Peacemaking and Peacebuilding in South Africa

by Liz Carmichael


Thank you for being a part of the African Griot! Can you please begin by providing a short overview of your book?

The book is an account of South Africa’s National Peace Accord (NPA) which was the first consensus document to be negotiated during the transition period from apartheid to democracy. I briefly situate the Accord, and South Africa itself, in the international discussion on peacemaking and peacebuilding, and give a short account of South African history and early attempts towards peace. Then the book focuses on the NPA, why and how it was negotiated in 1991 and the impact of the peace committees that implemented the Accord nation-wide. 

Can you please outline what The National Peace Accord, 1991-1994 is and what it meant for South Africa?

By 1990 apartheid had broken down and the last vestiges of apartheid legislation were being repealed. Multiparty, multiracial ‘talks about talks’ were needed, to work out the future. But the majority of the black population deeply distrusted the white government and violence still occurred between black communities and the police. A low-intensity grassroots civil war had been raging since 1985 in Natal and KwaZulu (now KwaZulu-Natal) between traditionalist Zulu supporters of Chief Buthelezi’s Inkatha movement, which aimed to preserve the Zulu kingdom within a new federal South Africa, and supporters of the banned African National Congress (ANC) among the youth and trade unions, whose vision was for a unitary state.

The State President, FW de Klerk, released Nelson Mandela unconditionally in February 1990, and at the same time he un-banned the liberation movements including the main movement, the ANC. Two outcomes were expected. There would be multiparty talks to devise a constitution for a new free, democratic South Africa so that the first democratic election could be held; and Mandela and Buthelezi would meet and bring the grassroots violence to an end. 

These two expectations were not fulfilled. Talks were confined to bilaterals between the ANC and Government that focused on the release of prisoners and return of exiles. It became clear that no independent and broadly acceptable means of convening multiparty talks existed. Despite the beginnings of reform in the police, police-community relations remained violently confrontational. For a year, ANC ‘hawks’ prevented Mandela from meeting Buthelezi. In January 1991 the two leaders signed a bilateral ANC-IFP peace agreement but it contained no credible implementation mechanism and immediately collapsed. The grassroots violence continued. 

In July 1990 Inkatha had transformed into a political party, the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP). When it began to recruit members, the violence spread from KwaZulu-Natal to the vast townships in South Africa’s industrial heartland around Johannesburg. The township population was ethnically mixed. Many Zulu men lived in the vast ‘migrant worker’ hostels built in the apartheid era. The violence became strongly ethno-political, hostels becoming fortresses for the mainly Zulu IFP supporters. 

A crisis point was reached in April-May 1991 when the ANC, blaming the Government for all violence, threatened to pull out of talks. At this point twelve top leaders from business and the churches came together and managed to insert themselves as peace facilitators into the political process. Between them they had influence in all three ‘main’ parties: the white National Party in Government, the ANC, and IFP; and contacts ranging across the spectrum from the white right wing to the black left wing. The parties agreed that the facilitators could call a meeting about peace. That meeting took place on 22 June 1991, attended by mandated representatives of all the national-level parties except the white right wing which refused to attend. The meeting agreed to start a process to negotiate peace agreements, to be completed and signed as soon as possible. Four multiparty working groups began work, coordinated by the facilitators. 

The negotiations took three months and resulted in the NPA. It is a compact booklet of 33 pages, containing a common commitment to the goal of a non-racial democratic South Africa, a Code of Conduct for Political Parties committing them to conduct business in a peaceful manner without violence or intimidation; a Code of Conduct for the police together with detailed agreements to enshrine the new philosophy of community policing; provisions for socio-economic reconstruction and development (SERD); a standing Commission of Inquiry regarding the Prevention of Public Violence and intimidation (the Goldstone Commission); and finally a vital innovation, a peacebuilding infrastructure to implement the Accord through a National Peace Committee (NPC), a statutory National Peace Secretariat (NPS) and peace committees at national, regional and local levels.

