Peacebuilding in South Africa: A Brief Historical Overview

Peacebuilding in South Africa: A Brief Historical Overview – Understand


The peacebuilding sector in South Africa emerged during the colonial penetration of South Africa. It originates from predominantly two distinct religious/philosophical strands, namely that of the Religious Society of Friends (or Quakers), a faith-based movement that has its roots in Christianity; and Satyagraha, drawn from a variety of religious and philosophical teachings, which was popularised by Mohandas Ghandi in the early 20th century.

It is important to note that there were peacebuilding practices that were undertaken by indigenous communities in South Africa prior to colonial intervention, but these practices did not constitute a coherent peace movement. It was only with the establishment of the South African Native National Congress (SANNC) in 1912, the precursor to the ANC, that an organised peacebuilding approach emerged. This generally involved lobbying advocacy efforts against the discriminatory laws and policies of the Union and apartheid governments.

The Quaker Movement

The Quaker movement was founded in England in the middle of the seventeenth century in opposition to mainstream Christianity at the time, which George Fox, the founder of Quakerism, regarded as overly hierarchical, ritualistic and unequal. Quakers take a highly individualistic approach to the practice of religion. Members typically engage in personal spiritual searching. They believe that an aspect of God’s spirit exists in every human soul, and hence they perceive all persons to have an inherent worth, independent of their gender, race, age, nationality, religion, and sexual orientation. The main defining features of the Quaker movement are consequently: pacifism, tolerance and non-discrimination​1.

One of the first examples of peace activism by a Quakers was during the 1834 war between the Xhosa people and the European settlers in the village of Salem, in what is now the Eastern Cape province. According to Mostert:2

When a force of Xhosa warriors approached it [Salem], one of the inhabitants, a Quaker and a pacifist, went out and accosted them, demanding to know why they wished to harm innocent people. He distributed bread, meat and tobacco among them. The approach seemed to work. The Xhosa turned away and the village came through unscathed.

Over the next 150 years, Quakers were to take public stands against armed conflict, the militarization of the South African state and society, as well as apartheid. For example, elements of the Quaker movement were outspoken against the second Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902), and the manner in which it was conducted​3. Following the unification of South Africa in 1910, Quakers secured their recognition as conscientious objectors to military conscription in defence legislation and policy. Quakers also played a key role in the anti-militarization movement of the 1980s​4

Satyagraha and Non-Violent Resistance in South Africa

Satyagraha or “truth force” was the doctrine that informed non-violent resistance and civil disobedience by elements from within the Indian communities towards discriminatory British rule in South Africa between 1907 and 19155. This approach resulted in Indian settlers in South Africa being granted citizenship. However, laws and policies discriminating against South Africans of Indian origin remained in place. Critically, some of the central tenets of Satyagraha were incorporated into many of the anti-apartheid strategies of black South Africans. This was the case with the “Campaign of Defiance against Unjust Laws” in 1952, which was led by the African National Congress (ANC) and the South African Indian Congress (SAIC). This campaign involved the coordination of deliberate contraventions of apartheid laws and policies, such as the pass laws and curfew regulations. This development signified the genesis of popular non-racial, non-violent resistance to apartheid in South Africa​6.

The Quaker Movement

Quakers believe that an aspect of God’s spirit exists in every human soul, and hence they perceive all persons to have an inherent worth, independent of their gender, race, age, nationality, religion, and sexual orientation.The main defining features of the Quaker movement are consequently: pacifism, tolerance and non-discrimination​​​1.


Satyagraha or “truth force” is drawn from a variety of religious and philosophical teachings. It was popularised by Mohandas Ghandi in the early 20th century.

1948 to the 1960s

Between 1948 and the late-1960s, a handful of civil society organisations emerged that were concerned about the negative implications of apartheid, and initiated non-violent opposition to, and protest of the system.  One of the most prominent such organisations was the Women’s Defence of the Constitution League (WDCL), which was originally established as a consequence of the National Party (NP)’s amendments to the South African Constitution. These amendments were geared towards removing coloured people from the Voters Role in the Cape Province, and entrenching the NP’s grasp on the levers of power. The WCDL became more commonly referred to as the Black Sash, the result of the black sashes worn by those members who undertook protest vigils in public places as an expression of their opposition to the NP government. Within a few years the Black Sash was transformed into the leading women’s human rights organisation in South Africa.

The South African Council of Churches (SACC), which had formerly been constituted as the Christian Council of South Africa, was created to be an umbrella body for Christian churches in South Africa to co-ordinate inter-church debate and action. Justice and reconciliation were the main focus of the SACC. Consequently, it was publicly critical of the apartheid government, and provided considerable support to those that suffered severely due to apartheid laws and policies.  The organisation gained particular public prominence under the leadership of Archbishop Desmond Tutu (1978-1985), who was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of his peace-making efforts in South Africa7.

Peacebuilding in South Africa: 1970s

From the early-1970s the peacebuilding segment of civil society began to expand and diversify. This was largely in response to the compulsory conscription of white males by the apartheid state into the South African Defence Force (SADF), as well as the deployment of the SADF in Namibia (then South West Africa) and Angola. A war resistance movement emerged within universities and churches in support of an emergent collection of conscientious objectors.

