If the recent systematic and ongoing violence does not mobilise all who live inside our borders to do something radically different, nothing will.
Not even the fact that South Africa was once the shining example of preventive action (through the National Peace Accord structures when we successfully navigated the path away from a threatening civil war towards peaceful elections); nor resolutions by the AU (African Heads of States vowed in 2002 to establish by 2004 National Institutions for Prevention and Management of Conflict and 13 years later only Ghana, Kenya and South Sudan have heeded the call of the African Heads of State); nor the Marikana massacre or Andries Tatan’s death; nor the horrific gender-based violence; nor gang and drug-related violence; nor the SONA-related tensions and violence, nor all the evidence from research that peace should be built by those who are affected by the conflict; and certainly not even the National Development Plan and Government’s efforts to build social cohesion prompted us to radically rethink the way we approach conflict and violence in the country.
We cannot waste a good crisis. Systematic and ongoing violence forces us to ask ourselves tough questions: Why does it happen? How are all of us contributing to a system that allows violence to flourish almost unabatedly? How do we collectively make sure that violence is prevented in the first place? How do we heal from our wounds?
There are indeed signs that government and citizens are waking up. The #WeAreAfrican and “We are One Humanity” awareness campaigns, the AHA! movement, marches and practical help offered by ordinary citizens are timely, if not too late. But these campaigns are not sustainable. They will inevitably lose steam as time goes by.
Police Minister Nathi Nhleko's call, for a “national dialogue on the prevalence and patterns of violence in society” is an important initiative. The fact that “Government is turning its attention to a long term and sustainable intervention that would address the underlying mindsets that motivated these attacks in the first place,” is even better news. He is absolutely spot on when he says that “it is imperative that the root cause should be addressed” and that “mindsets (should) be transformed for long term peace and stability”. (SABC, 19 April 2015).
But government is only one stakeholder in the drama that is currently unfolding in South Africa. Building peace is everybody’s responsibility. To get to the systemic root causes of destructive conflict we need creative and brave solutions, such as a mechanism—maybe even a Chapter 9 institution—for dialogue, mediation and conflict transformation. (See also my previous posts here and here.)
When Ghana, for example, faced massive challenges as a result of deep-rooted identity and election-related violent conflict, it established an independent state mechanism, the Ghana National Peace Council (NPC), to facilitate the prevention of conflicts. The statutory mandate of the NPC is “to facilitate and develop mechanisms for conflict prevention, management, resolution and to build sustainable peace in the country.” The NPC aims to “promote the values of reconciliation, tolerance, trust and confidence building, mediation and dialogue as responses to conflict”. Every region in Ghana has an NPC office and staff who are skilled in facilitation, dialogue and mediation.
So, imagine where South Africa could have been had we not dissolved the National Peace Accord structures. We lost the habit of dialogue and mediation. We lost a well-developed infrastructure for peace when offices were closed, staff retrenched, telephones and vehicles suddenly were withdrawn. There was no place, no mechanism, no professional conflict resolution practitioners to help us solve our problems.
Putting out fires, clamping down on “criminals”, tighter border control and occasional campaigns will not be enough. Let us, like before, get together to design a comprehensive and long-lasting response in the form of an equivalent of the Ghana NPC: A national peace mechanism, led by credible civil society commissioners whose task it is to get the country talking and listening to the heartbeat of the nation in every corner of our country.
Our Chapter 9 institutions are already doing a great job of making sure our constitutional values are upheld, but no-one on its own can deal with the wide ranging issues of social and political tensions and violence. Our country will benefit from such a mechanism in the following ways:
- Ordinary citizens will have access to regional and local spaces and expertise available to help them solve the challenges nonviolently through dialogue, mediation and collaboration
- Reliable information and high quality inputs from citizens can better inform governance policies and actions because a citizen’s agenda is developed from the bottom up.
- People’s views and dreams about a more just and equal society will continue to grow into a vision that calls us all into action.
- Powerful stakeholders, such as government, business, trade unions and interest groups, will participate on equal footing with ordinary citizens in spaces where decisions are not made by the majority, but on the basis of common understanding and joint commitment.
- Political contestation will hopefully tempered, because the struggle for power and votes is now supplemented by joint encounters of inquiry, listening and joint action.
- We can once again develop the habit of dialogue, mediation and facilitation as the default response to problems, provided that the mechanism stays free from any party-political interference and the paralysis of non-action.
- There will be greater accountability because a national mandate will ensure that stakeholders commit themselves to the ground rules of such a mechanism.
- Societal conflict resolution and the pursuit of peace with justice and justness will remain a primary focus for decades to come.
- Key stakeholders and sector can collectively build and align their actions and policies around a system of governance and cohesion that affirms dignity for all will have to be aligned.
- The creativity and brilliance of our people will be unleashed like before when everybody thought we were doomed and we showed them we are resilient, creative and peaceful.
- This mechanism will serve as a safety valve to counter eruptions of frustrations and violence.
Everything counts in our favour: The time is ripe; momentum is growing; we (still) have an institutional memory of times when we were successful; the AU’s resolutions are paving the way; we have good examples from Ghana, Kenya and the new Zimbabwean constitution; and we have brilliant peacebuilders in our country and African peacebuilding practitioners who are ready to help.
All we need is the political will and popular support to build a sustainable vehicle for peacebuilding. We can do it, but will we?
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