Education Programs are happening here. We will be wrapping those up by the end of this year, with a fresh start for new programs in 2024. Currently, we have courses happening in high schools and correctional centers and we’re empowering the staff and volunteers to facilitate courses. The Peace Education Programs are happening in four regions of Gauteng Province: Johannesburg, Ekurhuleni, Emfuleni, and West Rand.
We are also offering Peace Education Programs in other parts of South Africa, including Cape Flats. As you know, there is a lot of gang and criminal activity in Cape Flats, but a course has started there. I’m so humbled to witness lives changing in Cape Flats. There are more courses happening in that space made possible by dedicated community activists, ex-offenders, recovering addicts and a non-governmental organization.
Ernest with Peace Education Team at Sebokeng
PremRawat.com: How did it begin for you?
Ernest Leketi: This is my ninth year now being involved in the Peace Education Programs. I was first introduced to it in 2014 when I was invited to the Johannesburg Correctional Center. This is when I met two of the first volunteers, Gail De Jager and Anne Wolfson.
First, a little background. For my work, I provide Training and Development services as a moderator, assessor and facilitator. Previously, I had the opportunity to work for the City of Johannesburg with the Department of Social Development for nine years. It was a humbling experience and I learned a lot in that environment. To be honest, when I met the first two volunteers (Anne & Gail) at the correctional facility, I was really just looking for a program that could help me meet my work targets.
Immediately, I was touched by the introduction to the Peace Education Program. As I continued the course, it really helped me resolve some inner conflicts that I was still carrying. I was still very angry but I tried not to show it. It helped me to acknowledge these feelings and resolve much of that inner conflict. I thought if it helped me, it could help others.
So, we started a pilot course at the Youth Advisory Center in Soweto with approximately 50 young people. Parents started to see positive behavior changes in their children. The parents started asking “What is happening here?” We decided to extend the course to the parents and we haven’t stopped.
Ernest and Peace Education Team meeting with Prem in Soweto
PremRawat.com: Excellent! Would you be willing to share more about how it was for you growing up in South Africa and the conflicts you faced?
Ernest Leketi: I’m 48 years old now. In 1975, I was born and raised in Diepkloof Soweto township in the Gauteng province of South Africa. When I was in school, apartheid was at its peak. Even though it was very risky, in 1988 I began to be involved in activities to get rid of apartheid. I was 14 years old. There was so much social injustice and evil happening. Every week we were burying my peers and classmates. They were killed by police forces or gangsters. It was really tough for me. I would see and talk with them on a Friday and on Monday, I would find out that that person is no more.
There were a lot of scars made by the apartheid regime. However, after 1994, I started to participate in reconciliation and development activities. I wanted to help unite the South African people because the country was so divided. There was a lot of hatred. I continued to work as a community development activist. I was hired by the new South African government in the Department of Social Development as a Youth Development Specialist. In that position, one of my key performance indicators was to go out to communities and implement programs that reduce violent behaviors in youth. Another one of my key performance indicators was to integrate ex-offenders back into communities.
PremRawat.com: I can see how it came into your life at the right time. Yet, there have been so many scars from the violence and trauma of colonization. It must not have been easy to face your feelings of anger and revenge.
Ernest Leketi: It was not easy. Actually, I remember when President Nelson Mandela got out of prison and he called us to the soccer stadium. Some of us were wearing our school uniforms. Then Madiba (Father of our Nation) declared “Now it’s time for peace.” He then looked over at a group of us. We were young teenagers in our uniforms. Madiba continued to say “I see some of the learners are here. What do you want by being here? You should be in school. Now that I am out of jail, you should go back to school.”
I was so angry to hear this! My expectation was that Madiba [President Mandela] would give us military arms. Our youthful thinking was “Let us go and fight!” This is what we expected and wanted. With all the injustice, I couldn’t understand how President Mandela could talk about wanting peace and reconciliation. I couldn’t understand it then.
It really wasn’t until I was introduced to the Peace Education Program learning the difference between inner peace and outer social peace. It was only then that I could begin to understand and discover my own inner reconciliation.
Ernest and Peace Education Team meeting with Prem in Soweto
Watching the videos, I felt the presenter, Mr. Prem Rawat, was talking directly to me. When watching the module of Appreciation, I never appreciated being alive as I do today. Also, watching the module of Inner Strength, it really touched me because I had lost hope, as many in my community had. I had to forgive myself and forgive others, including those who did harm to us in their political positions.
