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Conflict Resolution Wisdom from Africa

Review by Ampie Muller
(Durban: Accord, 1997)
“This article originally appeared in Track Two (Vol. 7 No. 1 April 1998) , a quarterly publication of the Centre for Conflict Resolution and the Media Peace Centre (South Africa).”

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Since the advent of

conflict and peace studies, practitioners have been trying to

find local, or indigenous, remedies for conflict ailments.

Current research indicates that many factors play into conflict

and its resolution, including factors such as culture,

personality, and others difficult to classify. It would therefore

be foolish to overlook any contributions that may help us to

understand the phenomena surrounding conflict, its origins and

its transformation.

Taking Africa as his

source, Malan makes his objective clear: “In all settings

there are cultural and contextual perspectives that must

self-evidently be included. This is one, quite obvious reason for

studying the cultural context of our closer and wider

environment. A second and more pressing reason is that the

insights that have developed and are still developing in Africa

deserve to be studied for their own sake” (p. 7).

What he wants to do is

“to share ACCORD’s enthusiasm about Africa’s expertise in

the dimension of human relations. Our conviction is that Africa’s

practical and relational wisdom, both in its tremendous diversity

and its elemental commonality, deserves to be taken

seriously” (p. 8).

Malan starts by writing a

conflict-history of Africa by conjecture, trying to fill the gaps

in historical information by “thinking himself into what

could have been”. He comes up with a more or less universal

history that is probably not far off the mark.

He postulates “a

significant frame of reference” – namely that there are two

factors that seem to dominate conflict resolution activities in

Africa, worthy of the world’s note: firstly, the tradition of

family or neighbourhood negotiation facilitated by elders, and

secondly, the attitude of togetherness in the spirit of humanhood


Malan comes with an

imprimatur against the Western scientific ardour for analysing

and classifying and wants us to rather synthesise and integrate –

to use not our Western left brain but to revert to the more

primitive and direct right brain experience. We must add to this

the observation that “Theoretical approaches seem to be out

of place on African soil.” Fortunately, Malan adds that

abstract ideas “may be harboured and explored, but

preferably not in life-estranged ways.”

I mention this not to

suggest that what he is doing is less than scientific, as I am

personally also strongly aware of the dangers of a

“scientist” approach, especially in human affairs. But

one cannot get the full benefit of Malan’s thinking, so eager is

he for us to become one with Africa, to understand the degree to

which Western individualism is not yet everywhere the acceptable

coinage and embrace Africa’s beliefs and values. He explores

these in a wide range of subjects: the Africanisation of

democracy; the role of elders in the mediation process;

economics; ethnicity; religious fundamentalism; education and a

host of other elements.

In spite of being a

difficult – and often confusing – book, Conflict Resolution

Wisdom from Africa contains a lot that is valuable and

meaningful. For me, the most important contribution is the

stating of core principles, or “manifestations of African

wisdom” (pp. 92-96). I believe they should be taken

seriously, and measured against the practicalities of resolving

Africa’s enormous problems.

But the wisdom of Africa,

as described, is not unadulterated, for instance, the wisdom and

the role of elders in African society. In a world that has moved

through Margaret Mead’s pre-figurative phase (where the elders

knew and understood the world and therefore could give

authoritative advice), through a co-figurative phase (where old

and young had to learn to understand the new world side by side

and where authority was divided equally), to a post-figurative

phase (where the young understand the world better than the old

and the authority has, in many cases, shifted from the elder to

the younger), the authority of the elders is no longer taken for


This, then, is my dilemma:

this is a very optimistic work, also politically very correct,

that wants to take from Africa’s past all that is beautiful and

worthwhile and build a future on it. Yet it seems as if that

Africa has disappeared into a global village that is selfish,

egotistical, and full of greed, where cooperation has changed

into serious contention for scarce resources – and where many

researchers believe that Africa’s apparent inability to contend

on an even footing may stem from just those qualities being



Ampie Muller

Ampie Muller is a senior consultant at the Centre for Conflict Resolution, South Africa. Founded in 1968, the Centre for Conflict Resolution(formerly the Centre for Intergroup Studies) is an independent institute which seeks to contribute towards a just peace in South Africa and elsewhere in Africa by promoting constructive, creative… MORE >

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