News & Media

Harmony Model may hold key to peace in ‘violent’ Africa

Unisa’s Institute for Dispute Resolution in Africa says the continent has communities that may yet hold the secrets to bringing about peace in the most conflict-ridden of societies.

Often typecast as the violent continent, Africa has communities that may yet hold the secrets to bringing about peace in the most conflict-ridden of societies. Evidence of this has been revealed in a landmark community-based project on dispute resolution among the San people of Platfontein near Kimberley in the Northern Cape.

“From the initial genocides of the San to the pressures of dealing with modern society, this is a community that has learnt to survive and deal with violent conflict,” says Dr Andreas Velthuizen, senior researcher at Unisa’s Institute for Dispute Resolution in Africa (IDRA).

“Not only did they survive pressures from both European and other African cultures, they also survived the Cold War that brought violent rivalry to Africa, and the demands of many years under the apartheid government. The San, especially the elders, have ‘lived experience’ that you won’t find in any book.”

African solutions to conflict on the continent

Before embarking on the San Dispute Resolution Project in Platfontein in 2013, Velthuizen and Professor John Faris, head of IDRA, had researched post-conflict dispute resolution in some of Africa’s most strife-torn countries, including Rwanda, Southern Sudan and northern Uganda.

This experience helped shape the IDRA’s “Harmony Model” of dispute resolution – an African problem-solving model that sees disputes as stemming from interconnected relationships that have been broken and must be restored.

“In Rwanda, for example, we encountered the Gacaca court system, meaning ‘justice on the grass’, a form of community-based justice for ‘category three genocidaires’,” says Velthuizen. In these informal courts, hundreds of thousands of people who had committed lesser crimes during the genocide in Rwanda had the opportunity to publicly confess their crimes and ask for forgiveness.

Partnering with Platfontein San

In Platfontein, IDRA formed a partnership with the 7 000-strong San community to revitalise the community’s ancient dispute resolution wisdom.

“This wasn’t a charity project or a one-sided extraction of knowledge but an equal partnership with very specific goals,” Velthuizen says. “As scholars, we needed the community’s help to continue developing our Harmony Model so that it can be applied elsewhere to resolve complex problems. At the same time, we were also bringing solutions to the community.”

Chief among these solutions was the rediscovery of the San’s own tradition of peaceful dispute resolution. Despite many centuries of successfully weathering violent conflict, the Platfontein San of the 21st century were experiencing high levels of intra-community strife fuelled by a complex web of factors.

“This is an extremely poor, marginalised community that is trying to deal with the stresses of modern society. Unemployment is very high and there is a constant struggle for resources, including access to basic services like clean water and proper sanitation systems,” Velthuizen says.

“Post-traumatic stress is prevalent because the San fought in Angola with the Portuguese and with the former South African Defence Force in Namibia, where they experienced many horrors. Then there are the reminders, passed down through the community’s oral culture as well as formal history, of genocide against the San.”

Thus, the age-old dispute-resolution knowledge that once served the community so well had fallen into disuse. The knowledge was still there, albeit deeply hidden, but has had to be brought back to life and put back into daily practice.

This meant the dispute resolution project with IDRA was a mutual learning experience for all concerned.

Academic authors and San knowledge holders joined together at a writers’ retreat at Freedom Park.

True community participation

“Everyone had to benefit and everything was done jointly. We used the community-engaged participatory research method from the beginning, from obtaining informed consent and defining the research problem and methodology, to gathering and interpreting the data, and ensuring joint ownership of the database,” says Velthuizen.

The starting point was to identify the challenges standing in the way of peace in Platfontein. The community identified 10 young people who had completed matric and could speak English, Afrikaans and the two local San languages, !Xun and Khwe. After being trained as fieldworkers, these young people conducted interviews with 200 Platfontein residents, gathering data on the nature and causes of conflict within the community.

Next, the elders of Platfontein were asked to interpret the data by building a conflict map, which took the form of a one-dimensional, paper baobab tree with many roots and branches showing the intricacies and complexities of conflict in the community. “We had the most wonderful discussions in four languages; the elders speak from lived experience,” Velthuizen says.

The project team then invited other San people living outside Platfontein for their views. “They identified similarities and things we hadn’t seen, resulting in a broader San perspective.”

Combining the old and the new

The result was a hybrid dispute resolution model blending modern and traditional San peace-making methods, which were based on dialogue, consensus, patience and common sense. (For instance, traditionally, when San women sensed trouble brewing among the men, they would hide their weapons, giving the men no choice but to talk until they made peace.)

The results were then presented at a scholarly conference in Pretoria, followed by a three-day writing retreat, also in Gauteng, for 40 members of the Platfontein San community and scholars from a host of different disciplines, including archaeology, military history, law, management science, socio-economics and African studies.

As a result of the writers’ retreat, no fewer than eight articles were published in a special edition of the Journal for Transdisciplinary Research in Southern Africa, Velthuizen says. “So far, 11 articles have been published on the Platfontein Dispute Resolution Project, another article has been submitted and five more articles are in progress.”

In addition, 225 members of the Platfontein community have attended community dispute resolution workshops, jointly developed and presented by trainers from the community and IDRA researchers.

The same workshop has been presented to San students from Namibia, Botswana and other communities in South Africa, extending this knowledge to the San throughout Southern Africa.

Impact on the community

Most interesting of all, perhaps, are the findings of an impact assessment conducted in November 2015 among 200 members of the Platfontein San community: 90% agreed that after participating in the project, they had a better understanding and attitudes towards resolving disputes on community level.

Almost all the respondents confirmed they had acquired the skills to participate in dispute resolution based on the values of human respect and dignity.

Ancient wisdom lives on.