Community conflict – the path to peace

2012-04-28 16:08

South Africa loses billions of rands annually as a result of community conflicts. The loss is not just financial; it takes a toll on human dignity, which in turn gives rise to negative social consequences.

The worst community conflict post-1994 in Cape Town occurred on September 21 2010 in Hangberg (Hout Bay) and was resolved by mediation.

Subsequently, there was an attempt to get an eviction order from the Western Cape High Court to remove the people living illegally on the Sentinel mountain.

But Justice John Hlophe advised the parties to use mediation as a strategic process, given the sociolegal complexities associated with the matter.

After 10 months of active mediation, a Hangberg peace and mediation accord was signed on September 20 2011 by the City of Cape Town, the provincial government of the Western Cape, the South African National Parks Board and the Hangberg Peace and Mediation Forum as the recognised leaders of the Hangberg community.

At a practical level, for community conflicts to be resolved on a sustainable basis, there has to be political will and determination by those with decision-making power. This was a central factor in the resolution of the Hangberg conflict – there was a serious political commitment to formally end the conflict and to use the peace process as an opportunity to rebuild the community.

At the centre of the peace and mediation process was the community, and its peace and mediation forum leadership. Without the passion, insight and dedication of this community leadership, there was no prospect of reaching an agreement to end the crisis.

This community-driven peace and mediation accord became part of a final Order of the Western Cape High Court on November 21 2011. Any party’s failure to implement it can result in contempt-of-court charges.

This accord is the first of its kind in South Africa, and provides the different levels of government with an opportunity to review their approach to community conflicts and reconstruction. It is an example to South Africa that peace is possible even in cases of the worst forms of community conflict.

It opens up the space for strengthening the creation of new knowledge in the field of mediation, peace building and community reconstruction in the context of a transitional South Africa. Its design provides a model that is directed at coherent integrated community development. The principles and reasoning inherent in conflict transformation concepts and theories are reflected in core elements of the accord.

Research and scientific approaches will be enriched by the knowledge-creation systems that were activated to achieve the accord.
This complex mediation process applied a number of theoretical approaches to get to a point where all the parties could fully accept the logic that drives the accord.

The rebuilding of South Africa can truly emerge only from the base of society and we should heed the words of Archbishop Thabo Makgoba, Chancellor of the University of the Western Cape (UWC), who says: “All of us must remember that those who are in greatest need are those whose voices we are least likely to hear, whose influence upon us is likely to be far weaker than that of those already enjoying power, wealth and status . . . We need to take account of the small, the hidden, the marginalised, the weak, the poor. Indeed, more often than not, we need to put them first. Only in this way can we turn around the systemic injustices that are legacies of the past or symptoms of current unsustainable policies.”

The peace and mediation forum as the Hangberg community leadership is an authentic democratic, grass-roots organisation. To get the mediation process under way, the other three parties in the community needed to elect representatives.

Elections took place over a seven-week period.

The representatives were chosen by community constituencies based on geographical location and themes. For example, rental dwellers living in the community at various locations elected their representatives and so did back yard dwellers. This was also the case for ratepayers and others.

Another important factor in the process was the strategic supportive role of UWC and a number of its convocation members. The convocation comprises all UWC graduates and its academics, scientists and executives.

The mediation team was responsible for the strategic coordination of all the engagements with the different parties and for the design and direction of the processes.

This coordination made it possible for a structure to emerge within which the various competing and contradictory forces could be heard and managed.

The mediation team comprised people trusted by the community and other partners, and who possessed the appropriate skills to make the necessary interventions.

The path to the accord reflected a complex interplay of processes, and people from different perspectives and sociocultural backgrounds who were committed to peace and mediation principles. They meaningfully engaged one another against the backdrop of powerful elements that were opposed to the resolution of the conflict. These antagonistic elements have an interest in the ongoing chaos, and seek to profit from the perpetuation of the conflict and the increasing destitution of the community.
The accord contains two primary elements. Firstly, it resolved the immediate crisis of eviction threats by making provision for illegal occupants on the Sentinel to receive security of tenure once they move back into the community. The second aspect involves a sustainable development model of community reconstruction.

Out of conflict and chaos, the peace and community reconstruction agreements were formulated.

Central to the accord is a mandate to design cluster development plans for each sector of the community. These include a social development plan, a human settlements plan, an economic development plan, an education plan, a plan for community safety, a health services plan, and a sport and recreation plan.

Green spaces on the Sentinel will be created for the community for recreational and tourist purposes. In addition, all private land on the mountain will be expropriated with appropriate compensation.

It took a painful tragedy to rebuild Hangberg with this ground-breaking model. For Ikramudeen Halim, one of the residents who lost an eye in the conflict, this was an emotional journey.

“My support for the peace and mediation process is a spiritual one, and I am better able to accept the permanent loss of my eye in the knowledge that the whole community gained an opportunity for a new beginning,” he said.

So many innocent people were harmed on September 21 2010. Shots were fired, eyes were lost, many informal homes destroyed, an estimated 70 people were injured and an entire community was traumatised.

Despite this, the community of Hangberg and its partners forged a relationship that produced a gift to the nation in the form of a peace and mediation accord.

This is the marvel of our country. Out of the depth of such intense conflict, we are able to create peace, reconciliation and reconstruction. In this sense, Hangberg is a metaphor and a source of inspiration for poor communities in Cape Town, South Africa, Africa and elsewhere in the world who are caught up in conflict.

» Williams is mediator for Hangberg, Cape Town

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