The spirit of the National Peace Accord: The past and future of conflict resolution in South Africa

  • D Olukotun


This article seeks to examine the evolution of the conflict resolution community in South Africa through a combination of history and policy analysis. Each section roughly corresponds to the past and future of conflict resolution in the country. The connection between these sections is at times causal – in the sense that some events directly shaped the next – but more often thematic – meaning that certain trends may be traced throughout the evolution of the community. Consultation with more than ten conflict resolution organisations and interviews with over twenty leading practitioners offer valuable insights to the investigation. The article begins with an analysis of the rise and fall of the National Peace Accord. The study demonstrates that government endorsement of the Accord did not detract from the ability of the peace committees to furnish the nation with a reservoir of practical conflict resolution skills. Communication, aided in part by the South African Council of Churches, helped avert violence and steer the country clear of civil war. Peace work was more successful when national, regional, and local levels were coordinated. At the same time, the Accord’s attempt to resolve greater structural inequalities in its peacebuilding initiatives fell short of its goals. The business community enjoyed managing the process, but offered little in terms of actual resources and training as it high-tailed it ‘back to the balance sheets’.1 The second section of the article analyses the work of the South African Law Commission’s Project 94. This project would mark a shift to the spirit of the National Peace Accord by wedding local conflict resolution mechanisms to the state. The places to which people already go to resolve conflicts – the ‘other law’ – have been providing justice to South Africans for decades. But recognition of these ordering mechanisms is itself beset with difficulties. The ‘other law’ is pluralistic in nature, making it difficult to make naturally subversive and organic entities conform to the formal justice system. The state is under-resourced, but seems wary of granting too much power to unpredictable dispute resolution structures. Guidelines may provide some certainty, but this does not disguise the uncertainty of the political process itself – the Draft Bill may disappear once it enters the legislature. This political reality is compounded by the fact that the Draft Bill itself permits either the government or community dispute resolution
structures to end their liaison at any time, undermining commitment. The creation of a new National Peace Accord therefore appears unlikely in the short term. The hope is that the reader will leave with a better understanding of the conflict resolution community and of the complexity of issues facing South Africa today. If nothing else, South Africa’s unbridled forays into conflict resolution will be revealed as undeniably inspiring.

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eISSN: 1562-6997