Leading through conflict means believing in the possibility of what does not yet exist. It requires focusing on the luminous opportunity that lies at the end of the tunnel of obstacles.
Coalition politics in South Africa has recently attracted a large amount of media attention and popular debate. This article sets out to investigate how coalition politics can be better steered from a conflict management perspective. As such it does not assess or pronounce on the wisdom or necessity of coalition politics or otherwise, and simply accepts such coalition politics as an inevitable reality in the current South African political landscape.
While a comparative study falls outside the scope of our investigation, there are a few meaningful and helpful examples of recent African coalition politics that overall had results that should, in fairness, be marked as having been successful. The experiences of Kenya and Mauritius come to mind.
Comparisons are however, as always, complex questions, especially when we are dealing with emotive, dynamic processes such as human conflict, and a myriad of factors could derail any helpful comparison. What are the respective levels of democratic maturity in the compared countries, what were the government’s influence and engagement, what were the levels of trust, coercion and corruption involved, how diverse were the groups in the various coalitions, what were the realistic options open to the parties at the time of these coalitions and so on. Any such comparison, even in focusing solely on conflict in the African context, will be a rather limited exercise, and it is suggested that such comparisons play an interesting but limited role in our assessment.
A few obvious points of departure
At the start of this assessment we notice a few rather self-evident strategies that should be apparent to all who are participants in or intended beneficiaries of such coalition politics. We notice, without much effort, the need for political parties to work together, to create an environment where at least a minimum level of trust and collaboration will be possible, an ability for parties and individuals to place the interests of the communities they serve beyond partisan or personal gain or focus, and to do so with a certain level of transparency.
The application and practice of even such entry-level conflict skills should bode well for the successful implementation of coalition politics, wherever this may then be deemed necessary. And yet, this is of course not what the much suffering South African voter has been experiencing these last few years. The most ill-considered and obviously tenuous of political marriages are derailed, sometimes within a matter of days after its commencement, due to public and private behaviour from the involved groups and individuals that are clearly incongruous with any of the basic requirements we mentioned earlier. Blatant defamation, personal insults, chicanery of the lowest level, breaching promises and an awfully long list of unfortunate unskilfully handled conflicts then predictably lead to the collapse of these coalitions.
Bitter medicine – a few unpleasant realities
So is there then any sense in considering and implementing any project designed to improve our politicians and their ineptitude at coalition politics if they refuse, or are unable, to comply with even the basic requirements as considered above? This is where we get to choose whether we swallow the bitter medicine of accepting a few realities, or whether we continue with our coalition politics, such as it is, and we continue to expect positive results from people who are, at present, incapable of or unwilling to deliver this crucial result.
We need to realize, and accept, the following simple realities, or give up pretending to wait for coalition politics to deliver the results we deserve and need.
(a) This enormously dysfunctional way that we are attempting to do coalition politics will not fix itself. If we understand how conflict works, especially the identity conflicts that we are dealing with here, we will understand that the various current efforts to improve things that are being attempted by a precious few politicians and leaders are, in almost all instances, exactly the wrong tools for the problem. We are measurably making things worse by most of these efforts. It is already late in the proverbial day, with the cyclical, repetitive patterns of these conflicts there for all to see.
(b) In muddling along and doing coalition politics in this way, we are progressively making coalition politics more difficult, if not impossible. With every failed attempt the levels of distrust and animosity increase, the conflicts themselves become more complex, and a concept called conflict rigidity sets in, where people become less and less able and willing to work on real, constructive solutions. We expect the worst in each other, and lo and behold, it happens. We become victims of our own self-fulfilling prophecies. From a conflict management perspective we must also notice another level of harm that we bake into this process here: these being identity conflicts mean that with every failed coalition the polarization machine gains another gear. Politicians, and their followers, become not just more sceptical of a successful and beneficial coalition, but also more entrenched in their own views. At this late stage in our politics these failed coalitions serve to confirm the harmful views that people in opposing groups have of each other, which by now have set its own avalanche in motion. It also deepens the sense of gloom and despondency in a political solution, a heavy load from which it then becomes progressively more difficult to get out from under. This in turns leads to more desperate, more radical proposed “solutions” gaining traction across the political spectrum.
(c)At this stage any irresponsible conduct during these coalition processes seems to have little or no consequences for the perpetrators. The outcry that follows is generally only from the party or person that ended up losing that round’s and her or his followers, and we see real time examples of the creation and worsening of polarization, with people defending their candidate’s conduct, or looking the other way. A few days later we have all but forgotten about the political and economic harm done, and we start talking about the next coalition.
Until such time as we show direct and meaningfully negative consequences for this politically irresponsible conduct we will continue to have these events. This is ultimately in the hands of the electorate. Direct consequences and punitive measures that citizens can use would include not voting for such politicians, effective lobbying at various levels, withholding other support such as financial, expertise and time from such culprits, publically denouncing their actions even when they originate in your party, demanding internal political disciplinary processes, demanding and monitoring improved internal rules and processes to limit and manage these events and a range of other remedies. Politicians as a body will not make these changes unless they are forced to do so out of own interest. These are the realities that we need to face and address. If we cannot or will not accept them and develop our future strategies based on those foundations we will be doomed to watch the coalition circus roll into our towns indefinitely.