The Accord was signed at the National Peace Convention, an unprecedented gathering of almost all races and parties on 14 September 1991, by the top leaders of 29 organizations, including de Klerk, Mandela, and Buthelezi. The black far left, the PAC and AZAPO, attended and proclaimed support for peace but declined to co-sign any document with the government. The pro-apartheid white far right (the opposition Conservative Party, tiny HNP, and militant AWB) boycotted the signing, labelling the NPA a Communist plot. 

The peace structures then rolled out, beginning with the National Peace Committee (NPC). The peace committees brought together, for the first time, the wide range of parties and organizations including the tribal ‘homelands’, the security forces (police and army), and civil society (mainly business, religious bodies, lawyers, and community-based organizations). The NPC presided over the process. The structures at regional and local levels were served by the statutory National Peace Secretariat (NPS), the ‘engine room’ of the process, ruled by its own compact, hard-working multiparty committee. Core funding came from government. The committee members were unpaid volunteers. Civil society representatives from churches and business, and lawyers trained in alternative dispute resolution, provided non-aligned chairs, facilitators, and trainers. Paid staff and offices were only provided from late in 1992. 

The NPA negotiations ended the impasse between the ANC and Government. The signing of the Accord, signalling that something was being done about the violence, made it possible for constitutional talks to begin. The parties were again contacted, repeating the process now familiar from the NPA, and the Convention for a Democratic South Africa (Codesa) opened on 20-21 December 1991. Codesa and the peace process could then proceed in parallel.

You were actually involved in the NPA. What was your role?

I served as a churches representative on the local peace committee in Alexandra township, Johannesburg, and on the religious bodies sub-committee of the Wits/Vaal Regional Peace Committee, and as a peace monitor trainer. I became involved in April 1992. I had a diocesan post in spirituality and theological education under the Anglican Bishop of Johannesburg. I was familiar with the townships from being a medical doctor, 1975-1981, at the large Baragwanath Hospital that serves Soweto. In 1992 I was in touch with people in Alexandra (‘Alex’), in the north-east of Johannesburg, and was drawn into the peace structures there.

‘Alex’ had famously fought the police for six days in 1986, a story involving teargas, shooting, the ‘necklacing’ (burning alive with a tyre and petrol) of local policemen, and the imposition of the State of Emergency. The ANC-IFP violence arrived in March 1991 when IFP supporters, mainly Zulu, turned the two vast men’s hostels, built under apartheid to house some 3000 workers each, into ethnically-cleansed fortresses, regarded as being at war with the rest of Alexandra. Fighting flared up again in March 1992, with deaths and intimidation, and homes and property abandoned and destroyed. Fear, hatred, and wild rumours reigned. Several thousand people became displaced. The police watched, helpless to prevent all this. They consisted of terrified ‘ordinary’ police, black and white; plain-clothed former members of the Security Branch; and heavily armed ‘Internal Stability Unit’ (ISU) riot police, mostly young and white, in camouflage uniforms. The ISU attempted to raid and disarm both sides. Both therefore distrusted the police and believed them to be helping the enemy. Constructive communication between community and police was non-existent.

The Wits/Vaal Regional Peace Committee, constituted in February 1992, called an emergency meeting on Alexandra on 1 April. The outcome was an Interim Crisis Committee (ICC) of five: ANC, IFP, churches, relief organizations, and Democratic Party. I was the first convener and chair. A unit of paratroopers was about to be posted to Alex and we were entrusted, with the army, with stopping the war. The NPA provided the means to do so. For the first time in South African history, everyone was invited to the table to sort out the problem together, and it was quite amazing to watch it happening. 

By the end of 1992 the ICC had expanded and became a full LPC, recognized as bringing about communication and co-operation. Violence almost completely ceased. Alexandra declared peace at a joint funeral in March 1993, and became something of a showpiece. By the time of the first democratic election in April 1994 ‘Alex’ had a cohort of 198 trained local peace monitors, supported by 50 from the surrounding white suburbs. The LPC facilitated assistance to victims of violence, achieved some reconstruction, and facilitated discussions on further development. In May 1995, through a new local committee formed by LPC members (including myself) after the closure of the NPA structures in December 1994, the displacees and previously warring groups finally signed a local agreement to co-operate in reconstruction and development. 

