7 min read
15 Feb

The political in our time must start from the imperative to reconstruct the world in common … a decolonization [which] is by definition a planetary enterprise, a radical openness of and to the world, a deep breathing for the world as opposed to insulation. 

Achille Mbembe 


Conflict management, depending on who we ask, is often viewed as a Western range of disciplines that had its origin approximately in the 1970s and 1980s, with these origin tales making reference to its Cold War and other geopolitical roots and causes. Most of these histories have been well-researched and are accurate. They are, however, more often than not, quite incomplete. In this article we will be adding an important piece to the developing global conflict management history and future narrative, that of the African history, content and potential of conflict management. 

Especially since the 1990s there has been a gradual and global tacit acceptance of what is often referred to as a liberal peacebuilding framework, with its normative Western ideals such as democracy, the rule of law, some form of capitalism as economic structure and so on. This framework of course also forms an important part of, and influences, much of conflict management case studies, academic work and practice. As we will see here, there has however been a gradual understanding of the harm and limitations caused by the acceptance of this narrative as being complete, and a growing interest globally in the potential of other approaches. 

In this article we will then take a summarized look at conflict management’s African roots, and after recognizing those roots, we will consider practical and efficient avenues for this long-neglected conflict tool to return and find its true home here in Africa. I will argue the point about the urgency and relevance of this recognition later on in the article.   For purposes of our discussion I will use the term “conflict management” as an umbrella term for its three main focal areas, that of conflict management, conflict resolution and conflict transformation. We can fruitfully include the popular terms ADR (alternative dispute resolution) and peacebuilding in that understanding. 

In the beginning 

It is of course notoriously difficult to pin down accurate starting dates with much exactitude in any project such as ours. The tough questions arise immediately. What do we mean by conflict management, what are our sources in such an investigation, and so on. Conflict has of course always been with us, as our various oldest cultural traditions and scriptures tell us. There was conflict, and there were ways to deal with such conflict. In giving meaning to our quest then, we will pick one working definition from among the range of definitions of conflict management that are available to us, and then consider history through that lens. In doing so we can understand conflict management as the formal or informal systematic approach to strategies and techniques to avoid, reduce or improve conflict between people, either on an individual or group level. If needed we can define conflict itself as the respective interests of individuals or groups seemingly being in opposition to each other, thereby creating conflict. 

African roots 

If we then use the above definition of conflict management, we see a rich history, spanning centuries, of individuals and societies across Africa dealing with their conflicts in an organized and very efficient manner, in what can confidently be referred to as conflict management systems that ranged from the rudimentary to the sophisticated. Oral tradition and practices carried faithfully through the ages tell us about the effective conflict management approaches of the Yaruba, the Igbo, and a long list of local communities across the African continent. Here in South Africa all of the diverse communities, without exception, show clear lineages of conflict management traditions and techniques, each of which could fill a fair sized book. To this day these practices are often studied in various conflict case studies (see e.g. some of the resource examples referred to in the resource list below), and they continue to serve as an increasingly important ground of inspiration and comparative studies in conflict management development. 

Characteristics of such African conflict systems 

As can be expected, we find significant differences in some of these African conflict management systems, as the involved communities are of course dealing, at different times, with conflicts relatively unique to their area and time. So we see, for example, disparities between such strategies applied in the various communities based on their relative material wellbeing, the size of the communities, the level of commercial development in such a community, its proximity to other groups, the levels of diversity in such groups and a long list of other dynamics. 

We can nevertheless distil a list of generally popular and successful conflict management strategies in use in such communities throughout Africa, throughout the last few centuries as indicated by tradition, custom and other sources. A few of these examples will show generally accepted conflict practices such as: 

(i) Formal and informal forms of group negotiation on matters of mutual interest, both in the group and with external parties; 

(ii) the general building of consensus in a pending or existing conflict, through lobbying, in-group pressures and societal benefits manifested in compliance with such norms; 

(iii) various levels of mediation, where conflict is addressed and resolved without the need, and harm, of authoritarian decisions, and where conflicts are resolved through a discussion and exploration of matters of common interest, creative solutions and common ground, and where the underlying relationships involved in such conflicts are protected and maintained as far as possible and prudent; 