Specific conflict management strategies that politicians can implement
Let us then, in conclusion, consider a few selected practical strategies that politicians who wish to improve their conflict competency in coalition politics could implement. As much this suggestion may sound rather naïve, it could have two very practical benefits, that being that I know from personal experience through my work that there are indeed quite a few politicians who wish to make these changes, and of course also in that we as the citizens of South Africa can start holding our politicians to these standards, even where they may be reluctant to do so.
So, for those politicians who are interested in acquiring this skill in service of everyone, the following are practical examples of real world conflict skills that we would like to see from you.
(1) Train yourself
Modern conflict management works with a multidisciplinary field including psychology, social and behavioural science, neuropsychology and a range of others to bring you measurable, manageable skills that you will need in coalition politics, as that is the cutting edge of political conflict. But it does not become your skill simply because you wish it so, because you attended a brief workshop years ago, or because you watch Dr. Phil. You need to work at this, it is hard, difficult, sometimes unnerving work. You can decide on your own level of skill, your own level of commitment, and you will improve as long as you do the work. For example, teach yourself how to effectively deal with the identity politics so endemic in South African society, what the modern and tested techniques for persuasion and the changing of minds really are, know how the conflict strategies paraded in our coalition politics simply make matters worse (for you as well as your voters).
Understand that being conflict competent does not make you “nice” or “polite”, but that you will learn a skill that makes you measurably more efficient in the political world. This skill does not require unwelcome or reluctant compromise or capitulation – you can fight as hard and as dedicated to your cause as you were beforehand, just in a different, more efficient manner. Discuss this with your colleagues and form small leadership teams to decide on the level of conflict skills required, encourage each other, and start on this enriching work. Or do it yourself, by yourself. Conflict coaching can be done in private, on your own time and setting your own highly personalized conflict goals.
(2) Train your followers and voters
It is a common political complaint that politicians are reluctant to do that which their voters may disapprove of. At a superficial level this is of course true, but most South African politicians also create their own voter traps in the things that they allow their voters to expect. Voters often tolerate bad behaviour in their elected officials simply because they do not believe that they have any realistic alternatives, and because they choose the tribe right or wrong. Show them through your effective and responsible conduct what they should expect – efficiency, integrity and delivery – and see how this magic seeps into a community. Hold yourself to a higher standard and see how they follow you.
South African voters are hungry for a return to a more dignified, respectful political arena, where their political leaders are people who fight hard for them, but who are simultaneously not the least worst option but people that they can respect and trust. Even a relatively minimal return to political grace and leadership in our political pub fights will make you stand out in the crowd. Show them by your skills earned under 1 above that there is a different, more efficient way of dealing with conflict.
3. Be better at conflict communication
Learn how conflict causes and triggers work, how modern voters get persuaded by communication (press releases, social media, public speaking etc.) during conflicts such as coalition collapses and which are the most effective strategies to use to keep your voters satisfied but also start working on the hearts and minds of other potential voters. Understand how most of the current strategies applied in conflict communication by the majority of South African politicians simply make matters worse for everyone, how it creates conflict cycles, conflict rigidity, polarization and how this all translates into you making your own job progressively harder even though you collected another hundred likes on Twitter.
Find out what, as one example, the “backfire effect” is, and how you are harming your own interests by the way that you communicate during these conflicts.
4. Return to the value of confidentiality and trust
As much as modern social media demand that everyone knows everything all the time, people in a cauldron like our politics communicate with you better if they can trust you even in the midst of conflict, and not fear that their confidential disclosures to you will end up on Facebook an hour later. If any specific offenses were committed then by all means you are not bound by any such confidentiality, but stop playing to the crowd. Your voters will appreciate you much more if you bring them stable, effective politics and results than something sensational on social media. Politicians get drawn into online mobs and feeding frenzies, and it becomes an apparently easy way to get votes by dancing to these tunes. That is not what a ton of research would support, and you are doing tremendous harm to your own cause while we are all having a laugh at your opponent’s expense.
Mirror the type of politician you would like to see on the other side, show your colleagues through your own conflict conduct, your own success at it, how to effectively deal with conflict.
5. Be realistic in the setting, monitoring and delivery of your coalition goals
Modern conflict research, case studies and experience show how the instant gratification society demands solutions right here, right now to even the most seemingly intractable conflicts. This sets off its own cycle of haste, unrealistic expectations and it brings new and unwanted facets to an already complex conflict environment. This is of course exacerbated by the observable fact that we have practically run out of time on so many of our political and economic conflicts. Haste and panic cause their own conflicts, and make existing ones more unmanageable, so create or recreate realistic timeframes, be transparent with your voters and your political colleagues.
Hold them to high standards but let those be realistic. Remind yourself of how difficult coalition politics can be, and don’t burn down the proverbial house with every disagreement or every slight. Learn to have better conflicts, not less. Slowly, carefully build those relationships on which the coalition rest.
There are so many other advanced conflict strategies that we can discuss, but if these relatively simple examples do not convince you of a better, more efficient alternative then nothing will. Not one of these strategies will make you weak, look weak or bring home negative results, quite the contrary.
All of this can, just as in the corporate world, be designed, measured and managed in a scientific, efficient manner. South African politicians have for years now, and for a range of reasons, been receiving the benefits of the slack that the South African voter have been cutting them in how our political conflicts are managed. For various reasons those days are coming to an end.
So, dear political leader, if you can do political conflict better, and the tools are there for you to urgently improve your skills in that arena, when do we as the voters get to see this from you?
Andre Vlok February 2023
(Andre Vlok can be contacted on firstname.lastname@example.org for any further information)