06/01/2012 05:10 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Empowering the People's Voice: An Interview with Dr. Sylvester Bongani Maphosa


Dr. Sylvester Maphosa is chief research specialist and head of peace and security at the Africa Institute of South Africa (AISA), located in Pretoria, South Africa. Since 1996 he has worked in peace-building practice, and evaluation of fragile contexts. He also serves on the AISA research and publications committee. He has been written for the Africa Peace and Conflict Journal, Africa Insight, Conflict Trends, and Ghandi Marg. He has appeared on SABC TV and radio, CNBC, the Iran News Channel, and the BBC's Mark Riley radio show.

Tell me about your work.

Well, I am into peace and security type of work, my specialty being conflict resolution and peace studies. I work with governments in Africa and I work with regional organizations such as the African Union [AU] and its various subsidiary bodies. We are involved in research in issues around peace and security on the continent. We generate academic articles and policy recommendations that we present to governments and other regional organizations.

How long have you been engaged in this work?

It's been many years. In fact, it's been more than seven years. Before going into peace and security research - because our organization is a research council funded by the government I was in academia, lecturing at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Durban.

What is the most pressing problem of peace on the African continent now?

Fragile societies and armed conflicts. Fragile societies where a number of states are not able to deliver in terms of state responsibilities; particularly on the protection of its citizens and the provision of basic services to its citizens; the exploitation of natural resources; ethno-political cleavages.

What is the most important security issue on the African continent right now?

The most important security issue on the African continent has do to with human security, which would encompass issues of poverty reduction; reducing the gap between the poor and the rich; equitable access to opportunities and wealth; and also particularly on the issue of democratic governance.

In the context of Africa, there is a very close relationship between inequality and crime. In African countries where there is a lot of inequality there is a lot of crime. What is the solution to this problem?

Inequality and crime can be addressed by reducing the gap between the rich and the poor, providing opportunities that can provide basic needs for the people.

In what way does your efforts help to facilitate peace and security on the African continent?

My work primarily focuses on creating space and raising awareness and also providing technical advise to government and civil society to respond to the challenges of human security.

Can you give me examples of which countries you're working in and how your work is being implemented?

In Burundi, for example, I have work with grassroots organizations such a Ubuntu Center, which is a local initiative which focuses on re-building Ubuntu value. I have also worked with prison officials in Burundi, in terms of capacity training on handling prisoners because Burundi is one country in which the prison conditions are very dire and the rights of prisoners are not recognized. We have held some training sessions with the prison officials in Burundi. I have also in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, also working with the grassroots initiatives in terms of capacity building; scaling up the successful models that they've used, such as the employment of narrative theatre as a form of community trauma healing. I have also with senior executive military personnel, drawn from across the continent - countries such as Kenya, Zimbabwe, Malawi, Botswana and Nigeria. We have a program that is running in South Africa where I engaged with senior military executives in terms of their posting into the African Union peace-keeping missions.

Do you work on addressing the issues of inequality and the security in the Republic of South Africa?

Yes. Such work has involved working with local civil society organizations such as the KwaZulu-Natal Christian Council. One of the situations, which exist in South Africa, is around the violent conflicts between the farmers and people who live around the farms. We have been involved in working with the local leadership in terms of equipping them with skills of mediation and negotiation to respond to the problem of violence around the farm killings.

At the World Affairs Conference in April you talked about peace and security issues. What is it that you could possibly hope to gain from the World Affairs Conference that will help with your work in Africa?

There are some success stories which, I believe, will be shared throughout this conference; models which can be replicated elsewhere and scaled up. I hope to create networks, establish collaborations with colleagues in this conference through which we can engage further in sharing experiences and sharing models that can be replicated to improve the question of security.

Prior to the election of Nelson Mandela, during the days of Apartheid the society was elitist and racist. Have these problems been resolved in South Africa?

The problem of race-based conflict has not been resolved. This is evidenced by escalating violence between different racial groups. Currently, in Cape Town, there is a problem with white, coloreds and blacks who now live in close proximity. There still needs to be some reconciliation to allow these groups to co-exist. Looking at the cleavages that are widening between different racial groups, this is a clear indication that the problem of racial differences exist in South Africa.

What is the solution?

The solution. One is education. Secondly, we need a transformation of attitudes, a transformation of behaviors. And also, we need a refocusing of policy approaches to development because despite the impact that the apartheid regime had in marginalizing the black population, my view, individually, is that in order to address that problem we do not have t marginalize the white population. We need to have inclusive policies and we need to undertake a redistribution of resources and access to resources, particularly issue of land. And we need also, education, we need to provide education to our youngster to enable them to be able to participate actively and effectively in the economy of the country.