Quite independently of politics a bloody ‘taxi war’ had been raging between Alexandra’s two rival associations of minibus taxis. I served as a mediator from the LPC, assisted by the Goldstone Commission, in a local and sub-regional taxi peace process leading to lasting peace in 1994.

And, please, you must tell us about the late Bishop Tutu’s involvement; how did you get him to write the foreword?

Archbishop Tutu was one of the twelve church and business leaders who facilitated the negotiation of the NPA. I had known him since 1975 when he became Dean of the Anglican Cathedral in Johannesburg. At the NPA signing ceremony he gave the final prayer. He had been expected to co-chair the ceremony, but was prevented by Chief Buthelezi for reasons that were partly political, partly personal (the story is in the book). Consequently it was the Presiding Bishop of the Methodist church, Stanley Mogoba, who became vice-chair of the NPC. Nevertheless Archbishop Tutu, a Nobel Peace laureate since 1984, was very much a figure for peace and had been instrumental in the negotiation of the Accord, so when writing this book I asked him if he would provide the Foreword.

Your book fills a significant gap in knowledge of the key transitional phase in South African history, why do you think that is? Why is there not more published research on this important topic?

One reason for the gap is that the Accord was overshadowed in historical memory by the period’s other events, in particular by Mandela’s release and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). In between came the constitutional talks (Codesa and later the MPNP) and the first democratic election in April 1994. Possibly, compared with these proud events, there was an element of embarrassment that made it more convenient to forget about the grassroots violence which, in part, necessitated a Peace Accord. The NPA story focuses less on the top rank of political leadership and more on the achievements of second-tier leaders and the people themselves, so it does not simply fit the ‘Big Man’ approach to history. The first accounts of the transition, by journalists Allister Sparks and Patti Waldmeir, omitted mention of the NPA, although it alone explains the rapprochement between ANC and government after May 1991, which is unexplained in both Sparks’s and Waldmeir’s books. 

The lack of preservation of the peace committee records is a major reason for the paucity of published research. If the records of the NPC, the 11 RPCs and the 263 LPCs had been well preserved there would be a fascinating peace archive, usable by researchers; but they were not gathered in for archiving, and consequently there is, compared with the TRC, a tragic lack of documentary records. One invaluable, if untidy, collection does exist: the 296 files from the NPS office were deposited at the National Archive in Arcadia, Pretoria. But the regional and local peace committees were also statutory structures under the NPS, so their records (minutes, correspondence, and ancillary papers) were also official documents. By 1994 the structures fell under Home Affairs. When Home Affairs closed the peace offices in December 1994 the records should have been collected for archiving, by a specific requisition order. By bureaucratic oversight, no such order was made. Office furniture and computers were collected, but apart from some fortunate survivals the majority of the 11 regional and 263 local committee records were lost. 

The most fortunate survivals are personal collections of regional records from Wits/Vaal and the Western Cape, and the complete Alexandra and Midrand local records. Other personal collections, including parts of the NPC minutes, suffered losses when people moved house, or needed to make room in the office, or through floods and fire. None of these personal collections, except Alexandra a set of which I deposited in the Wits Historical Collections, have been easily available to researchers. Reconstruction of the story is possible with the help of other personal papers deposited in university libraries, newspaper cuttings, and interviews. My research for this book has taken a decade, involved much travelling, and would have been well beyond the capacity of, say, a graduate student.

The media gave good coverage to the signing of the NPA. Thereafter, the structures spent much energy on media relations and the media materially assisted the peace effort with free airtime and print advertising. Scepticism was increasingly balanced by positive reporting. The NPC contracted a press cuttings agency and I found the resulting six large archive boxes of weekly cuttings, preserved by the NPC’s Media Officer, to be invaluable. I also visited a few local newspaper archives and found useful reports. 

