Skip to main content

School of Social and Political Science: Undergraduate study


Phil Kirk / The ACTION Support Centre

Phil Kirk is an MSc student of International Development and is conducting a work-based placement with The ACTION Support Centre in Johannesburg, South Africa on Local Peace Committees. With a background in photography and human rights, he worked in India, Nepal and the UK.

Local Capacities for Peace: Meditative Relationships and their Effect on Conflict

In South Africa there has been a long history of using violence to resolve conflict at the individual and community level. Under the apartheid system the police became a key instrument of state oppression, causing them to be seen as illegitimate by South Africa's majority non-white population. To fill the gap, less formal forms of policing evolved, often deploying violence against those perceived to be criminals, and against political enemies.

Today the police are no longer used to oppress the population in the way they once were. However, more than twenty years after the fall of apartheid, for many South Africans the police continue to lack legitimacy, often being characterised as both corrupt and ineffectual. With the state unable to successfully claim the "monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force" (Weber 1919), not only are crime rates high, but violence remains a common strategy for people to sort out their problems.

Evidence of this can be seen in this year's outbreak of xenophobic violence. Following an incident in January where a South African teenager was shot and killed by a Somali shop owner in Soweto, widespread rioting and looting spread across South Africa, leaving hundreds of shops looted, thousands of people displaced, and at least seven people dead.

Communal violence like this is often born out of incidences of inter-personal conflict. While larger processes may create a context where violence is likely, they certainly do not make it inevitable. Despite the perception that such violence is popular and communal, in reality many communities actively resist violence on a daily basis. My work with the ACTION Support Centre focuses on the way communities generate peace, and in particular the role of inter personal relationships within this process.

ACTION has been working to re-establish local peace committees, structures that were originally created in 1991 to make the transition to democracy more peaceful. These committees, made up of community members, work within their local area, using their community contacts to mediate disputes and prevent violence.

Most research on micro level conflict has focused on the attitudes and interactions of the main parties involved. However, inter-personal conflicts do not happen in a vacuum, but take place within a complex web of social relationships. While interactions between the main parties are obviously important, these relationships are always mediated by relationships one or both parties maintain - be it the calming influence of a relative, the intimidation of a gangster, or the encouragement of a peer. These mediating relationships may decide either party's response to a conflict, including the decision to use violence. 

Working in Soweto, the township on the outskirts of Johannesburg, I have been interviewing young women and men about the disputes that arise in their communities, and who is likely to get involved. Of particular interest are questions of legitimacy, and how factors such as gender, age and social standing impact upon the legitimacy that these mediating actors may be seen to possess.

By mapping these relationships, which may have capacities for peace or for violence, we are better able to understand where peace initiatives should be targeted, and who must be included for sustainable peace to be achieved.

Phil Kirk