The liberal peacebuilding framework has been extensively critiqued and increasing attention is being given to “the local” in peacebuilding. What “local” means, though, still needs to be more deeply understood. What are the norms, values, and power dynamics, for example, that characterize diverse local contexts? An ongoing research project in Southern and Central Africa provides insights into the meaning of the local by exploring how grassroots justice systems work.1This research project which began with SSRC-APN funding from 2013-2014, was continued with funding from CODESRIA from 2015-2017 and is being further developed with funding from the Centre for Sexualities, Aids, and Gender at the University of Pretoria in 2018. It engages in a comparative case study of the intersection of grassroots, state-led and international justice systems in Africa and is undertaken by a team of researchers at the Centre for the Study of Governance Innovation and the Department of Political Sciences at the University of Pretoria.

In a context of conflict of any kind, justice interventions at the international and national levels are often in the form of peacebuilding and transitional justice. These have been well-researched and documented in the literature.2See, for example, Bosire, L. 2006. Overpromised, underdelivered: Transitional Justice in Sub-Saharan Africa. International Center for Transitional Justice Occasional Paper Series; Olsen, T.D., Payne, L.A., and Reiter, A.G., 2010, Transitional justice in balance: Comparing processes, weighing efficacy, Washington: United States Institute of Peace. At the local or community level, though, there are many micro interventions which have been overlooked, dismissed, or poorly understood.

“Grassroots justice systems in African societies today reflect the complex realities of the twenty-first century.”

Although a lot of lip-service is given to the concept of local ownership and agency in interventions related to peacebuilding and transitional justice, what is not always well understood is that the local is embedded in its own systems of norms and values that may differ significantly from those that provide the basis for international interventions and national reforms.

With respect to justice systems, international interventions are largely concerned with adherence to international criminal justice. But this concern can result in the distortion of grassroots justice systems, as some argued was the case with the Gacaca courts in Rwanda.

But what did Gacaca mean at the local level? When referring to a grassroots justice system we often want to go back to its origins. We talk about a “traditional” justice system and try to understand it as it was practiced in precolonial times. But this leads to a range of problems, in part because we don’t always know exactly how it was practiced, and in part because no justice system has remained static. Justice systems, including traditional justice systems, adapt, evolve, and change all the time in response to changing contexts and realities.

Grassroots justice systems in African societies today reflect the complex realities of the twenty-first century, including the changing norms and values of societies that are in flux, influenced by urbanization, globalization, postcolonial realities, and “decoloniality.”3Sabeloj. Ndlovu-Gatsheni, “Why Decoloniality in the 21st Century?” The Thinker, Vol 48, Feb 2013 Decoloniality here may include the conscious resistance to so-called western influences and the attempts at various levels in African societies to reclaim that which is African. We see this reflected in the resistance to the International Criminal Court (ICC), as well as in the renewed interest in grassroots practices, including customary laws and traditional authorities, at the national and local levels.

But what are the norms and values that these practices are embedded in? At risk of homogenizing the African continent, at the heart of these seems to be a distinct understanding of personhood. These conceptions of personhood are characterized by the fact that they are relational, and that communities are composed of complex networks of relationships.

These grassroots justice practices often prioritize dialogue, reaching consensus together, and the offering of compensation over punishment and jail time. The interest is not in locking someone away and thereby robbing a family of their primary breadwinner, but reintegrating someone into the community for the good of the whole community.

In our research across Southern and Central Africa — including Namibia, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Burundi, and Rwanda — we have consistently found these networks of relationships to be central to justice practices, even in contexts where many other things are changing as a result of global influences. These norms and values are distinctly different from those that characterize international justice systems, and even the national justice systems, which are often still based on the legal system that was introduced during the colonial period. In rural and peri-urban communities, both the grassroots and state-led justice systems co-exist. In a given community you will find both a community court overseen by a chief, for example, as well as a magistrates’ court overseen by a legal clerk.

Grassroots justice systems are often seen as and therefore dismissed for, being patriarchal, gender-biased, and unable to protect human rights. In some cases, they are seen to be violating human rights, while others consider them vulnerable to corruption and the intrigues of power politics.

“These kinds of interventions are more likely to have legitimacy, be resilient, and take us beyond the liberal peacebuilding framework towards a decolonized African-centered peace.”

Some new research is concerned with proving that precolonial justice systems were not patriarchal or harmful to marginalized groups. Our own research is more interested in examining how grassroots justice systems are being practiced today. So far, we find them quite innovative and adaptive, and when understood on their own terms they reflect complex gender and power dynamics. Depending on the context, these systems differ in their relative degrees of corruption and integrity. Some hold very high levels of legitimacy and trust, whereas others are grudgingly accepted.

Where does this leave us with regard to peacebuilding and transitional justice? Currently, the way forward after violent conflict has largely been shaped not only by international actors but also on the basis of international norms and values. This includes norms and values related to international criminal justice, human rights, how we understand gender, and even how we understand the position of people in relation to the state and to one another. The social contract, for example, is imagined between an individual and the state, whereas at the grassroots, the social contract is between people within a community. A crime against an individual is not between the perpetrator and the state, it is about the whole community.

The primary recommendation emerging out of our research is that when the way forward is imagined – whether in the form of a constitution, a peace agreement, a policy framework, or an action plan – it be imagined with these very diverse justice values and norms in mind. Actors from the grassroots who understand the values and norms at the grassroots as they are practiced and experienced in the twenty-first century need to play a central role in giving shape to these processes. These kinds of interventions are more likely to have legitimacy, be resilient, and take us beyond the liberal peacebuilding framework towards a decolonized African-centered peace.

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