The NPA suffered from a perception that, because it was popularly expected to end violence and violence did not wholly cease, it had been ineffective and can therefore be forgotten. The raw national violence statistics show that the overall deaths ascribed to ‘political’ violence stayed at a high level, 2500 to 3500 per year between 1991 and 1994, only dropping markedly post-election. Closer examination reveals a pattern of effectiveness, with lapses in a few localities. The NPA practically terminated violence around rallies and marches, which had been a major source of fatalities. The exceptions were those few events where a party deliberately breached the Accord. The NPA also had success in bringing sustainable peace on the ground across most of the country. By 1994 ‘political’ deaths were mainly confined to the East Rand township area of ‘Kathorus’ and a few areas in KwaZulu-Natal. The remarkable peace that reigned, even in these areas, over the days of the April 1994 election was in no small part due to the work of the peace structures before and during the election. Political violence on the East Rand subsided rapidly post-election. The province of KwaZulu-Natal remained troubled, finally declaring peace between ANC and IFP in 1999, and kept its peace structures until 2001.

The TRC, unlike the NPA, left a large body of documentation, and the issues of truth, justice, peace and reconciliation attract great research interest. However it is easily forgotten that the TRC came late in the process: it was created after the 1994 election and held its hearings in 1996-98. It is important to be aware that in order to get to the TRC, there was first the NPA. 

Two short books, by Peter Gastrow, Bargaining for Peace (USIP 1995) and Susan Collin Marks, Watching the Wind(USIP 2000) convey some of the story. Peter Gastrow was a Democratic Party MP and served on the National Peace Secretariat and the Police Board; Susan Collin Marks was a mediator and trainer on the Western Cape RPC. Both authors were given sabbaticals by the US Institute of Peace in Washington DC, which took a great interest in the peace structures. They drew on their personal experience, using the records they had kept. I am aware of three other people who thought of writing a book, but did not: one was the Media Officer for the NPC and NPS, another the Regional Director in the Eastern Cape, and the third the Chief of Operations for the Commonwealth Observer Mission (COMSA). They did not secure sponsorship and were probably daunted on realizing that the story was so much bigger than the resources they had to hand.

How did such a deeply divided society manage to accomplish such an effective settlement?

There was a widespread political willingness for a negotiated settlement. Support for the apartheid system crumbled from within during the 1980s. Repressive laws and detentions failed to stop protests and insurgency. Mild political reforms failed to win hearts and minds. Internationally, the liberation movements enjoyed support but sanctions and the end of the Cold War left the white minority government isolated. South Africa assisted in making peace agreements in Angola and Namibia, and by 1990 it was clear to all but diehard ‘hawks’ that the days of apartheid were numbered, a protracted struggle would leave the country in ruins, and a peaceful settlement was possible and far preferable. Apartheid had tried to slice the people of South Africa apart. It had not succeeded; there was a strong feeling of common identity as South Africans. Despite deep distrust and wariness, most leaders converged on the idea of a negotiated settlement, accepting that it would entail some compromises.

To add to the willingness, South Africa was blessed with considerable technical capacity for negotiation. The NPA and the work of the structures benefitted from facilitation and training by a large cohort of lawyers who had already trained in alternative dispute resolution, often through the Harvard Negotiation Project, and had gained experience in negotiation during the 1980s through their involvement in labour relations. This cohort included Cyril Ramaphosa who became the ANC’s chief constitutional negotiator. So there was willingness, and expertise, and a shared desire to come to a settlement.

How well has the approach behind the NPA been adopted elsewhere?

The NPA illustrated the vital importance of providing, within a peace agreement, structures for its long-term monitoring and implementation. There is a growing awareness in peacebuilding circles of the long-term nature of peacebuilding, of its complexity and the need to operate on all levels down to grassroots as the NPA did, and of the important role that civil society can play in peace implementation.

Related to the above, the NPA also illustrated the usefulness of a statutory ‘infrastructure for peace’ in the sense of peace committees mandated to make and build peace throughout the nation. The South African peace structures are still the most comprehensive example of such an infrastructure. Partially analogous structures have appeared in Nepal and in several African countries including Ghana and Malawi. Andries Odendaal, who worked as a Coordinator in the Western Cape Region under the NPA, has written on this topic, again under the aegis of USIP, comparing local peace committees in various countries, in many of which he himself has worked: A Crucial Link. Local Peace Committees and National Peacebuilding (USIP 2013) Odendaal, Susan Collin Marks, and Peter Gastrow, are among a dozen or so NPA staff or facilitators who went on to international careers in peacebuilding and human security.

