Shifting the Theory and Practice of Conflict Management to Respond to Current Conflict Contexts: A role for South Africa?

UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe
UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe

The changing conflict contexts have refocused our attention on the theory and practice of conflict management and the need for transforming the ways in which we seek to Silence the Guns in Africa. In the 1990s the conflict contexts demanded that peace be sought internally between identifiable warring parties with the ability to do harm, usually government and one or two rebel groups seeking access to political power; that mediation went beyond ceasefire agreements to deliver more comprehensive peace accords; and peacekeeping broadened to encompass multidimensional peace support operations.

In 1992 an Agenda for Peace, anchored on conflict prevention, peace-making, peacekeeping and peacebuilding, was adopted. Peacebuilding encompassed the former mechanisms but also incorporated a host of measures to strengthen the state’s capacity in relation to security and governance, as well as provide vehicles for reconciliation (for example, peace commissions). Peacebuilding was seen as that which would prevent the relapse into violent conflict. A Women’s Peace and Security (WPS) (2000) and a Youth Peace and Security (YPS) (2015) agenda were ushered in to create more inclusive and sustainable peace processes. The African Union (AU) largely adopted this agenda for peace when it established the African Peace and Security Architecture (APSA) and this agenda also informed the framework for Silencing the Guns by 2020. 

We have seen a shift in the nature of conflicts, actors involved in the conflicts, and the levels at which they are occurring @cherylhen

For a time this peace agenda seemed to deliver the expected decline in violent conflict. However, since 2013 there has been a noticeable global increase in conflicts, the majority of which are in Africa. The spread of violent extremism across the Sahel, and in other regions in Africa has been disconcerting. More recently, Southern Africa has been impacted as violent extremists launch attacks in Mozambique. Africa has also seen a rise in local and/or communal conflicts, predominantly non-state actors, and impelled by changing environmental conditions (as seen in, for example, DRC, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Somalia, Sudan, Kenya).  

There has also been a return to large scale protest politics, service delivery protests and a rise in hashtag protests. These protests are spurred on by continued authoritarian modes of governance, leaders seeking to extend their terms in office, a return of the military to politics and persistent neglect, inequalities and discrimination.  Too many countries still relapse into conflict. Peace support operations remain for way to long in a country, and there is a noticeable re-militarisation of many societies as governments try to deal with the threats posed by violent extremism. Moreover, we are experiencing new threats that emanate from energy shortages, climate change and pandemics such as COVID -19, as well as a return to old conflicts such as the secessionist conflicts in Cameroon, and interstate conflicts over access to water resources.

The above points to a shift in the nature of conflicts, actors involved in the conflicts, and the levels at which they are occurring. A reflection on the implementation of the WPS and YPS agendas also highlight the fact that we have not made much progress on including women and youth into peace processes and on the prevention of violence against women. 

We have not made much progress on including women and youth into peace processes and on the prevention of violence against women @cherylhen

We are therefore at a conjuncture, similar to the early 1990s, where we have to go back to the drawing board and have the necessary conversations about updating and transforming our frameworks, toolboxes and approaches and ensure that they are inclusive from the point of conceptualisation to implementation – not three separate peace agendas. The current tendency has been to simply swing the conflict management pendulum from peacebuilding to prevention in the hope that this will be the panacea for our current conflict woes. It will not.  Our discourses may alter, but our practices seem to remain largely the same. This is mainly due to a lack of accountability mechanisms, vested interests, the inability of our mechanisms to swiftly adapt, the datedness of our response mechanisms and frameworks, and the lack of clearly articulated national plans that are able to operationalise continental and international frameworks. There is therefore a serious need for intervention. South Africa, I believe, could be a catalyst in this regard.

South Africa: Recrafting its role in conflict management 

South Africa recently ended its 3rd term on the UNSC, its chairship of the AU and will again chair the SADC Organ troika later this year. However, its actual role in shaping the discourse on conflict management and in engaging in peace processes on the continent has, since the Zuma years, been waning. This is largely related to its domestic challenges and the decrease in its credibility that ensued; its lack of an alternate conflict management vision; declining capacity to deploy peacekeepers and to engage in mediation, prevention and peacebuilding. The model of peacemaking and peacebuilding which it exported also no longer resonates for management of the current conflicts.  

South Africa, under the Ramaphosa administration, is eager to reassert itself as a key player in peace and security. If we review the speeches by policy makers in this regard, emphasis is on political solutions, respect for sovereignty, prioritising diplomacy, inclusive dialogue, promoting WPS, ensuring effective partnerships and working through multilateral institutions. In reality it is very much in line with its old pre-2009 peace script, without much detail, and which is a bit out of touch with the shifting nature of conflicts on the continent. How will these key principles resolve issues of violent extremism in Mozambique? How will they speak to farmer and herder conflicts in Mali and Nigeria? How will they deal with conflicts in Cameroon or the Tigray region? How will it speak to conflicts in its own region and country?

We have to go back to the drawing board to update and transforming our conflict management frameworks, toolboxes and approaches @cherylhen

South Africa is not alone in this leadership void on conflict management – it is symptomatic of the general malaise in this regard. However, in trying to [re]enter this arena South Africa, much like it was in the 1990s, is in a prime position to again convene and move the debates on peace and security so that more appropriate inclusive and sustainable approaches and mechanisms can be developed. This does not imply discarding what has already been put in place but ensuring that APSA is able to adapt and is efficient and effective to respond to current realities. It requires engaging where we went awry with conceptualising and implementing the Silencing the Guns, a much deeper understanding of current conflict actors and their demands, and the ability to offer not only counter narratives to those propagated by violent extremists but a complete rethink of the ways we will create greater participation and belonging in our modes of governance. It also requires a rethink of our social contracts on this continent so that we are able to generate ones that enable us all to co-exist more peacefully in Africa. 

For South Africa to be a thought leader in this regard it needs to get its own house in order. It must build up its own infrastructure for peace including having its own peace centre, it needs to comprehensively train its people in conflict analysis, conflict management and violent extremism so that they can contribute to broader thinking on the continent on new approaches. South Africa needs to be at the forefront convening the discussion that can boldly take us forward in addressing the current challenges. We were able to do this as part of a collective in the past and we can do this again if we have the necessary resources and political will. 

Professor Cheryl Hendricks, Executive Head of the Africa Institute of South Africa (AISA), within the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC).

Article by:

Cheryl Hendricks
Executive Head of the Africa Institute of South Africa (AISA)

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