Are you advocating something like what happened in Zimbabwe, where there was a redistribution of the land, taken from the white farmers and distributed to the Black population?

Not at all. Indeed, nationalization and redistribution of access to resources is important for any country in the world but the methodology that was used in Zimbabwe is not what I would advocate for South Africa. In Zimbabwe, land was taken. It was redistributed unfairly. A particular group of people had access to land. Sadly, that particular group of people is not able to feed the nation. Zimbabwe [has gone] from being a bread basket of Southern Africa into a basket case of Southern Africa and the world. Yet, resources are there. Yet, land has been given back to the people. Redistributing resources based on political affiliation, in my view, is not the right way. I am concerned, again, in South Africa, where we see a lot of protests and demonstrations around issues of service delivery. This problem has been cause by the approach of the government, which is called Cadre Deployment where people because they can speak louder, are deployed into leadership positions and those people with merit, but because they don't speak louder around political slogans, they are denied the opportunities to lead their communities. We have seen rampant corruption and the misuse of resources resulting in protests and unending demonstrations where we see a lot of infrastructure being destroyed. This is currently a threat to the ANC government. In fact, it is threatening to break apart the ANC government, because of this Cadre Deployment, where people who are not able are put into local government leadership positions and fail to deliver.

Thank you very much. Is there anything else that you would like to say?

Peace begins with you. If you want to build peace for our communities, we need to be peaceful within ourselves. We need to create ripples of peacefulness around us and this entails a transformation of our attitudes, a transformation of our behaviors. We need to transcend our political affiliations and sometimes our selfish egos and come to a point where we can compromise and appreciate diversity; that through diversity we can be united and be focused to deliver to our communities things that will improve livelihoods.

Some people are selfish and want to enrich themselves in some way or another, which could be called corruption but it could be called their self-interested desire to reap benefits.

We need a firm national government that is accountable to its people. A government that will not empower people as a form or manipulation or as a form of therapy. We need active citizenship where people are involved and where decisions that impact the lives of the people are met in genuine interested for improving the lives of our people.

In Africa, people have this idea that governments are corrupt, and that politicians are corrupt. What do you say to them in terms of explaining how government can help when they believe that corruption in the government is the problem?

If I must say, corruption is everywhere in the globe. But it is the levels of the corruption that determined the success of one country vis-a-vis another. And here in the United States, there is a lot of corruption and recently one legislator who was jailed recently, I think in the past two or so years, it's an indication that even here in the [United] States corruption does exist. The sad thing in Africa is that the corruption is so rampant policy is distorted and policy structuring and implementation actually misrepresents the issues that affect people and sometimes corruption is allowed to fester and those that we see and know being involved in corrupt practices continue in very senior government positions. For instance, in South Africa, terms such as "the gravy train" are used to describe how easy it is for those who are politically related to elites, in terms of the awarding of tenders, and in many cases where tenders are awarded corruptly, even the workmanship of delivering the services of the tender, are poor.

So how do you solve a problem like that?

We need to rethink and change our attitudes and behaviors of the leadership.

How do you get leaders to act in this way?

We need to engage, and create a space for dialogue, and also have effective systems in terms of the rule of the law. We have to have effective justice systems where if an individual, particularly those in the leadership, are found wanting in terms of wrongly awarding tenders, or, because their spouses are awarded tenders worth billions -- for instance, one case which is out in the media, the wife of the deputy president was awarded a tender to supply military equipment - we ask questions about how does that happen? We need effective public prosecuting mechanisms where this issues are brought out and those holding public office do not misuse public office in order to satisfy their selfish egos.

How do you create this process?

We to educate the people, to educate the leadership. We need also to change mindsets. If we are to progress as a country, if we are to progress as a continent, we need to be able to police each other. We need to be able to set up structures that will hold members of those regional organizations accountable to their actions.

How are you holding governments accountable?

By demanding to know how resources are spent and allocated. Also by demanding to know how the process of deploying individuals to public office is done. And also; it's important that people holding public office should declare their assets. But the sad thing is, in Africa, that voice is absent. Citizens are weak to demand such from their governments.

How do you create this voice?

We need an empowerment of the citizens.

Thank you very much.

The photos of Dr. Sylvester Bongani Maphosa are included courtesy of Tukufu Zuberi. This article was co-edited by Khwezi Mkhize, a student in the Department of Africana Studies at the University of Pennsylvania.