The quest for peace – stumbling blocks and opportunities


During the past few years I have had the opportunity of getting to know people who are involved in conflict situations in countries around the world: in Northern Ireland; Cyprus, Israel, Russia and Yugoslavia.  And, of course, I have my own intimate experience of our own conflict here in South Africa during the 1980s.


What has struck me is that in nearly all these cases, apart from wild radical elements, most of the people caught up on the main sides of these conflicts have been basically decent human beings.  For the most part they want the same things for themselves and their families: they want peace and security; they want justice; they want economic and social growth; they want a better life for their children; they want meaningful political rights.


What divides these people?  What prevents them from joining hands and working out solutions that will enable them to achieve the basic goals that they all share?


I believe that the following five barriers divide people caught up in such conflicts:


The first is their sense of threat.  If a community believes that it is under attack, that the lives and property of its members are in jeopardy; that its economic and cultural interests are being threatened, it will always close ranks against members of what it perceives to be the threatening community.  It will no longer regard them as fellow human beings with their own interests but as the enemy.  For this reason no-one in the United States would have invited a Japanese person home to dinner in 1942 – regardless of his or her personal attitudes and qualities – or, indeed, regardless of whether or not they were themselves American citizens equally opposed to the aggression of the Japanese Empire.


The second barrier between communities is their bitter memories of past wrongs and injustices.  Sometimes memories of past injustices go back hundreds of years – as with the case of the Serbs and the Moslems in Kosovo;  as with the case of the Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland who still celebrate the Battle of the Boyne at the end of the 17th century.  So it is with the Israelis and the Palestinians today:  each side has its litany of past wrongs and grievances which they are often deeply reluctant to abandon.  These long-held – and sometimes jealously nurtured – memories make it difficult for members of the communities involved to see one another as human beings with reasonable interests and concerns.


The third barrier to positive relations between members of different communities is prejudice.  People from one community view people from the other community, not as individuals but in terms of racial and ethnic stereotypes.  This was the case in history in respect of how the colonial powers dealt with Africans.  It was also one of the foundations on which Hitler built his Reich and based his onslaught on the Jewish people.


The fourth impediment to harmonious relations arises from the rigid ideologies and closed belief systems of the nations or communities involved.  Twenty years ago it would have been difficult for convinced free-market democrats to break through to people from other communities who were convinced communists.  People who are caught in rigid ideologies view individuals from other groups, which hold different beliefs, not as human beings but in terms of their ideological categories – as class enemies;  as infidels;  as dirty reds.  This was also the case in South Africa, where for so long fellow South Africans viewed each other through the rigid paradigm of race.  Today it is true of Al Qaida and its cohorts which dismisses all Americans as the sons and daughters of Satan.  It is very difficult to have real dialogue between people who cleave to rigid belief systems.


Finally, gross inequality between members of one community and members of another often prevents individuals in both communities from seeing one another as human beings.  They view each other through the prism of their power relationship.  The powerful tend to dehumanize the powerless; they are insensitive to their needs and concerns.  And the powerless often blame the powerful in terms of their own experience of repression and their perceptions of exploitation.


How can we break down these barriers?


We can break down the barrier of threat and fear by assuring communities that their basic and reasonable interests are secure;  that they need not fear attack on their lives and persons;  that their reasonable economic and cultural interests are secure;  that they will be treated with consideration and justice.


In the early nineties we South Africans took the historic step of negotiating across all the barriers of the past.  The result was an excellent constitution that parties representing majorities from all our communities endorsed.


The constitution provides all the individuals and all communities in our country with the assurance that their basic individual and communal rights and freedoms will be safeguarded by the state and the institutions that we created for this purpose.  It is accordingly of the greatest importance for continued peace between our communities that all the rights assured by the constitution should be respected and upheld.


Unfortunately, under the pressure of necessary but over-zealous transformation, some of those rights are beginning to erode – particularly in the areas of non-discrimination, property and cultural, language, education and religious rights.  If this tendency continues the sense of threat among some of our communities will undoubtedly increase and they will inevitably become alienated from other communities.  We cannot afford this.


We should address our legacy of grievances and memories of past wrongs by first taking the difficult step of forgiving those who have wronged us – or our forefathers. We must remember that we forgive others not for their own sake but primarily for ourselves.  We cannot liberate ourselves from the power of our enemies until we truly forgive them.  Nor can we start to develop new constructive relationships until we do so.


Forgiveness alone is not enough though.  There must be restitution.  In our case, we needed to put right that which was wrong.  I believe that we went a long way to doing so when we abolished apartheid and took the initiative to establish a new society based on justice for all and committed to the attainment of equality.


However, we still have some way to go before we can find true reconciliation.  Despite its many achievements, the TRC did not succeed in promoting meaningful reconciliation between the parties to our former conflicts.  The sad fact is that each party emerged from the process with its own divergent view of the conflict of the past and the realities of the present.  Most black South Africans and White South Africans still hold very different views of the nature of the country that we share.  There is still much work that remains to be done before we can achieve real reconciliation.


We can break down barriers of prejudice through education, communication and interaction.  South Africa remains more an archipelago than a country.  Most of us still live on our own cultural islands and seldom cross the bridges to other communities.  We still know too little of one another’s daily lives;  of one another’s histories and cultures; of one another’s problems and aspirations.  All our communities need to take active steps to learn more about each other.  We need to move out of our laagers and to actively become involved in building bridges.


We can deal with the barriers of rigid ideology and closed belief systems through toleration and introspection.  We all need to examine our own belief systems and open them up to the light of critical scrutiny.  We must learn to tolerate and respect the beliefs and ideals of others.  Our own transformation process in South Africa was greatly helped by the simultaneous collapse of the communist and apartheid ideologies during the 1980s.  We could not have reached a peaceful agreement if we had not been prepared to negotiate with parties which came from diametrically different backgrounds, ideologies and belief systems from those that we held.


Finally, we can break down barriers created by unequal power relationships by empowering those who are disempowered.  We, in South Africa, succeeded in doing this on the political and constitutional fronts in 1994 – but much remains to be done in the economic and social spheres.  That is why our constitution enjoins us to promote the political, social and economic equality of all South Africans.  None of us can be truly secure while so many of countrymen continue to languish in circumstances of poverty and deprivation.  All of us need to join hands to address this challenge.


Security and justice; forgiveness and reconciliation; education, communication and interaction;  toleration and self-examination; empowerment and development are the keys to breaking down the barriers between communities.  We, in South Africa, have made considerable progress in breaking down such barriers during the past thirteen years – but as I have tried to point out – much remains to be done.


I suspect that the same qualities – which are so easy to identify and so difficult to implement – also lie at the root of the solution to conflicts in other parts of the world – including Israel.