South Africa's peacebuilding process is far from complete


South Africa’s transformation from apartheid to democracy is often hailed as one of the best examples of a peaceful transition, and the country has subsequently exported its peacebuilding skills to other emerging post-conflict states throughout Africa. These include South Sudan and Burundi.

As defined by the United Nations, peacebuilding is about addressing root causes of conflict to stop it from re-emerging. South Africa, it could be argued, is still in a phase of state and peacebuilding, and its reconciliation process is incomplete. This needs to be acknowledged by the government. One of the keys to sustainable peace is building equitability where distrust and fear once existed.

The resurgence of xenophobic violence in South Africa earlier this year is reflective of the country’s incomplete peacebuilding and reconciliation process and cannot simply be attributed to ‘criminality,’ as has been portrayed by some anti-xenophobia campaigns in the country and re-iterated by the minister of police.

The pervasive violence points to the same unaddressed root causes of xenophobia

Rather, the root causes must be addressed. The renewed waves of xenophobic violence, which started in Durban, led to nine deaths, left 5 000 foreign nationals displaced; and 307 suspects were arrested. This came after at least 60 people died in xenophobic attacks that swept South Africa in 2008.

Successful peacebuilding means creating an environment that supports sustainability and reconciliation, and addresses underlying structural and societal issues. According to the SA Reconciliation Barometer, this is not currently happening in South Africa.

The debate on xenophobic violence in South Africa misses one of the most fundamental underlying issues: that South Africa is an inherently violent nation. This is largely rooted in the country’s apartheid history. In 2013-2014, the country recorded more than 17 000 murders, a number far greater than some countries at war. The pervasive violence points to the same unaddressed root causes of xenophobia. South Africans often resort to violence to express dissatisfaction, as seen in the service delivery strikes that frequently take place.

Poverty and a lack of service delivery are also among the major causes of xenophobic violence in South Africa. When one considers the unemployment rate of 24%; that about 20% of the population is living in extreme poverty; and that 207 service delivery protests took place in 2013, it becomes clear that when state institutions fail to deliver, citizens decide to alienate those perceived to be standing in the way of receiving desired services. Alleged corruption by South African civil servants also often fuels the anti-foreign sentiments in the country, as foreigners are blamed for taking what is seen to rightfully belong to South Africans instead of civil servants being held accountable. Relevant intervention strategies for xenophobia can thus only be adopted once the problem has been correctly identified.

Interventions should focus on the actual victims or perpetrators of violence

In seeking to address the problem, the government has put some interventions in place. The National Assembly approved the establishment of an 11-member ad hoc committee to look into the xenophobic violence and is due to report back by 30 August. Their investigation will include the findings of a government task team that performed a similar exercise after the 2008 attacks, but whose recommendations were never implemented.

Among the government interventions is the controversial ‘Operation Fiela’ (loosely translated as ‘operation clean out’), which has led to the arrest and detention of many illegal foreign nationals and the deportation of roughly 400 Mozambicans. Operation Fiela is not only ineffective in addressing xenophobia, but has also led to foreign nationals being labelled as ‘criminals’. This may end up fuelling existing hatred towards foreign nationals. The problem with such interventions is that they only provide superficial and temporary solutions to create an illusion of peace.

According to the United Nations, peacebuilding strategies must be tailored to the specific needs of the country concerned, and based on principles of national ownership. Peacebuilding processes can only be effective when they are inclusive. South Africa’s peacebuilding interventions arguably often only focus on selected members of the community, such as ward counsellors, rather than including the real victims or perpetrators of violence.

South Africa needs to realise that peacebuilding is a long-term process

To have lasting peace, it is important to have local ownership of processes. This requires that interventions firstly be driven by communities. Campaigns and imbizos, such as the one held by King Zwelithini at Moses Mabhida stadium – where only some community members are addressed – may raise awareness but are ad hoc, unsustained and do not confront the root problem of the violence. As mentioned above, the causes of xenophobia are complex and multi-faceted.

Poverty, inequality, unemployment and a lack of service delivery cannot be solved through awareness-raising alone, but require government to put policies in place that are transparent, accessible and understood by all citizens. Peacebuilding interventions often consider issues such as socio-economic reconstruction and development, and there may be lessons to learn from other peacebuilding processes, such as the Zambian strategy to preventing xenophobia.

South Africa needs to realise that peacebuilding is a long-term process. If the country fails to acknowledge that it is itself in a learning process, it is difficult to comprehend how it will be able to promote its foreign policy pillar of pro-Africanism and peace. This will inevitably also presents challenges for South Africa’s development cooperation and its proposed Development Partnership Agency (SADPA).

The legacy of violence that apartheid left in the country cannot go unnoticed and the process of healing and reconciliation cannot be abandoned. Unless underlying issues and root causes are addressed, South Africa will continue to be a country where violence is not a last, but a first resort.

Sibongile Gida, Junior Researcher, Conflict Management and Peacebuilding, Pretoria

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