Some people argue that local peacebuilding can be very effective in a small way but can’t be scaled up into larger projects with a greater impact. A different conclusion is suggested by a project that began 14 years ago in South Africa’s Zwelethemba township, whose name in Xhosa means place of hope. It created a locally-led solution for community security and policing that is now widely used in South Africa and in five other countries.

Like many townships, Zwelethemba’s people responded to apartheid by making their township ungovernable. Once apartheid ended, however, they no longer wanted ungovernability: they wanted someone to solve their daily problems. That ‘someone’ turned out to be themselves, aided by the Community Peace Program at the University of the Western Cape.

The Zwelethemba model drew on two key ideas. Firstly, that local people can manage their community by relying primarily on what they know and can do for themselves (‘local capacity governance’). And secondly, the idea that governance can start at the grassroots and work from the bottom up (‘micro-governance’).

The challenge was to use these ideas to help the community meet its own needs in such areas as policing, garbage removal, water and electricity, where government was not providing such services. By doing so, the people could create a simple model that also could work elsewhere.

The problem-solving model that emerged in 1997 was built around Peace Making (dealing with individual disputes) and Peace Building (addressing larger problems that showed up through a pattern in disputes or through regular surveys).

Peace Making was managed by Peace Committees comprising 5-20 community residents, using a Code of Good Practice that approached problems in a spirit of non-violence and cooperation rather than blaming individuals. Larger problems were addressed at community Solutions Gatherings, which led to such projects as playgrounds for children and youth, or health education for children and those living with TB and HIV/AIDs.

For each Peace Making gathering, committee members received a small fee and a contribution was made to the Peace Building Fund. The Fund paid for the community projects, which were designed and carried out by community members themselves.

Since 2002, the Community Peace Programme has helped police create Community Peace Centres which allow people to have their complaints resolved by local peace committees rather than by the police – an example of blending professional and local knowledge for community benefit (pdf).

As of 2009, Peace Committees in South Africa had helped more than 460,000 people solve conflicts in their communities, thus ‘shifting their stance from one of dependency to one of responsibility and of moving from an orientation of blame to one that is focused on creating a new future’.

The committees gave ordinary people a way to become part of managing their community, by creating a new ‘node’ of governance that connected them with other resources. Such nodes have four characteristics:

  • A way of thinking about their activities (Code of Good Practice);
  • Methods for influencing events (Peace Making and Peace Building);
  • Resources (fees shared between committee members and the Peace Building Fund);
  • An institutional structure (Community Peace Committees).
The model shows that ‘even in the poorest and most marginalized of places, diffused local knowledge and capacity can be mobilized for governance purposes through relatively simple institutional means,’ researchers suggest. [Burris et al 2005:52] The model thus offers governments new options for providing public services.

‘Peace Committees have occupied a space for dispute resolution and local problem solving that was in theory, but not practice, the province of state governments,’ the researchers suggest (pdf). ‘They have then gone on to claim public funding for providing these “public services”.’

The Community Peace Programme now facilitates a network of Peace Committees in 180 sites across South Africa. Average dispute resolution time is three days, and committees have a 99% success rate in finding a solution. The model, now also used in Argentina, Canada, Australia, Brazil and Uganda, was selected as one of the 100 Best Practices for 2008 by the Dubai International Awards for Best Practices.