The Responsibility of Civil Society: Priorities, strategies, and concerns for reconciliation in South Africa

The Responsibility of Civil Society: Priorities, strategies, and concerns for reconciliation in South Africa

Koetz, M. (1994). The Responsibility of Civil Society: Priorities, strategies, and concerns for reconciliation in South Africa. Paper presented at the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation conference, Making Ends Meet: Reconciliation and reconstruction in South Africa, World Trade Centre, Johannesburg, 18 August.


Meverett Koetz

Paper presented at the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation conference, Making Ends Meet: Reconciliation and reconstruction in South Africa, World Trade Centre, Johannesburg, 18 August 1994.

Meverett Koetz is a former Senior Regional Coordinator of the Wits Vaal Peace Secretariat.


It is a great pleasure to be invited to this meeting to share my thoughts on the role of civil society in reconciliation in South Africa. I believe that by now many of you know that I am a member of the Wits Vaal Peace Secretariat. I am a senior regional coordinator and perform the functions of a mediator/facilitator in conflict resolution both at the local and regional level. The views I will be expressing today are my own and not those of the Wits Vaal Peace Secretariat. In order to effectively discuss the role of civil society in reconciliation, it becomes necessary to know about the current state of affairs in the areas that I work in.

The Current State of Affairs at the Grassroots Level

The belief that April 1994 had a great impact in the healing and reconciliation of the historically strained relations in South Africa is a wrong one. The communities of South Africa despite the end of apartheid and the establishment of a democratic government are still divided and unreconciled. The lack of a common value/loyalty means that there is still a great deal of mistrust, inequality, intolerance, disrespect and dishonesty.

Furthermore, the manifestation of conflict and violence once more means that the post-election honeymoon has been an artificial one. The conflict and violence which exists in our communities suggests the extent to which distrust, insecurity, suspicion and lack of respect for other cultures have become embedded in the lives and relationships of the South African society.

The continuation of violence contributes to homelessness, alienation, addiction to drugs, inability to reconstruct and develop the grassroots, and adds to the already large number of internal refugees. Ethnicity is still regarded as a unifying force which is not healthy to social solidarity.1 It needs to be noted that our township communities are still divided by the existence of the "No-Go" areas,2 and the "ghost" towns.3 The transport industry is also still divided into two i.e. ANC-aligned taxis and IFP-aligned taxis.4 The rate of unemployment is still high, and the most important, the proliferation of weapons in these townships is continuing at a great scale and is uncontrollable. There is still a police force which is poorly resourced and inactive in terms of protecting property and lives of people on the ground.

The present saturation of some townships by the SANDF and the relative stability which exists in these areas does not mean that there is peace.5 But what exists is an enforced stability.

Concerns for Reconciliation in South Africa

The existence of crime-producing conditions6 which prevails in some of these areas makes it very difficult to even start discussing reconciliation. For example, the high unemployment rate and continued deteriorating standards of living and the denial of basic survival needs such as shelter, basic services, and security contributes to the abnormality in some of these areas.

With the expectations so high7 and the fact that a large number of people at the grassroots level are passive spectators whilst the state is still battling to deliver jobs, makes them very vulnerable to the warlords,8 gun-smugglers, drug-dealers9 and splinter groups, who are able to give them something to live by.

The whole continued lack of a common value base is negative to the reconciliation of political groupings, armed groupings (e.g. SDUs10 and SPUs,11 conflicting church fraternal. Furthermore, the above is tempered by the lack of knowledge that a common loyalty and trust is not the work of the government alone but also of the South African society.

Civil society in some areas is too open (e.g. Kathorus).12 The situation which exists is a "nightmarish free for all kind"13 which is not positive for a genuinely democratic and open institutionalised domain.

The fact that there is no communication channel except through the media, and the fact that there is no freedom of movement, peaceful assembly, and political activity, means that a lot will still have to be done for the sake of reconciliation.


The preservation of the institutional distinction between the state and the interest groupings/civil society is crucial. This in a sense would give ordinary people political power to exercise in their various interest groups.

The state intervention in the whole range of social, political and cultural process taking place at the local/grassroots level should be discouraged, which is a condition of democracy in the complex society we live in.

At the end of the day, violence, unemployment and underdevelopment should be done away with. New sympathetic centres of loyalties should be created to drive people away from ethnic mentality as a vehicle of change.


A possible strategy to bring about reconciliation in our societies is through the use of the peace structures.14 It has to be known that the peace structures draw their support and membership across a wide variety of community organisations and political organisations. A high value is placed upon the grassroots which is a base from which civil society grows.

The peace structures have been able to bring together a broad section of political sector and interest groups who otherwise would have been enemies with one another.

The role played by the peace structures especially at the local level include the following:

  • Curbing violence through crisis intervention and negotiations.
  • Facilitation of a mechanism whereby the grassroots can themselves become builders of peace.
  • Building of a culture of consultation by taking decisions through consensus.
  • Promoting the notion that problems can be resolved around the table.
  • And organising value-sharing, vision and mission-building through workshops and seminars at the grassroots level.

