7 min read
01 Jun


A practical roadmap  

The elements of a conflict interact like a system or machine where each part of the conflict interacts and reinforces other parts of the system. There are no quick fixes or impacts in most complex conflicts. Often, multiple parts of a system need to change before the system of conflict changes.  

Lisa Schirch 

I say hope is not negotiated. It is kept alive by people who understand the depth of suffering and know the cost of keeping a horizon of change as a possibility for their children and grandchildren. 

John Paul Lederach     


One of the important conflict resolution principles used in complex, protracted conflicts is, as best explained by scholars such as William Zartman, the question of “ripeness”. In simplified terms this reminds us that specific conflict stages exist, and that techniques and interventions must be timed and sequenced correctly to derive maximum benefit. Efforts at settlement, negotiation, reconciliation and practical solutions to the conflict can be conducted too early (when certain events are still too fresh or unassimilated), or too late (when a sense of distrust and despair may have settled in). I believe that South Africa has reached such a stage of ripeness of several of its larger conflicts. 

Some of these conflicts find their causes and triggers in the economic dysfunction of the country, others will need our endemic corruption, unemployment, inequality and poor service delivery to be effectively addressed. For that to be addressed in the time that we may have available to us, government would need to play a significant role in the elimination or alleviation of these conflicts. But to what extent can we realistically expect government, at national or local level, to be willing and able to do so? The South African experience the last two decades have shown that, far from being a source of imminent solution and progress, the government has been utterly inefficient at addressing these conflicts and their causes, and in many respects have been an important part of the causes of such conflict. Trust in and respect of government abilities and institutions as effective answers to our problems seem to have diminished to an all-time low across a wide array of communities and social strata. Recent times have seen the rise of alternative political parties and groups, political debate is more urgent and focused on change, and even the national debate on the migrant situation is, in its own important respects, a sign of large sections of our nation being fed-up with government’s continued failed promises. 


Well-placed cynicism and despair aside, government will have to play an important role in addressing our cyclical, even generational conflicts. But as our political dramas unfold and develop, with no real guarantee of effective change, it is also becoming easier for South Africans to become despondent, to wonder whether change is possible, and to simply accept their burdens as inevitable. This type of situation is of course, as recent international experience highlights so vividly, a very receptive environment for several shades of populism and fascist arguments to become popular. As people tend to suffer more against a backdrop of despair, these “solutions” become more attractive and easier for some politicians to exploit and use for their own agendas. This is not the resolution of the conflicts, but simply exchanging the name tags on our problems. 

In this volatile vacuum we can consider the value of the individual and community tool of peacebuilding. Simply put, this means the efforts of individuals and groups to grapple with these conflicts in their own way, often in a localized and unsynchronized manner, with no real over-arching plan and in a largely ad hoc manner. These would include activists, non-governmental societies, and a variety of specialized interest groups. Actual examples of such work in real life would include GBV activists, service delivery community groups, environmental activism and so on. 

Peacebuilding is a wide term that is, in its best form, simply these individuals and groups working towards the resolution, preventing, limiting or transformation of conflicts in their private or professional lives, in their communities and in such a manner as they are able to. Such work ranges from the most informal, ad hoc attempts to much more sophisticated networks and organizations. The scholar and conflict activist Prof. Roger Mac Ginty uses the wonderful term “everyday peace” to discuss this tool, and it is perfectly descriptive in its simplicity. Small acts of peace, that have the capacity to disrupt conflict patterns and systems, and that have the potential to grow into something more substantial. And herein lies the inspiring energy of this concept – the ability, the potential of everyday people to make a real and immediate difference in their own lives, in their own communities without having to wait for government or business or bigger organizations to one day hopefully get to these results. 


While peacebuilding is a complex and developing field of study and practice globally, we need not view this as a foreign transplant that we now need to somehow make a part of our conflict strategies. As we will see later on, we have the basic foundation for peacebuilding here, and the South African society has been using at least the concept and framework for decades, to great effect. Our history, even during recent decades, tells of practical, actual and very successful applications of the concept, such as various non-violent and civil disobedience campaigns, social and community support networks, a combination of resources and ideas (even on a community level), co-ordinated protests and so on. The very concept of ubuntu is in essence premised on community coherence, co-operation and joint progress and benefit. Before we then have a look at a few practical ways that we can bring peacebuilding into our own lives, what would the benefits of such an approach be? 


Peacebuilding then, especially in the sense that Mac Ginty uses it, has several real benefits that we can benefit realty from here in our current South African situation. Some of these benefits can be summarized as follows. 

