5 min read
06 Dec

What causes and drives the cyclical and destructive conflicts in South Africa, what are the consequences of that conflict and how do we break those cycles? From manifestations such as the July riots to political dysfunction, land occupations to truck blockades and Eskom sabotage, we need a better understanding of the causes and triggers of these destructive conflict events. 

The field of conflict resolution studies and practice has, in recent decades, moved from viewing social conflicts as interest based clashes, to conflicts based on identity, and in recent years as recognizing the important role of structures in intergroup conflict and violence. The idea underlying this development is that certain conflicts (including violence) are not only the result of the more commonly and easily understood causes of conflict, such as prejudice, selfishness, misunderstandings or poor communication skills, but also the products of social systems that reproduce them as part of their normal operations. We will look at how this important concept plays out in South Africa, why we are getting the resolution of the problem wrong and some ideas on how to improve the situation.

Without accurately understanding and identifying these causes we cannot meaningfully address and resolve conflicts that by now seem intractable, except through the blunt tools of increased threats of organizational force, political culture wars and so on, which are in themselves part of the cyclical nature of these conflicts. It is at this juncture where conventional conflict resolution tools simply do not work optimally, and where government and others involved in the resolution process need to have additional knowledge and tools. Parties involved in such conflicts will hardly be persuaded to change these conflict cycles by requests for them to engage in reasonable dialogue. At this level we are dealing with complex, radical conflict, not ordinary disagreements that can be addressed by working with facts, values and emotions. These are conflicts of belief, of perspectives and where it is essential to understand that there is an important and very real breakdown of the distinction between facts, values and emotions. Once we are dealing with structural conflicts different approaches and solutions are necessary.


Our structural conflicts in South Africa are remarkably pervasive. From compromised political parties and individuals, public utilities, government departments involved in justice, law and order and general service delivery, municipalities and private workplaces we have a long list of instances where these organizations and social systems at times in themselves generate and perpetuate conflict. In continuing to address the parties and individuals involved only, we keep on dealing with the symptoms of the conflict, never getting to the root cause, and in a meaningful way actually contribute to the cyclical nature of the conflict, increasing despair, distrust and frustration along the way. Our political environment itself is probably the best example of such a structural institution that creates destructive conflict, closely followed by the factionalism and corrupt “competition” that is showing us daily examples of these toxic conflicts. Any national solution will of course also need to look at how our economic system itself, and some of our workplaces, are examples of such structural conflicts.

The abandonment of apartheid has of course led to a partially altered social system. Despite these changes some of our social systems remain highly structured and inegalitarian, producing conflict on an ongoing basis.  Poverty and inequality becomes structural obstacles in their own way, further entrenching and complicating any efforts at resolution and progress. When these structures and systems fail to meet basic human needs, as South Africans experience daily, structural conflict is created directly and indirectly – directly when social classes struggle for political and economic supremacy, and indirectly when frustrated people conditioned to think of themselves in racial / ethnic terms start holding other identity groups liable for their problems, and target them for punishment. The old system, and its challengers, then start feeding these conflict cycles. This is of course a large part of the challenge in dismantling these structural conflict systems – the vested interests of those that benefit from those systems remaining operational. How then do we bring about these socio-economic changes that are efficient, radical and non-violent?

Before we consider some practical measures to reduce or remove such structural conflicts, we need to pause and also examine whether the government is not only a party to these conflicts, but also the primary manager of such a conflict creating system. How does that change our pragmatic approach? How do we influence the revolution / reform dichotomy towards peaceful but effective transformation? Here, especially in the social dynamic of South Africa, an interesting balance has developed. Should we expect government to play an active, even leading role in such dismantling and reform, or should that be community driven? To what extent can society itself successfully drive such a process? Local and international case studies show repeatedly that government should be employed as a partner in such initiatives, but that communities are generally reliant on their own progress.

As far as government’s own involvement is concerned, the traditional democratic tools such as community engagement and voting remain persuasive, if limited, forces. In the restricted way that this can be possible, such structural conflict generators should be dismantled or staffed differently. Rewards for dysfunctional and corrupt practices should be removed at source, and a culture of adverse consequences for failed and corrupt leadership should be established. Historical examples and case studies show how these structural systems often brutalize all involved in them, and so they will need to either be radically transformed or done away with.

To what extent can we as communities and individuals drive and influence these transformations of structural conflict systems?  People will join in the building of more just social systems only if they believe that there are in fact such systems, and that these measures will solve their problems. To this end there is an important education process that lies ahead. Conflict resolution practitioners, academics, community leaders and politicians can start to discuss and shape such processes. A multi-disciplinary discussion and implementation of tailor-made South African solutions can be engineered and rolled out. Small, local successes will create confidence and trust for larger projects. History teaches us that understandable public scepticism can change in a relatively short period of time. Imaginative responses can be crafted, and decision-making could, in such systems, be decentralized and returned to the conflicting parties.

The discipline of conflict resolution itself could make immediate and ongoing academic and practical recommendations benefiting such communities, and here facilitated processes could prove to be invaluable. International experience and best practices give us plenty to work with. Established conflict resolution processes can, in appropriate circumstances, replace or supplement the functions of courts and power based negotiations. Decision making systems, legal and political, can be created and scarce resources pooled or shared.  The formalistic and coercive rule by elites, where dysfunctional or ineffective, can be watered down or replaced by these community-built solutions.

Some of these structures can be transformed by suitably skilled individuals or organizations inviting conflicting parties to social-constitutional dialogues on where the older systems were dysfunctional and how new systems and solutions can be created and implemented. Once community momentum has been gathered behind such projects those with entrenched rights will be hard-pressed to oppose them. Participatory processes already form part of the South African cultural fabric, it must simply be implemented correctly and shown to be a viable, preferable alternative.

Once we understand that a significant amount of the socio-economic conflict that we experience, and run the risk of experiencing, is caused not primarily by individuals but by the institutions and structures linked to those conflicts, it follows that we need to urgently deal with this ongoing source of conflict. We have briefly looked at a few practical measures that can start this process. While transforming the sources of such cyclical (and by now generational) conflicts would seem to be more important than any financial objections, these measures need not be expensive or resource intensive.

These structural conflicts cannot “self-correct”, they will not be resolved by the very arguments that keep them thriving an in place. The people and organizations that benefit from such structural conflicts will not participate in a better system. The roadmap to better, more efficient alternatives exists. The urgent question is whether we have the people who are willing to walk that journey.

    (Andre Vlok can be contacted on andre@conflictresolutioncentre.co.za for any further information)
Andre Vlok December 2021

* The email will not be published on the website.