South Africa navigated its way through the transition, by adapting as the process moved forward and so finding a workable sequence of events. Roelf Meyer, the government’s lead negotiator both for the NPA and the Interim Constitution, recounts how, when speaking later to politicians in similar conflict situations overseas, he would recommend the Peace Accord as the first step in negotiating a peaceful settlement. The NPA introduced the political players to multiparty negotiations, laid down rules for peaceful democratic behaviour, and engaged the people in an ongoing nation-wide grassroots conflict resolution and peacebuilding process. Constitutional talks could then begin and the separate peace process could proceed in parallel with the talks. The NPA structures provided a safety net to which contentious issues could be referred, and held fast when the negotiations suffered boycotts or breakdown. The next step was to negotiate the Interim Constitution. Then the Interim Constitution had a codicil, agreed at the last moment to keep white right-wing military leaders onside, declaring that there would be amnesty. The amnesty process itself, in the form of the TRC, was devised after the 1994 election and held its hearings in 1996-98. The lesson to be drawn from this sequence of events is that it may be helpful in analogous contexts, to consider whether an NPA might be the most constructive first step. 

Now, many years later, what were the strengths of the Accord and in what way, if at all, has it failed?

(1)       The major strength of the NPA lay in its implementation structures. The negotiators recognized that peace was a process and would not suddenly come overnight. The structures gave politicians, the security forces, and civil society the opportunity to get to know and understand one another for the first time, with a mandate to offer an alternative to violence and to solve problems constructively. The result in many cases was real social cohesion. After 1994 it often happened that members of the new local and regional government bodies – including those previously at war with one another –already knew each other from the peace committees, making it easier to work together in the early years of democracy. 

(2)       Meeting each other on the committees and getting to know one another made a significant difference to police-community relations. When the NPA was being negotiated the SA Police were already planning reforms, to abandon the old style of repressive policing and adopt the philosophy of community policing, working co-operatively with communities. The provisions for the security forces in the NPA enshrine this new attitude, and the peace structures afforded the first opportunities to put this new style into practice.

(3)       Training in facilitation and conflict management was received by some 5,000 committee members and 20,000 peace monitors, countrywide, creating a culture of constructive conflict management. Peace monitors, often young, drawn from the warring parties and the general public, were trained and deployed to implement the Accord on the streets. Basic knowledge of conflict resolution, listening, and how to negotiate through explosive situations, was thus widely disseminated.

(4)       Violence had frequently occurred around political rallies, marches and funerals. The NPA enabled the joint planning and control of these events. With trained party marshals, trained peace monitors, and the security forces all working together, violence was eliminated  on the vast majority of occasions.

(5)       The peace committees provided the structure with which the International Observer Missions from the UN, OAU, EU and Commonwealth all worked, from August 1992 onwards. This boosted the status of the peace committees and gave the international bodies an unprecedented entrée into local situations throughout South Africa 

 (6)      The NPA held firm, despite breakdowns in the constitutional talks, so the peace structures provided a continuous parallel process of peacemaking and peacebuilding throughout the period 1991 to 1994. The initial constitutional negotiations, named Codesa, broke down in June 1992. Negotiations only re-started, as the ‘Multi-Party Negotiation Process’ (MPNP) in April 1993; and the IFP and right wingers soon boycotted the MPNP. Despite this, no major party ever threatened to pull out of the NPA. Instead the peace structures steadily grew, and party representatives were quietly working together for peace at grassroots, regional, and national levels throughout the transition period. 

(7)       The NPC and NPS carried out a nation-wide campaign to ‘market’ peace. The Peace Song, commissioned by the NPC, became effectively the first unifying national anthem. The National Peace Campaign in 1993-94, under the aegis of the NPS, succeeded in mobilising the population as a whole for peace. Literally millions wore T-shirts with the peace symbol of two flying doves, and the doves flew on car-stickers, taxis, banners, flagpoles, newspaper mastheads, nightly on TV, on badges, and peace monitor bibs. The national Peace Day on 2 September 1993 was a cathartic event, showing South Africa that it could make it: the country was, at heart, for peace. 