The 1980s

In 1983, the war resistance movement, which now included a wide range of support from both religious and non-religious sectors, began to actively campaign to bring an end to military conscription. To co-ordinate these efforts the End Conscription Campaign (ECC) was established with branches throughout South Africa and drew support from more than 50 organisations throughout South Africa.

From the mid-1980s a significant number of civil society organisations with a peacebuilding agenda began to emerge, such as the Institute for a Democratic Alternative in South Africa (now referred to as the Institute for Democracy in South Africa) and the Quaker Peace Centre. Smaller peace-oriented organisations, such as the Centre for Inter-Group Studies (now the Centre for Conflict Resolution) began to expand in size. Loosely constructed organisations and networks also emerged, which were predominantly seeking peaceful solutions to the state repression, armed conflict and violence in South Africa. This development was part of the larger anti-apartheid momentum that had developed in the trade unions and within the Black, Coloured and Indian townships. In particular, the United Democratic Front (UDF) was established in 1983 and rapidly became one of the most prominent non-racial anti-apartheid movements.

Between 1987 and 1994, South Africa civil society organisations began to initiate significant national peacebuilding processes. In 1987, Hendrik van der Merwe, director of the Centre for Intergroup Studies and Frederik van Zyl Slabbert, head of IDASA, arranged a confidence-building meeting between the leadership of the ANC and key business and political figures from South Africa on Gorée Island, off the coast of Senegal.

The 1990s

In November 1990 the SACC arranged a meeting of approximately 300 delegates from a wide spectrum of churches and religious organisations). During this meeting the Rustenburg Declaration was drafted, which called for a national peace conference of South African leaders from the state, political parties and civil society to discuss strategies to bring an end to the violence. In June 1991, a national peace meeting was held, with a civil society organisation, the Consultative Business Movement playing a central role. This meeting led to the formulation of the National Peace Accord (NPA), to which all major political and labour leaders were signatories. The NPA set out a vision for a new democracy, peace and stability and was comprised of a countrywide network of peace committees (largely constituted of members from civil society organisations and movements) and other structures to realise these objectives8.

Towards the end of 1991, the Conference for a Democratic South Africa (CODESA) had been constructed. It was a forum through which constitutional negotiations between the NP government and other political groupings took place, and finally resulted in the drafting of an Interim Constitution in 1993 that was agreed to by all parties. Civil society organisations played a key role in supporting this process.

During the political transition, a significant number of peacebuilding civil society organisations were established throughout South Africa, with even more being established in the mid- to late-1990s. Many of the peacebuilding entities that had been established during the apartheid era began to expand in size and influence. These developments were predominantly in response to the socio-economic challenges that faced post-apartheid South Africa, and the willingness of all levels of government, which was experiencing resource constraints (both financial and human), to collaborate with civil society organisations on issues of policy development and service delivery. Critically, peacebuilding civil society organisations also acted as watchdogs in terms of government accountability and transparency. In addition, South African civil society organisations began to engage in peacebuilding initiatives in other African countries, such as Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Lesotho and Sudan.

Peacebuilding in South Africa: The Current Context

The South African peacebuilding sector now consists of a broad spectrum of non-profit organisations, from small ‘family-like’ organs operating from the back streets of rural towns, to national social movements, to neo-corporate entities, which inhabit luxury offices in the desirable business districts of major cities. Many of these civil society organisations, particularly the medium to large entities, are increasingly working in other African countries.

Nonetheless, like the much of South African civil society, the peacebuilding sector is financially donor dependent, with all peacebuilding organisations derive most of their income from donor agencies. Which has meant that most peacebuilding organisations have often been obliged to adapt their activities and projects in order to fit in with changing donor priorities. Furthermore, a noticeable professionalize or perish trend has emerged. Namely, those organisations that do not become more professional, streamlined and dynamic have found it increasingly more challenging to secure donor funding. As a result, these organisations have either scaled-down their activities, or ceased to operate.


  1. “Quaker Beliefs and Practices”,
  2. Noël Mostert, Frontiers: The Epic of South Africa’s Creation and Tragedy of the Xhosa People, (London: Pimlico, 1993), p. 673.
  3. Hope Hay Hewison, Hedge of Wild Almonds: South Africa the Pro Boers’ and the Quaker Conscience, London: J M Dent & Sons Ltd, 1989.
  4. For further details on the history of the Quaker movement in South Africa see: Betty K. Tonsing, The Quakers in South Africa: A Social Witness, Quaker Studies Series, vol. 3, Lewiston: Edwin Mellen Press, 2002.
  5. See Mahatma Gandhi, Satyagraha in South Africa, Greenleaf Books, 1979.
  6. African National Congress, “Gandhiji and the Struggle for Liberation in South Africa”, 1988.
  7. Bernard Spong, A Brief History of the SACC, 1993,
  8. Peter Gastrow, Bargaining for Peace: South Africa and the National Peace Accord, Washington, D.C. United Stated Institute for Peace, 1995, pp. 39-43.