  • It is an important type of peace, often the small, real examples of what is possible, across racial, tribal or political lines, consisting of single or isolated islands of examples, as inspirations. Small, everyday examples of peace, dignity and real progress built by real people in the real streets of their communities start acting as inspirational examples of what a better life looks like, not in abstract terms but in the lived realities of people in that community.  
  • It encourages us to think beyond formalised, stale ideas of peace, where peace only consists of efforts by governments, of formal treaties and agreements. Local, street by street, house by house peace and a transcending of conflict becomes an additional goal.
  • It encourages us to rethink levels of connectivity and influence. Peace, and the ability to achieve it, now not only lies in the hands of governments or large groups, but in the ability of individuals and groups to use local influence, contacts, resources, knowledge to make progress.
  • It forces us to respect and acknowledge localised experiences of peace. There is a danger of falling victim to a hegemonic narrative where we universalize some version of reality as “this is how things are in South Africa”. This, as we have seen, can lead to despair and incentives for harmful political rhetoric. Peacebuilding shows us that different communities may have different experiences, different skills, different results. We see progress, positive results flowing from application, from perseverance.
  • In the same way, it forces us to respect, compare and possibly use different methodologies in the day to day work we do, learning from each other, from other examples. This tends to support and strengthen small local networks.
  • We get to re-examine some of the standard ideas of power, and we can see living reminders of the power that may reside in community structures, family units, elders, charismatic individuals and the various real-world uses of power.



Working with conflict in this way also reminds us how “peace” means different things, at different times, to different people. To some it entails the lack of violence and community strive, to others it means freedom from crime and the ability to live a secure, safe life, to others still it may entail economic opportunities and service delivery progress. How then do we use peacebuilding to disrupt conflict systems and patterns? A few practical techniques would use the following principles. 

  • Work locally, as your resources allow, but be open to wider networks, form part of them, make your own work, skills and knowledge available to others, especially those not working in your area. Do not hoard your skills or resources. Conflict scholar John Paul Lederach has shown how it is often the types of connections we can build that prove to be more helpful and effective than just the size or quantity of those connections.
  • Involve other people in your community. Where possible, build networks, transfer skills, build encouragement and confidence, show those small victories, learn to use influence and respect. Do not perpetuate people being spectators in their own conflicts.
  • Try to work outside your own discipline or area of expertise, to the extent that you do not harm your own efforts. Hyper-specialization often leads us to become blinkered to the efforts of people working next to us, but in another field. How can we help each other reach those small goals and victories?
  • Respectfully, and with dignity, apply local resources and strengths. This may be as difficult to detect as influence, strong family structures, faith communities, enthusiastic individuals, unique leadership capabilities etc.
  • Show progress, plough back benefits into that community. Tangible benefits power the machine.
  • Expand your networks. Contacts, resources, information, skills and other benefits – collect them, keep them available. Create horizontal links between people, scale up these networks where possible.
  • Understand and work with, even disrupt systemic causes of conflict rather than always dealing with symptoms and individual examples of conflict. Try to change the cause of the problem.
  •  Adapt and grow your peacebuilding work. Be wary of becoming stagnant. Conflicts are dynamic processes. Teach yourself what you need to know, use experts where possible, stay ahead of best practices.
  • Remind yourself that even the smallest act of peace plays a role. Having one of “them” as a friend, helping someone with a job, food, exchanging skills, one isolated act of kindness or mercy can reverberate beyond your imagination.
  • Be clear, and make others understand where you stand on important issues. This work often requires a certain level of impartiality, but often this is misplaced or misunderstood, or unnecessary. People in the middle of conflict do not always want neutrality.
  • Do not build monuments to yourself. This is not your project, your hobby. Relinquish control where necessary.
  • Take the long view. Remain positive, expect setbacks, set and achieve realistic goals. Push the envelope without tearing it, learn when conflict helps your cause and when it hinders the community.   



One of the striking experiences of my work with communities involved in complex, cyclical conflict is that they often do not realize that they can make a difference. Systemic conflict and inequality have over time simply cast them in a narrative of limited solutions, of inevitable and immutable suffering. This is where South Africa needs to start with peacebuilding as an immediate and effective conflict tool. It can address all of our problems, from inequality to unemployment, from unresolved realities and perceptions, from rule-based conflicts to relationship-based challenges.   At some level of course this work requires skills and skills transfer. That can however be done informally, quickly and tailor-made as a given community wants to build and apply it. It can bring real, measurable and sustainable conflict resolution to a nation that is tired, dejected and cynical. Everyone can contribute to it, across party lines, and everyone benefits from it. It does not need vast fortunes or commissions or years of study. It does not need central control or management. 

Along with several setbacks and failures, Africa has also shown some successes and progress in peacebuilding, both in its major national conflicts and the more localized, everyday peace sense that we have been focusing on. We have no real option but to work hard at resolving our conflicts. An awful mixture of lies, deceit, ineptitude and selfishness has brought south Africa to the brink of a level of failure and collapse that will be difficult to recover from, an environment which will of course set in motion new conflicts and exacerbate existing ones. We can no longer sit back and wait for politicians to do the work for us, no one is coming to save us from these conflicts. We can create an environment where we take back some of the control necessary to make a difference, to set us back on the road to reaching our potential, where we regain agency and influence in our futures.  It can be our new reality. If we are prepared to do the work.     

(Andre Vlok can be contacted on andre@conflictresolutioncentre.co.za for a sources index, further reading, conflict mandates and coaching, comment or any further information

(c) June 2022

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