At first, it was not easy for me to tap into peace. Eventually, I began to realize that the tools of the Peace Education Program were helping me to heal. If it was helping me, I knew it could help others in our South African communities. To move forward, I had to declare a new journey. I had to practicalize what I had learned. So, we began offering courses every Friday.
Thankfully, I’ve been able to apply various tools of the Peace Education Program into my personal life, family, work and community. It worked for me then, and it continues to help me.
PremRawat.com: Amazing. Speaking of family, would you be willing to share more about the family you were born into and the family you have created?
Ernest Leketi: My father passed on in 2007. My mother is still alive. I have two brothers and I am the youngest. I’m married with a wife and we have four children [wide smile]. I enjoy being a family-orientated person and being involved in my children’s lives. It’s important for me to stay connected to my mother and brothers.
During apartheid, my mother was one of the community leaders. She was a street committee member. I would see her going in and out of community meetings. My mother had influence on the political changes, but I also saw wrongs being done within the community. Like my mother, I thought that I, too, could be an agent of change and stop blaming other people.
I didn’t think my mother knew about my youth involvement with the anti-apartheid movement because I was underground then. However, shortly after the Democratic breakthrough in 1994, my mother and I were talking. Surprisingly, she disclosed more things including that she was very aware of my anti-apartheid activities. I really thought I was doing everything in secrecy. She knew! [laughing together]
Ernest with his Mother
Really, what I appreciate about both of my parents is the support they gave me. They gave me so much love. Financially, we were a poor family but my parents would still tithe. They taught me lots of things, especially about respect. They would say to me, “We are not only your parents but when you go out of the house and meet with elderly people, know that they are also your parents.”
PremRawat.com: Wow. How fortunate that your parents were able to guide you in showing such respect towards others, especially towards elders.
Ernest Leketi: In 2018, when I went to Australia [for Prem Rawat’s “Amaroo” events] for the first time, my mother said “Oh, I wish your father was still alive to see you being involved in this way.” Her words really touched me. Honestly, I felt a bit sad, too, since I was very close to my father. My mother, at 75 years old, has continued to be a pillar of strength and is so supportive. She has attended several live events with Prem Rawat in South Africa.
PremRawat.com: Thank you, Ernest, for sharing these tender memories. I’m sorry to hear about the loss of your father. How fortunate that you’ve experienced such love and support from both your parents. Clearly, you are carrying it forward.
Prem has repeatedly mentioned how much he enjoys his visits to South Africa. He also displays such a warm fondness and appreciation towards you. What has it been like for you to meet and know Prem? Can you share more about your experiences with his live events in South Africa?
Ernest with Prem Rawat at Cape Town Empowerment session
Ernest Leketi: It feels like a beautiful dream that is not ending. [bright smile] At times, I feel like pinching myself and asking “Is this really happening?” I’m just this young man from Soweto who gets to meet with Prem, a remarkable person who hosts these huge events and is respected internationally. I’m so humbled by this relationship.
We first met in 2014, along with the South Africa team. I was so amazed by Prem’s support. At one point, we even asked if he could visit South Africa twice a year and he responded positively. In 2018, I was able to ask and receive his gift of Knowledge.
Other people have asked me, “How do you feel when interacting with Prem?” I tell them that I am free when I’m next to him. I receive him as a friend. I take him as a father, mentor, coach and teacher because I’m still learning from Mr. Prem Rawat.
At times I ask myself, “What did I do to deserve this?” I remember the Soweto Event at the Regina Mundi Church and it was my birthday. Some of the volunteers got a cake and Prem said “We want to celebrate this birthday with you.” He was so relaxed and joking with everyone.
Ernest introducing Prem Rawat in Soweto
Honestly, I’m not doing what I do to impress him. This comes from my heart. This message of peace is especially important for those who have lost hope.
What I like most about Prem is that he is open to new ideas and he is a good listener. I’ve shared my frustrations with him and some new ideas of where to introduce the Peace Education Program. He replied, “Use what works for you and the team.”
PremRawat.com: Well, it’s working! The most recent event in Johannesburg (May 2023) was filled with 5,000 people. By the end of that South African tour, Prem had reached over 55,000 people through his live events and livestreams.
Can you share what is most challenging right now in helping with Prem’s message of peace? What would be helpful to you and the South African team?
Ernest Leketi: Overall, the first challenge is to maintain unity among the team. Of course, we are all individuals with unique and different perspectives. If there are major conflicts within the team, that’s when I have to intervene. We have to maintain being a united team.
Our second challenge is lack of resources. In South Africa, we have financial constraints in trying to reach more people. There is so much demand now. More and more South Africans are interested and ready to learn about peace education. Our local organization, African Choice Foundation, does receive support from The Prem Rawat Foundation (TPRF).