 (8)      The Accord was criticised for being ‘toothless’ because it had no coercive powers. Compliance depended on the good faith of the signatories, encouraged and admonished by the peace structures and not least by the civil society representatives and the Goldstone Commission. Inevitably breaches occurred, large and small, where a party or its supporters ignored the Accord in word or deed. The peace structures were there to respond. The National Peace Committee set up a Complaints Investigating Committee. Neither it nor the Goldstone Commission wielded any sanctions other than naming and shaming the culprits, but exposure to publicity did prove to be a deterrent. In 1993 the ANC and IFP leaders began to cease merely blaming others, to acknowledge the role that their supporters were playing in the violence, and to discourage it.

(9)       The Goldstone Commission had major successes in investigating violence at events and around taxis and trains, making positive recommendations to prevent future violence, and uncovering the nefarious activities of the ‘Third Force’. The ‘Third Force’ was perceived as a plot, possibly controlled at cabinet level, to instigate violence and thus undermine the process of change. Goldstone showed it to consist of a few operatives from the old ‘dirty tricks’ units, shielded by a few top police officers and not by government, who had continued after February 1990 to supply arms to the IFP or otherwise encourage grassroots violence. 

(10)     The long-term work of the committees and the presence and logistical capacity of 18,500 local peace monitors, had a powerful impact on the orderly and peaceful manner in which the election of 27 April 1994 took place.

 (11)    On failure, apart from those areas where the structures struggled to make peace, the great unfulfilled promise enshrined in the NPA was that of socio-economic reconstruction and development (SERD). The structures had a mandate, under Chapter 5 of the Accord, to promote activity in reconstruction and development, particularly with violence-affected or disadvantaged communities. But so pressing was the initial need to deal with the violence, that, apart from channelling immediate relief to survivors, SERD initially took a back seat. 

An early plan from the NPC’s SERD Sub-committee to roll out SERD training workshops nation-wide was aborted due to political suspicions. Ideas for local projects ran into foot-dragging by party members who wished to reserve development until after the coming election, when the glory would go to the ruling party. Nevertheless, some projects happened and significant expertise and experience in community-based development was built up during 1993-94 when the regions acquired fulltime SERD Co-ordinators. It was the general assumption among staff and many committee members that SERD would become the leading activity of the peace structures after the April 1994 election.

After the election however, the structures had over-spent their annual budget and needed a fresh injection of government funds, optimally R30 million which was available, in order to continue. The new Government of National Unity hesitated and finally in October, assuming that peace had been achieved, decided to dismantle the structures. Cabinet expressed the airy hope that the ‘capacity’ for development would find its way into the Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP). The peace offices were closed in December 1994. Then grassroots RDP structures largely failed to materialize.

KwaZulu-Natal alone kept its peace committees but they were severely under-resourced and in particular, in December 1994, their experienced, active and promising SERD component was discontinued. 

Thus, if there was a signal failure it was the failure to carry through and develop SERD training and facilitate community-level development after the 1994 election. This was not the fault of the Accord itself, nor of the structures, a significant proportion of which wanted to continue; it was a failure of comprehension and vision on the part of the new democratic government, which demobilized the masses in the belief that it could do everything itself. Political transformation was achieved; but socio-economic transformation lacked structures and vision. Peace was made, but much peacebuilding remains to do. Today, could some process like that of the NPA play a significant role in economic transformation?

Peacemaking and Peacebuilding in South Africa

The National Peace Accord, 1991-1994

by Liz Carmichael

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Hardcover, 9781847012562, 520pp, 35 b/w, 2 line illus.
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REVD DR LIZ CARMICHAEL MBE is an Emeritus Research Fellow at St John’s College, Oxford, where she convenes the peace studies network of Oxford University. She worked as a medical doctor in Soweto 1975-1981, and in the Anglican Diocese of Johannesburg 1991-1996 while also serving on the local and regional peace structures.