Laurie Nathan

Ashoka Fellow
Illustration of a person's face depicting a fellow
South Africa
Fellow Since 1991
The Centre for Conflict Resolution
This description of Laurie Nathan's work was prepared when Laurie Nathan was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 1991 .

Introduction

Laurie Nathan, through specialized information gathering and dissemination to as many key decision makers as possible, is building a center that will seek to shape the role the police and military will play in South Africa's future.

The New Idea

Imagine a police force that serves all South Africans efficiently and fairly, regardless of ethnicity and political belief, and that is accountable at both the parliamentary and grassroots levels.
Imagine a defense force that is armed defensively and that serves a southern Africa regional security arrangement based on cooperation, not confrontation, and operates on a smaller budget than the current system.
This is the vision of the Project on Peace and Security (POPS), a program Laurie Nathan initiated in 1991 to provide a trustworthy source of expertise and ideas in these little understood, complex, and quite critical areas to all those involved in the effort to build a new South Africa. Where human rights activists and academics used to spend their time condemning the police and defense forces, Laurie is at the forefront of a more useful effort to construct practical alternatives.
Laurie's method involves both careful institutional and policy research, and systematic, trust-building engagement with all the key players in the present and future possible governments as well as both the police and military establishments. In the current transition period, the project acts as a consultant to various political parties on the reorientation of the security forces and seeks to stimulate public awareness and debate around this theme.

The Problem

If South Africa is to emerge and remain democratic, if it is to become a civil society of equality under the law, it must have security forces that are effective, fully accountable, committed to the law, and trusted. Given the several generations during which the South African Police (SAP) and the South African Defense Force (SADF) have been the day-to-day enforcers of inequality, have resorted to very harsh and sometimes illegal means, and have become increasingly isolated from the rest of society, profound changes are essential if these forces are to become contributors, not threats, to the new South Africa now being built so hopefully.
These security forces have had the job of enforcing apartheid and defending minority rule from challenge. In its efforts to hold the liberation movements at bay and suppress popular dissent, the state has resorted to intimidation, banning, detention, torture, assassination and sabotage, as well as brute force against political gatherings and demonstrations. In the process the police and military have acquired an unsavory reputation at home and abroad, have come to be seen as entirely illegitimate by most citizens, and have become an inviting target for attacks.
The effect on the majority communities has been terrible. Without security, without legitimate dispute-resolution mechanisms, and, reportedly, with "third force" encouragement of conflicts, fear has flourished.
Nor has this role been healthy for the forces. They have increasingly come to fear the country's black majority. They and their families have retreated into walled, protected enclaves. They have developed the characteristics of ghetto residents and are cut off as much as the residents of any black township. And they are, in fact, widely feared and hated by the majority of South Africans.
The police and military, and especially many of their senior officers, are not prepared for the current changes. They are not likely to reform themselves at all much less to make such fundamental changes as are necessary. If they won't define the agenda, who else is capable of doing so? These are, after all, sophisticated and little understood fields.

The Strategy

To influence policing and defense policies in South Africa, Laurie believes he must: - Carefully research South Africa's realities and the experience of other societies to help develop sensible reform proposals; - Build ties with and gain support from recognized international experts in these fields; - Build a network of like-minded analysts and activists working in these fields in South Africa and begin carefully selected collaborations; - Popularize and test policy proposals by submitting them to the press, political publications, and grassroots forums; and - Introduce these proposals to intellectuals and important institutions, ranging from the government through various parts of the security services to the African National Congress (ANC), the most likely potential future government.
Laurie's Project on Peace and Security pursued all these objectives in 1991. Its maturing understanding of the subject are reflected in the growing number of articles it is publishing. They appear in the international as well as local press, in popular newspapers as well as technical journals. Laurie also established links with strategic studies and peace studies institutes overseas, as well as with senior police and military officers.
In addition, he was instrumental in forming the Military Research Group and Progressive Policing Network. Both these initiatives bring together activists and researchers working towards the same end.
Most importantly, the project was commissioned to do briefing papers for the African National Congress, its armed wing "Umkhonto we Sizwe", the Democratic Party, and the South African Council of Churches. It was also consulted on several occasions by senior government and security officials.
A testimony to the effectiveness of POPS was that after the first year of its existence it could not meet all the requests being made of it by political groups. Laurie therefore, intends to expand the project's capacity in 1992 by taking on additional research staff.

The Person

Laurie has been actively involved in the anti-apartheid struggle since attending the University of Cape Town (UCT) in the late 1970s where he completed business science and law degrees, followed by a Masters in Philosophy at Bradford University's School of Peace Studies.
He was President of the Students' Representative Council at UCT and Secretary General of the non-racial National Union of South Africa Students. He was also a founding member and for two years the national organizer of the End Conscription Campaign (ECC) which opposed the system of compulsory military service for white men.In 1988, the ECC was banned and Laurie spent two years evading arrest; he later learnt that he had been one of those targeted for assassination by the SADF hit-squad.
Laurie is the author of Out of Step: War Resistance in South Africa, and co-editor with Dr. Jacky Cock of War and Society: The Militarisation of South Africa.