The government of South Africa has taken bold constitutional steps to reduce tension, but the continuing ethnic and religious conflicts raise questions about the effectiveness of these mechanisms.
Ethnic conflict has been at the heart of both South Africa’s development problems. Politicised ethnicity has been detrimental to national unity and socio-economic well-being. It is important to note that most of these ethnic conflicts were caused by colonialism, which compounded inter-ethnic conflict by capitalising on the isolation of ethnic groups. The divide-and-conquer method was used to pit ethnicities against each other, thus keeping the people from rising up against the colonisers. Distribution of economic resources was often skewed to favour a particular group, pushing marginalized groups to use their ethnicity to mobilise for equality. These are the seeds of conflict.
There are some common conflict patterns. They include:
1. The demand for ethnic and cultural autonomy,
2. Competing demands for land, money and power, and
3. Conflicts taking place between rival ethnic groups.
Ethnicity has a strong influence on one's status in a community. Ethnic conflicts are therefore often caused by an attempt to secure more power or access more resources. Conflict in Africa is synonymous with inequality. Wherever such inequality manifests among groups, conflict is inevitable.
Economic factors have been identified as one of the major causes of conflict in Africa. Ethnic communities violently compete for property, rights, jobs, education, language, social amenities and good health care facilities.
Another major cause of ethnic conflict is psychology, especially the fear and insecurity of ethnic groups during transition. It has been opined that extremists build upon these fears to polarise the society. Additionally, memories of past traumas magnify these anxieties. Ethnic conflict is a sign of a weak state or a state embroiled in ancient loyalties.
Ethnicity will remain, and that the stability of African states is threatened not by ethnicity per se, but the failure of national institutions to recognise and accommodate ethnic differences and interests. The lesson for ethnic conflict management is that governments should not discriminate against groups or they will create conflict. Ethnicity is a biological and fixed characteristic of individuals and communities.
Mostly as a result of distributive injustice, ethnicity remains an effective means of survival and mobilization. Ethnic groups that form for economic reasons, easily disband after achieving their objectives. Ethnicity is "a construct" rather than a constant.
Ethnic conflict explains that ethnic groups fight because they are denied not only their biological needs, but also psychological needs that relate to growth and development. These include peoples' need for identity, security, recognition, participation, and autonomy.
Conflict management means constructive handling of differences. It is an art of designing appropriate institutions to guide inevitable conflict into peaceful channels. Conflict is inevitable in any society where people are denied their basic human needs for identity, equality, recognition, security, dignity and participation. It is also likely wherever the performance of a government is believed to be against the national interest and where government policy is biased in favour of a certain ethnic group.
The role of good political leadership cannot be overemphasized., the importance of civil society in ethnic conflict management.
Peace in Africa is not the absence of war, but the provision of the people's basic human needs.