Ending the armed conflict in South Africa


The armed conflict between the African National Congress (ANC) and the Government of South Africa was ended and the risk of a larger war was minimised.

In 1981, the main opposition group to apartheid in South Africa, the African National Congress (ANC), launched an insurgency against the state.1 The conflict escalated until 1986, when the government imposed a state of emergency after large parts of the country became ungovernable due to the preponderance of armed groups.2 In 1988, South Africa ended its involvement in the Border War in present-day Namibia, and the following year the hard-line state president resigned after a stroke. These events heralded a seismic change in circumstances, and both the Organisation of African Unity and UN General Assembly recognised the moment and called for dialogue and a transition to democracy.3 In 1990, the new South African administration released ANC leader Nelson Mandela, legalised several opposition groups (including the ANC), and entered into talks with the opposition.4 However, despite progress on these fronts, the peace process was almost derailed entirely by a surge of political violence that erupted in 1990-1991 and threatened to spark a civil war.5

It was in this uncertain context that South African church organisations met in November 1990, agreeing in the Rustenburg Declaration to establish a committee to help the country navigate a peaceful path through the crisis.6 In September 1991, these church organisations worked with business groups and trades unions to host talks attended by a spectrum of South African political interests. This event resulted in the National Peace Accord, which took the unprecedented step of establishing a code of conduct, agreed to by all parties involved, to keep the peace.7 It set out a vision for a democratic and peaceful country and provided for the establishment of peace committees to end the violence and create the conditions for elections. This infrastructure was funded by the South African government (before becoming independent in 1993) and supported by the UK and Denmark. In December 1991, these commitments were formally endorsed at the Convention for a Democratic South Africa (CODESA), which was attended by most political parties. The CODESA mechanism served as a framework for debates on the democratic transition to take place peacefully and, together with the efforts of civil society, helped to reduce armed conflict in South Africa.8 In December 1993, this process culminated with the formation of the Transitional Executive Council (essentially a consociational power-sharing administration) to govern the country until free and fair elections could be held the following year.9

1 UCDP. South Africa: Government. (UCDP, 2020) Available at: https://ucdp.uu.se/conflict/345 (Accessed 11/12/2020)

2 Ian Van Der Waag. A Military History of Modern South Africa. (Oxford, 2018) pp.279-80

3 Harare Declaration, 1989. Available at: https://peacemaker.un.org/node/2074 (Accessed 11/12/2020); United Nations General Assembly. Resolution A/RES/44/27B. (2019) Available at: https://research.un.org/en/docs/ga/quick/regular/44 (Accessed 11/12/2020)

4 Groote Schuur Minute, 1990. Available at: https://peacemaker.un.org/southafrica-grooteshuur90 (Accessed 11/12/2020); Pretoria Minute, 1990. Available at: https://peacemaker.un.org/southafrica-pretoria-minute1990 (Accessed 11/12/2020)

5 Muna Ndulo. “United Nations Observer Mission in South Africa (UNOMSA): Security Council Resolutions 772 (1992) and 894 (1994) and the South African Transition: Preventive Diplomacy and Peacekeeping.” Cornell Law Faculty Publications, No. 61. (1995) p.211

6 Peter Gastrow. Bargaining for Peace: South Africa and the National Peace Accord. (Washington, DC, 1995) p.16

7 National Peace Accord, 1991. Available at: https://peacemaker.un.org/southafrica-national-peace-accord91 (Accessed 11/12/2020)

8 CODESA Declaration of Intent, 1991. Available at: https://peacemaker.un.org/southafrica-codesa-intent1991 (Accessed 11/12/2020)

9 Gastrow. Bargaining for Peace. p.97

Start Year


End Year



South Africa

UN Regional Group


Type of Conflict

Vertical (state-based) intrastate conflict, Risk of a horizontal (non-state) intrastate conflict

Type of Initiative

Local action, Mediation of a peace agreement

Main Implementing Organisation(s)

Local civil society organisations




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