All the above through the expertise and experience in conflict resolution is valuable in the whole process of reconciliation. At this point in time the peace structures are one of the few structures who are able to break the barriers between conflicting parties. The whole process of reconciliation can only succeed if socio-economic reconstruction and development forms part of the building of a constructive civil society.

The platform of contact, negotiation and consultation is very valuable to the bringing together of the almost plural and conflicting free-for-all civil society. The peace structures afford a communication channel between different contesting political and community groupings which is one of the essential ingredients in the process of reconciliation. The peace structures provide a rare system to manage and resolve stumbling blocks to reconciliation.


In summing up, it needs to be noted that there are too many stumbling blocks to reconciliation. Hence, it is crucial to provide structures for the management and regulation of conflict and oppositional relationships which exist between certain interest groups and the state.

This paper does not recommend courses of political action. One of the elementary requirements of social democracy, is that there exists a society of lively, engaged, and effective interest groupings, where the honour of action belongs to the many and not the few.

All in all, if reconciliation therefore means among others, the experience of and commitment to common or shared values at grassroots level, then mediation or facilitation techniques by the peace structures should be further advanced especially in bringing various communities at the local level around common values as well as shared vision and mission for the future. A feeling that South Africa belongs to all who live in it will have to be encouraged. This could be done by promoting a common loyalty and pride in South Africa. These could be achieved by creating a sense of security and recognition of our different cultures.


1 The East Rand people have been killed for being Zulus/Xhosas. For example, a person was killed for failing to explain his ethnic group.

2 "No-Go" areas are areas in the townships which are divided into two i.e. ANC-aligned and IFP-aligned. For example, the ANC-aligned areas are "No-Go" areas for IFP and vice versa.

3 "Ghost Towns" are areas which have been deserted by people because of feat of being killed because of political rivalry. They are Ghost Towns because they serve as buffer zones between warring factions and they also serve as battle zones. The example of a Ghost Town is Mngadi Section in Katlehong.

4 Because of the division of the townships into two, the transport industry was also divided into two. There are taxis serving the hostel residents and there are those serving the township residents. Also the trains in Katlehong are used by the IFP-aligned residents.

5 The Kathorus area is crawling with the soldiers and this state of affairs means that police cannot engage in warfare because of the foot patrols done by the soldiers and the fact that there is no chance to fight, but as soon as the soldiers scale down their foot patrols people run for their weapons to defend themselves or fight. There is still a continued fear of violence breaking out.

6 There is more than 60% unemployment rate in some of the East Rand townships. You also find that in one yard there is plus-minus six backyard shacks, and most of the people who live in these backyard shacks do not work. People strive to make a living in these areas.

7 People expected to get jobs after the ANC came into power. Some expected the hostels to be demolished as quickly as possible. An ordinary person on the ground does not understand when you say it takes time to build an economy and for jobs to be created. They expect something to be done about the conditions they live in as quickly as possible.

8 "Warlords" are people who control certain sectors of the townships by force. Some control it by the mere fact that they can secure certain things for people. These warlords are dangerous because whenever, for example, you want to speak to some members of the community, you have to go through that warlord for permission to do that. If he/she agrees then you can, if he does not agree then its tough luck.

9 Drug dealers operate freely in the townships and the market is good. It has to be recognised that the effects of the violence are vast in these areas. A lot of people use drugs as an escape in some of these areas. Splinter groups are groups which are not accountable to members of these communities. They are outcasts with their own agenda, at most times an anti-peace agenda. It is very difficult to trace them or know their leadership.

10 SDUs stands for Self Defence Units. The SDUs are armed formations created by township residents for their protection against attacks from whatever quarter. They are financed by collections made by the communities. For example, one household can contribute R20-00 per week for the buying of food, arms and ammunition for the unit members.

11 SPUs stands for Self Protection Units. These units are formed by the hostel residents. They are also subsidised by hostel residents for food, arms and ammunition.

12 Kathorus is an acronym for Katlehong, Thokoza and Vosloorus.

13 What I mean by a "nightmarish free for all" is a situation where somebody kills a person knowing that he/she will not get arrested and be brought to justice. Only a few complaints are investigated and none gets completed.

14 Peace structures are structures which have been set up because of the signing of the Peace Accord.

+ posts

CSVR is a multi-disciplinary institute that seeks to understand and prevent violence, heal its effects and build sustainable peace at the community, national and regional levels.

Related Content

Integrating Mental Health and Psychosocial Support into Transitional Justice in The Gambia: Practitioner Perspectives

African Truth Commissions and Survivors of Conflict-Related Sexual Violence

The African Union Transitional Justice Policy: Expanding the Frontiers of Transitional Justice

Transitional Justice in Africa: What's Human Rights Got to Do with It?

Afrocentric Conceptions of Conflict Transformation: Beyond Ubuntu Mythology and Romantic Traditionalism

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Translate »