26 Jan

John Brewer on the need for a sociological approach to peace processes

Posted By Politybooks

Over fifty people were killed in the Johannesburg area in 2009. This seems unsurprising given that it considered the murder capital of the world. The fifty or so people to whom I refer, however, are different: they were economic migrants from neighbouring states, drawn to South Africa by its status as rainbow nation and by the prospect of work. The display of very magnanimous forgiveness South Africans showed each other after the collapse of apartheid and the evident stability of its new non-racial political system makes it appear odd that strangers should be viciously attacked. South Africa’s peace process has been universalised and its processes of reconciliation, truth recovery and memory management have been championed as examples for other societies undergoing a democratic transition to peace. A sociological approach to peace processes, however, identifies the weaknesses in South Africa’s transition. The peace process was an elite compromise at the top, in which Black people felt everything would change because they now held political power and Whites felt nothing would change because they retained control of the economy. This is no conundrum. South Africa’s peace process has essentially been about the introduction of good governance structures to deliver institutional reform. This approach to peace processes is the dominant one in the West and argues that the introduction of democratic politics, human rights law and free market economics is the way either to eliminate conflict or allow its reproduction in non-violent ways. We might call this a political approach to peace processes. It is based on the naïve assumption that once problematic politics are resolved, social healing, reconciliation and restoration follow on naturally. South Africa – and all other political peace processes – illustrate that they do not. Underlying the political peace process is a social one; the social peace process is about societal healing, forgiveness, the restoration of social relationship and the like. Good governance approaches neglect the social peace process or take it for granted. A sociological approach to peace processes, however, prioritises it, taking for granted that institutional reform is essential and must proceed in parallel. For all the institutional reform in South Africa, there has been very little societal healing. Frustrated economic expectations, fierce competition for economic resources and huge unemployment spilled over into attacks on strangers. The incidents offer no  better demonstration of the need for a sociological approach to peace processes: of the need to address issues of justice, fairness and social redistribution in addition to ending the killings; of the need for good governance institutional reform to be introduced in a context in which issues of victimhood are also dealt with, where public policies are forged to manage the problem of social reintegration for ex-combatants or assist with the empowerment of women, the deconstruction of violent masculinities amongst ex-combatants, or which deal with the management of emotions, introduce spaces for hoping and forgiving, assist in bottom-up truth recovery and forms of memory work that help in the re-remembering and re-memorialisation of the past. These are the topics that go to define the sociology of peace processes.