Peacemaking and peacebuilding – a South African township’s innovative model

Fourteen years ago, I began an ‘open source’ experiment in collecting and sharing stories of local capacity building on Hopebuilding wiki. (Sadly, I can no longer access the wiki because some malign force set up a forwarding system that sends you elsewhere.) However, I also told the stories in a book I drafted in 2008, and I have been revisiting some of those stories because it’s no longer possible to find much of the source material I used.

This story is about a community-led peacebuilding activity that took place in a South African community, and its roots in Canada. The story is also told in a fascinating and influential article entitled Nodal Governance that was published in 2005, which is where I first read about it. This is the story as I told it in 2008:

Zwelethemba (DA photo)

“Zwelethemba is a township located about 90 kilometres from Cape Town. Like many of South Africa’s townships, its people had responded to the apartheid system by doing their best to make their township ungovernable. The problem was that, once apartheid ended, they no longer wanted ungovernability: they wanted someone to solve the problems they experienced every day. That “someone” turned out to be them.

In 1997, the Community Peace Program at the University of the Western Cape began to explore how existing community knowledge might help build community peace and good governance. One of the researchers was Clifford Shearing, who had been living in Toronto in the early 1980s, when many Somali refugees had come to Canada. They lived in one tall concrete apartment block, and all their problems of adjustment landed on the doorstep of the Metropolitan Toronto Housing Authority, then headed by former Toronto mayor John Sewell.

Instead of hiring squads of security guards, Sewell decided to try something different, which came to be known as “social policing”. He would hand over the funds the MYHA budgeted for building security if the tenants and staff agreed to make the building safe in ways that made sense to them, culturally and socially. They took on the challenge. They paid a few security guards, but spent most of the money on programs for children, youth and the elderly, barbecues and picnics for residents, and making the building and grounds more appealing.

The results were dramatic. Children resumed playing in the open spaces, the elderly played cards and socialized in the foyers of the building, and people felt safer. Over the next 20 years, Toronto researchers confirmed the value of involving citizens in managing the security of their communities, and “community policing” became an established part of Canadian public security.

In planning for the security of the 1994 election – the first multi-racial election in the country’s history – South Africa drew on this Canadian experience to develop a successful self-management model for both demonstrators and political parties. The model had two key elements: “local capacity governance”, or managing community affairs by relying primarily on what local people know and can do for themselves, and “micro-governance”, because management happens at the grassroots level and in a bottom-up way.

The challenge in Zwelethemba was to apply these ideas effectively to help the community police itself and meet its own needs in areas like garbage removal, water and electricity – areas which represented a “governance deficit” in poor communities across South Africa. The model had to be simple; attractive to the community and to state agencies, and replicable in other similar communities.

What emerged from Zwelethemba was a problem-solving model built around two processes – PeaceMaking, which dealt with disputes between individuals, and PeaceBuilding, which addressed larger problems that became evident through a pattern in disputes or through regular surveys. The processes were managed by Peace Committees made up of between five and 20 community residents, which operated according to a published Code of Good Practice, and which focused on how to reduce the likelihood of the problem happening again.

PeaceMaking gatherings dealt with individual disputes, while PeaceBuilding Solutions Gatherings addressed the larger problems that caused individual disputes. For each PeaceMaking gathering, payments were made to the Peace Committee members to recognize their work as well as to the “PeaceBuilding“ Fund to fund the projects that emerged from Solutions Gatherings. Such projects might include building a childrens playground in a shack area; refurbishing an old age home; working with a municipality to clear a safe recreational space, working with youth football teams to clear rubbish, furnishing day care centres, supporting feeding schemes and health education for children and TB and HIV/AIDS sufferers; and youth projects in sports, arts and culture.

In 2002, a new aspect of the project began. Community police stations were turned into Community Peace Centres staffed by reservists trained by the police. In emergencies, the police were called in to help but other matters were sent to the Community Peace Committee, with the agreement of the person making a complaint. In the first two years, twice as many cases went to the Committee as to the police. In February 2004, a second Community Peace Centre was launched in Zwelethemba, and plans called for another seven to be established in 2004.

As of March 2004, South Africa had 21 Peace Committees that had facilitated more than 6000 peace-gatherings, involving 40,000 people. In gatherings, 59% of the participants were women, and 17% were youth. Women made up 62% of Committee members who facilitated gatherings. Money was the most common matter of dispute (36%), followed by property offences (20%) and insults, threats and gossiping (17%). Gatherings were held for two rapes and two attempted rapes. In 96% of gatherings, participants developed a course of action and people committed themselves to follow it.

The Zwelethemba model represents much more than just a local solution to local problems. It offers a new way to build and strengthen effective democracy in an interdependent world by including people who have been left out of governance, on their own terms and using their own knowledge and capacity.”

(Excerpted from Hopebuilding: new conversations in international development – unpublished manuscript)