Our third challenge is wanting to bring it to all nine provinces in South Africa. We need more volunteers to help bring it into more communities and into additional correctional facilities.
Ernest meeting with Jake Frankel (Communications Director for TPRF) in Soweto
PremRawat.com: Thank you for being open about these challenges. Perhaps, after reading your interview, there will be more people who feel moved to help out. If so, I’ll provide more information for them at the end of this article.
Is there a particular memory that you have regarding your interactions with Prem Rawat?
Ernest Leketi: There are moments that I have engraved in my heart. In particular, it is those times when he would meet with us in a small intimate group, maybe six people in the room with him. I would share some challenges and his response gave me strength to keep helping in this way. I remember when we were in Zimbabwe, in that kind voice of his, Prem said to me “You are doing very well.”
More recently, we had two days of empowerment sessions and I was co-facilitating with Prem. Wow – I’m not going to forget that. He gave me feedback after the sessions. Prem said to me, “Ernest, you got it. Keep focused. I like your facilitation. So far, you guys are doing well.” These are some of the memories that I will always cherish. Prem’s words and support make me want to do more and more and more.
Ernest facilitating Empowerment session in Cape Town
PremRawat.com: Yes, indeed. Also, I wanted to mention that on Prem’s newer website, GrowWithKnowledge.com, two of your South African team members – Tumi Mahasha and Noma Dyasi – are featured in two very touching video clips. (See “Video Stories” tab).
Following the success of the Peace Education Program in South Africa, what is happening with PEAK (Peace Education and Knowledge)?
For newer readers, PEAK is a self-paced video course that Prem Rawat offers to help you gain a solid understanding of self-discovery and personal peace. At the conclusion of the course, you can request a workshop, called a “Knowledge Session,” where you learn the techniques of Self-Knowledge that Prem Rawat teaches. Practicing these empowering techniques daily helps to better understand your true self, revealing an ever-evolving experience of heartfulness and contentment. There is no charge to participate in PEAK or to learn the techniques.
Ernest Leketi: In 2020, Prem invited me to come to Barcelona, Spain. At that meeting, he asked me to assist him by overseeing the South African Development Community (SADC) as a regional manager. At that time, I also asked him about offering PEAK courses in a group format, as we do with the Peace Education Program courses. I shared with him that it is difficult for many South Africans to watch PEAK materials online because of limited access to a personal computer. By the time I left Barcelona, I was given a memory stick of the PEAK materials. Prem stated “take care of this.”
I was able to facilitate a few Knowledge Sessions with groups before the pandemic fully landed. We started rolling out PEAK classes again in 2021 and have continued to do so. We offer the PEAK classes in multiple places: Community Centers, Youth Centers, Homeless Facilities and Rehabilitation Centers.
Honestly, I never thought it would receive such a warm reception as it has. In my own limited thinking, I thought, “Well, maybe only 5% who are watching these PEAK classes in a group setting will ask for Knowledge.” I was proven wrong. Over 95% and closer to 99% end up asking for a Knowledge Session.
A few weeks back, we had back-to-back Knowledge Sessions with 50 people in each session. More resources are needed to keep up with the demand. Can you imagine if there were more resources to reach more people, what would be possible in South Africa?
We are working with the international Knowledge Session team. For example, with a PEAK group of 30 interested people, we have looked at what it would cost from their first introduction of PEAK to the full process of being able to ask and receive a Knowledge Session. We’ve done our homework calculating costs and have submitted a budget, with the hope of securing more funding.
PremRawat.com: One last question. You’ve talked about the importance of team unity. How many volunteers in South Africa are currently helping to facilitate the Peace Education Program, PEAK (Peace Education and Knowledge) and live events with Prem?
Ernest Leketi: I can safely say there are 18-25 facilitators in South Africa who are helping out in this way. We have a core team of approximately 12 people that are consistently working together to help train more volunteers.
PremRawat.com: It’s remarkable what you’re all doing! As Prem shared in Australia Amaroo, “People’s lives being transformed is no trivial matter.” Keeping one’s own candle lit on these windy days is no trivial matter, either. Yet, here you are brightly shining and ready to help light many more candles. Ernest, your heartfelt enthusiasm and efforts are so appreciated. Thank you for your time and what you’ve personally shared.
If you are interested in supporting the Peace Education Program and PEAK (Peace Education and Knowledge) in South Africa, contributions can be made through TPRF.org.
The lead photo of Ernest Leketi was taken during an Empowerment Session in Cape Town.