(iv) an emphasis on conflict management outcomes that emphasizes the collectivist (group or community) interests more than the expectations of the individual; 

(v) a gradual escalation of unresolved conflicts to a final stage where the decision of respected and acknowledged community or traditional leaders result in unilateral and binding decisions comparable to the Western idea of arbitration or a court’s decision; 

(vi) all of the persuasive conflict management strategies we see elsewhere arising from identity conflicts, such as in-group pressures, direct and subtle conformity demands, face saving and so on. 

Unique – just like everyone else? 

Here we arrive at another important part of our assessment. I am not arguing that African conflict management strategies are unique, or that they should be afforded any preference in modern conflict management. Some of the concepts found throughout Africa during the time of our assessment are undeveloped (as they simply needed to serve the conflict needs of a particular community), and the general lack of written records limit our investigation in some respects. I also do not believe that much of a meaningful case can be made for any truly unique African conflict management strategies. Some of the powerful applications of such strategies, such as the community-based approaches to complex conflicts, the emphasis on communal interests, the respectful and dignified manner in which much of these conflicts were conducted, all can be found in other global communities, and even where they exist in modern African application the power of these techniques are often watered-down through disuse or any of the factors we mention that caused the disruption of these African practices. 

But exactly therein lies the first crucial point that needs to be made: African conflict management strategies are not unique, but they are as well-established, as well-developed and as effective in their communities as we find anywhere else in any given timeframe. We are not asking for any preference for African conflict management, but we are insisting on parity, on an acknowledgement that African conflict management deserves as much recognition and respect as any other conflict management system anywhere else in the world. As reasonable a demand as this may then seem to be, we often do not find this to be the case in practice. African conflict management is, whenever it is recognized to exist at all, often treated either as an interesting newcomer or as an undeveloped also-ran, often tinged with heavy doses of condescension and/or well-intentioned ignorance.   

How then did we get here, how did Africa forget these valuable roots, these crucial tools that have always been there to guide and assist their conflicts?

 Forgetting our roots 

The answer to this important question is a complex one. Any comprehensive study of that inquiry will have to attach sufficient importance to a few broad categories. Colonialism and its aftermath have caused severe disruptions in tradition, globalization has disrupted the way of life of communities and nations, Westernization has caused an increased popularity of solutions deemed to be modern and Western, while comparable solutions deemed African may have been rejected or approached with scepticism, poverty and inequality have continued to sever people and their communities from these roots in their daily fight for survival and so on. And here is our second important realization: conflict management, which is playing an increasingly important global role in the resolution of increasingly complex global conflicts, is generally seen as a product of Western thought and philosophies. It is then either revered or rejected as such: a Western system of thought and practice designed to deal with modern conflicts. This has several adverse consequences for the African continent. 

The urgent need for recognition and implementation 

In addition to the recognition of the place of the African roots of conflict management in the general study and practice of conflict management, a reason which I would argue is necessary and urgent in itself, there are several practical considerations why we need to not just recognize these roots, but also allow them to be applied to the myriad of conflicts besetting Africa, and the new conflicts already on the near horizon. We look at a few of these. 

(a) Africa has some of the most complex, intractable conflicts in the world. Once we remove any cultural or historical baggage and impediments from this wonderful system of managing our conflicts, African countries, communities and the continent can only benefit from a renewed respect and application of a modernized version of what was once a very African approach to conflicts. We need not consider conflict management as a foreign tool to apply to local problems. 

(b) There is already important work being done in moving the benefits of conflict management from its hegemonic Western position to a more globally designed and applied conflict system. The United Nations (and to a lesser extent the African Union) has in recent years very openly acknowledged the value and importance of conflict management tools such as mediation and negotiation, and this move towards a recognition of local conflict systems have gained inspiring traction through conflict management advocacy groups, an increased place for and debate about women in global mediation, and great work is being done in various academic works and by practitioners (for examples see my essay in the upcoming second edition of the Routledge Handbook of Peacebuilding and the resources cited in resource item 2 below). All of this plays perfectly into current global geopolitical realignments, and African communities should be aware of the strategic timing and opportunities for local problem solving that arise from these new winds of change. Countries and communities in the Global South that successfully (and timeously) read and apply these changes, and are seen to drive and support these changes,  will of course position themselves  favourably in setting what will hopefully be an important trend in conflict management studies and practice for decades to come. 

