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Neighbourhood Safety Initiative - Peace Committees

In the 1980s, in response to the concern of indigenous cultural minorities (‘First Nations’) in New Zealand, the United States and Canada that a disproportionate number of their young men (and some young women) were falling foul of the dominant criminal justice system, there was a move to redirect or divert suitable cases out of the court system. What was proposed was a deliberative process intended to repair the harm done and avert the additional harm brought about by punishment and incarceration.

This diversion – one possible embodiment of the approach known as ‘restorative justice’ - took the form of gatherings commonly known as ‘family group conferences’. In this format, victim and offender were brought together in a mediated process, with the outcome of the process (usually some form of restitution or community service) being referred to the state authority for approval and implementation.

As South Africa undertook the ongoing process of reinventing itself after the oppression and disruption of apartheid, it became clear that even a national police agency that had changed its definition from a ‘Force’ to a ‘Service’ was not able to move essentially from ‘fighting crime’ to ‘creating safety’, and that other more creative measures were needed.

In responding to this need, both the family group conference model and indigenous African dispute-resolution traditions provided some food for thought, but the model that emerged from testing and consultation (the ‘Peace Committee’ model) is radically different from both:

  • Peace Committees are autonomous civil society organisations based on local knowledge and experience and do not have any formal or statutory link with state agencies or structures.
  • Their objective in each case is a pragmatic one: to make the future better for the parties involved in the dispute (and thus for the neighbourhood). Reconciliation between the parties is a welcome bonus rather than a crucial objective.

A middle-aged couple came to a Peace Committee gathering together with their son and his girlfriend. They all lived together in a very cramped one-bedroom house, and the two women were constantly at odds, even coming to blows.

After long discussion it became apparent to everyone present (including, crucially, the disputants) that no reconciliation between the women was likely and that the trouble would continue and probably get worse if they were living in the same house. The action plan agreed on by all was that they would ask the assistance of the local civic association committee that recommended the allotting of plots for building shacks.

This was done, the young couple moved, and the Peace Committee later reported that the relationship between the women, if not cordial, was no longer obstructing or undermining their daily lives.

The Peace Committee model is designed to enable people to manage their own lives. Although its aims are general (that is, the whole of people’s lives) it approaches general things in very specific and concrete ways by giving priority to disputes. The model sees most disputes as problems that are usually small in themselves, but which, if they are not dealt with, can often escalate until they become disastrous.

Peace Committees operate according to a Code of Good Practice. When a complaint is brought to a Peace Committee, an agreed set of procedures is followed.

How Peace Committees work

A "Peace-making gathering" is arranged, usually within days after the occurrence of the problem. The purpose of this gathering is to bring together the disputants and any other people who may be able to help understand and resolve the dispute. In this process, the role of the Peace Committee members is entirely to facilitate, not to engage in blaming or judging, and not to propose any solution.

The Gathering is guided through several stages, with all those present being encouraged to take part: first, statements and discussion on what happened and its consequences; then an attempt to identify the root cause(s) of the problem, and finally discussion to produce an appropriate action plan agreed by all, to try and ensure that the problem does not recur. The focus of the gathering, therefore, starts with the past problem and moves towards making a better and more secure future.

A detailed account of the process:

  • People in communities establish groups of people, who call themselves a Peace Committee. The purpose here is to create an ongoing structure that people in the community, governments and others can relate to. 
  • This Peace Committee announces itself within the community as a group who will facilitate the resolution of disputes. When this happens the Peace Committee tells the community about their values. They do this by stating and making available a Code of Good Practice that says, "Here are our values; here is what we are committed to". In South Africa, a key feature of this Code is that "we do not use force to solve problems". The purpose of the Code is to ensure that people know the key values of the Peace Committee so that people know what to expect.
  • Why would people choose to bring a dispute to the Peace Committee?  People usually do this because they do not want the guiltiness and punishment that the criminal justice system promotes, but also do not wish to take the vigilante route (which is relatively common in poor communities in the larger South African cities).
  • Once a dispute has been brought to the Peace Committee, the Peace Committee assigns three or more people to facilitate a dispute resolution.
  • Once the Peace Committee understands what has been going on, it organises a gathering that includes the disputants and other people who they think will be able to contribute to solving the problem. We call these Peacemaking Gatherings. Who is asked to attend is very important, as the people that come bring with them knowledge and resources that they can use to help solve problems. Having the right people from the community, they ensure that solutions will be community solutions and that the decisions taken will respect peoples’ values and the way they live.

A young woman came to a Peace Gathering, saying that her partner had beaten her. She brought her partner and her sister with her. After she had told her story, the young man apologised profusely, promising that he would never do it again.

The Peace Committee facilitator asked her if she was satisfied with this commitment, and she replied that she was. At this point her sister intervened, stating that he had beaten her sister before and had then promised never to do it again, and that his simple word could therefore not be relied on.

The young man was very embarrassed and conceded the truth of this. After further discussion, it was agreed by all the parties that a member of the Peace Committee would visit the young couple at least once every month to have a friendly conversation with them and would report back to the Peace Committee each time.

This is a striking example of finding a thoughtful future-oriented solution by having the right ‘partner’ present (mobilising the most useful resource) – in this case, the complainant’s sister.

  • Gatherings usually take place in the house of a Peace Committee member or in a room at a community centre. Either way, the environment is informal and non-threatening
  • At a gathering, after reading the Code of Good Practice, the first thing the facilitators do is to hear from the disputants (separately) what the dispute is all about. The purpose here is not to decide who is right and who is wrong but to try and identify the causes of the problem and to find out who is likely to be able to help in solving it. No one is labelled as a victim or an offender. Rather they are people who have a dispute.
  • At a gathering, the focus always moves toward the future. The question asked is what can be done to reduce the likelihood of this and similar problems happening again. This does not mean, of course, that they do not talk about the past; but they do so in order to find out what can be done to make tomorrow better.
  • When a plan of action to improve matters is reached, it is written down and everyone signs to show his or her commitment to it. If specific things must be done the plan will list them and it will say who is responsible for doing these things. The purpose is to make sure that everyone knows what has been decided so that they can make sure that what is decided does happen.
  • At the end of the gathering it may be that the disputants apologise to each other, if they do, they may shake hands or hug each other. But this is not seen as essential. It is useful if it contributes to people being able to move forward to a better tomorrow. But sometimes people decide that this is not going to be either necessary or helpful. When this happens there may be no apology.
  • What always does happen at the close of a gathering is that the people present do something that symbolises their commitment to what has been decided. This might be a dance, or a song, or a prayer or a holding of hands or a combination of things like that.

Problems and disputes brought to Peace-making Gatherings for facilitation have included unpaid loans and child maintenance, insults and fighting, theft and domestic violence. In all these matters, the gathering together of appropriate local people in a facilitative environment is the key to the resolution of the dispute and the agreement on workable and effective plans of future-oriented action.

Peace Committee Code

  1. We help to create a safe and secure environment in our community
  2. We respect the South African Constitution (or equivalent in other jurisdictions)
  3. We work within the law
  4. We do not use force or violence
  5. We do not take sides in disputes
  6. We work in the community as a co-operative team, not as individuals
  7. We follow procedures which are open for the community to see
  8. We do not gossip about our work or about other people
  9. We are committed in what we do
  10. Our aim is to heal, not to hurt 

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