On Saturday the 14th September 1991 something unprecedented happened. The National Peace Accord was signed by all the major political organisations in South Africa* at the Carlton Hotel in Johannesburg. The agreement called on political parties to lay down their weapons in order to create an environment conducive to free and fair negotiations. It was the first peace accord in history to be signed by warring parties during, rather than after, a conflict.
With the unbanning of the various political organisations and the release of political prisoners in the early part of 1990, the future of South Africa balanced on a precipice. The National Party were desperately trying to hold onto the remnants of their power in the face of fierce opposition from the ANC and other political parties. Rather than seeing political violence declining as apartheid drew to an end, the number of deaths had escalated dramatically, with political subterfuge being the order of the day. In an effort to quell the violence, leaders of 23 organisations and political parties committed themselves to the peace process by signing the National Peace Accord (NPA).
The structure of the NPA included a National Peace Secretariat, 11 regional peace committees, more than 200 local peace committees, and approximately 15 000 peace monitors. The peace committees were involved in trying to resolve a wide range of disputes, including issues around permits for political marches, boycotts, and industrial action, such as hospital workers’ or teachers’ strikes. There was great mistrust of the police, who understandably were viewed as agents of the government rather than protectors of the people. As such, police presence often escalated violence, rather than combatting it. Formal negotiation structures were established in terms of the NPA. In the Wits/Vaal region, for example, the peace committee brokered an agreement whereby the marshals would form the first line of defence, the peace monitors the second, with the SAP being the third and last resort.
The peace committees would deploy peace monitors to most political events. Peace monitors represented all races and political affiliations, worked on a volunteer basis, and were trained in negotiation and conflict resolution techniques.
Monitors would often enter very dangerous and sometimes life-threatening situations in order to try to resolve disputes before violence could erupt, and had to deal with the emotional and psychological trauma of seeing the effects of violence day after day. Volunteer psychologists played an important role in the process by helping the peace monitors to deal with the trauma of what they were exposed to. Although perhaps insufficient, private business also played its part by providing resources. Catering companies might offer food, with car hire businesses providing vehicles for peace monitors, and paint and construction companies helping to rebuild war-torn townships.
The National Peace Accord and its associated structures thankfully had a positive impact. The combined effort of local peace monitors and international observers drastically reduced the violence which had previously been rife during political demonstrations and marches. In fact violence in most areas of the country fell substantially once the peace structures began to take effect:
Following a shaky start, the peace structures have engaged in a slow, stubborn attrition, pushing violence back…..Could it be because more ordinary people are talking, training and practising non-violent conflict resolution in today’s South Africa than anywhere in the world?” Bishop Peter Storey, The Star, 24th December 1993
The peace monitors deployed in the early 1990s played a crucial role in reimposing the rule of law and bringing peace to many strife-torn communities. Volunteers working as monitors acted as buffers between political groups and security forces, demonstrating how negotiation and conflict resolution skills can be used to control opposing groups and limit violence without the use of counter-violence.
But peace doesn’t come cheap. Funding for the NPA was provided by government, with the budget for the 1993/4 financial year being recorded as R41.175 million. These funds were topped up by British and Danish contributions, but still did not come anywhere close to reflecting the actual costs of maintaining the peace structures. Without the aid the volunteer monitors, South Africa’s relatively peaceful transition to a democratic society may not have been possible.
* The Pan African Congress and Azanian People’s Organisation attended the proceedings, but refused to sign the accord, stating that they didn’t want to be part of any structure that included the government. They were also not convinced that the political environment in South Africa was conducive to liberation armies laying down their weapons.