(c) The combination of increased local acceptance of conflict management solutions and their local implementation, whether at national or grassroots level, will inexpensively and in a relatively very short space of time bring the proven benefits of conflict management to those areas. Much of Africa’s cyclical conflicts stem exactly from the unfortunate misapplication of Western solutions, or a designed or coincidental plastering over of the conflict cracks, thereby superficially treating the symptom and never getting to the causes and cures. A renewed vigour and confidence in local conflict management systems can only benefit communities where other traditional conflict outcomes such as violence, segregation, escalated law enforcement or litigation simply do not work sufficiently, or at the worst, such an increase in conflict management application can act as a valuable additional solution available to these communities. This can also improve conflict outcomes in situations such as we find in South Africa, where different communities have different values and expectations of conflict outcomes (for example the importance of individual versus community interests), which in itself act as a conflict cause for spirals of frustration and escalation. 

(d) The geopolitical changes that are happening as we speak, in my view a de facto Second Cold War, will require a nimble and conflict competent team of national and local leaders, both in business and politics. Those who are forced to continue dealing with potholes and petty politics will become the newly colonized once these wheels stop turning. A nation that is adept at internal and external conflict solving, using modern best conflict management practices, helps both its citizens as its leaders, and a culture of effective conflict management in the streets and workplaces will become a national and local asset beyond price. This simple philosophy can be applied practically by way of simple, inexpensive coaching for individuals, communities, law enforcement, team leaders, union officials, political leaders and activists, city management and a long list of others who would benefit from an increased conflict competence. 


This discussion is not designed to disparage modern conflict management as a Western creation – far from it. The last fifty years or so have seen magnificent work done in conflict studies and practice, and the current multi-disciplinary conflict strategies that are used are largely the work of those who have been a part of that process. My own training, continued academic work and consulting practice is largely based on exactly that system, and it deserves its standing and respect in the global community based on that progress. But it is too simple a tale, an incomplete tale. It is a narrative that, probably without any preconceived malice, has caused a very real alienation between the great, measurable benefits of conflict management and African communities, where it is so often needed so urgently. We have seen examples of this harm and unrealized benefits in our discussion. 

Ironically, conflict management is clearly a conflict tool with strong, proud African roots. It should be there for us as a remedy, as an effective strategy in our many complex conflicts. We are co-architects of this modern solution, we need not worry about using Western solutions for African problems. This is a home-grown solution to our problems, to our complex conflicts. I hope that we urgently recognize this, and bring conflict management back home.

Summary of main sources, references and suggested reading 

1. ROUTLEDGE HANDBOOK OF CONFLICT RESPONSE AND LEADERSHIP IN AFRICA Edited by Alpaslan Özerdem, Sinem Akgül-Açıkmeşe, and Ian Liebenberg, Routledge (2022) 

2. RETHINKING PEACE MEDIATION, edited by Catherine Turner and Martin Wahlisch, Bristol University Press (2021) 

3. My article on global mediation and changes in the perception of Western conflict management systems, in the second edition of the Routledge Handbook of Peacebuilding, due for publication middle 2024 

4. Hamlet’s Mirror: Conflict and Artificial Intelligence by Andre Vlok, Paradigm Media (2023), especially chapter 5 (geopolitical conflicts), Paradigm Media (2023) 

5. My News24 article on repositioning South Africa in the AI age, at OPINION | Andre Vlok: SA increasingly likely to fall behind in the AI arms race | News24 

6. Various relevant articles on the Conflict Conversations blog at www.conflict-conversations.co.za 

  • Full references, further reading material, courses, coaching and study material are available on request.

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

(c)Andre Vlok 

February 2024

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