We can work with concepts that walk and chew gum at the same time, that give emotional primacy its due, without losing sight of the fact that politics is about power and who wields it for what ends.
It is time we faced power but with confidence, not defensively, and made it our Other on our terms.
In many respects, South Africa presents us with a relatively unique laboratory for the study and application of modern conflict strategies. It is a country experiencing a near-perfect storm of conflict causes and drivers, from cyclical and unresolved past conflicts, complex socioeconomic challenges, endemic corruption, poor political leadership, a breakdown in community trust in organizations and institutions, unemployment and inequality, and a long list of others, often poorly understood and badly managed, if managed at all.
This volatile environment, so crucial to the South African future, is then characterized by outdated and ineffective conflict management thought processes and strategies, creating further conflict rigidity, distrust and polarization as effort after effort, promise after promises fail. Under these conditions there can be little hope of conflict transformation, only dim glimpses of conflict resolution and we end up with largely ineffective and harmful efforts at conflict management, which are often little more than conflict containment or even conflict avoidance strategies. As global case studies and our own experience show, this leads to a fertile seedbed for extremism and perceived solutions that become more attractive not by virtue of their own merit, but by the persistent failure of more reasonable alternatives. It is here, in this conflict background environment, that so much of the South African conflict journey starts off on the wrong foot, and then deteriorates.
Conflict strategies that may seem reasonable in themselves, or that have proven to work elsewhere, are applied without the necessary modern knowledge and experience, and the process of digging yourself out of a hole gets worse with every attempt. This article then deals with a few selected modern conflict strategies that political leaders should adopt when they are dealing with their various opponents in conflicts where unusually high levels of lawlessness prevail.
Building on shifting sands
One of the outdated approaches to conflict management that we find in the South African political landscape is the understanding of these strategies and techniques as a system requiring compromise, a polite and gentle approach to getting everyone to be reasonable and to then meet in the middle, at some figurative halfway point. The weakness of appeasement is turned into the virtue of the short-term trade-off, political expedience and commercial concerns gets stuck on the wound, the problem disappears for a week or two – until the next time. We see this with such monotonous regularity that it has ceased to attract our attention, we accept it as effective conflict management, as our leaders working things out. We wait in anticipation for the next election, because that will set things right. In reality, however, we are adding new and secondary conflicts to the original ones, we are increasing the polarization that could have been avoided, we do tremendous socioeconomic harm, and we continue to run the clock down.
Our municipal war zones, our election promises, even some of our recent coalition strategies all try to build new houses on brittle, shifting, broken foundations, complex negotiations are attempted in environments beset by sheer lawlessness and criminality, and large parts of the conflict management negotiations are spent on containing or negating issues and results that should have no place at these negotiations or in the rebuilding of our broken systems.
Upgrading our tools
The conflict management tools used by most of our political leaders (when they use them at all) are outdated. The irony is that this often then leads to a rejection of what they perceive conflict management to be, which then leads to a return to other inappropriate solutions, such as extensive litigation, avoidance, short-term forced alliances and so on. Modern conflict management, the studies and practice thereof, both globally and as applied to the South African landscape, has nothing to do with compromise or appeasement. These “solutions” are in fact generally advised against, as they create new conflicts and poor outcomes. Our politicians are regularly seen applying conflict strategies that have been tested and rejected in African conflicts, while somehow not using modern conflict approaches that similarly have been tested successfully on the continent.
Applying modern conflict knowledge
Modern applicable conflict case studies and experience show the folly of much of what we see in our political conflicts. While this complex (and fascinating) field would need many pages just to summarize, we can see from even a cursory study thereof that compromises and appeasement strategies cobbled together against excessively lawless backgrounds and environments are doomed to fail, with an unacceptable increase in complexity and conflict rigidity in future iterations of the same conflict. This inevitably creates the conflict spirals that the average South African is forced to endure. In the South African political conflict environment such appeasement is furthermore seen as victory by the side making use of lawlessness and criminality, and as weakness of the side granting undue concessions and appeasement while they negotiate (and effectively allow) such behaviour.
Modern solutions – a framework
This understanding requires every complex conflict to have its own very specific conflict map designed for the specifics involved in that area, in that timeframe. From public comments it is clear that many of our political leaders are unaware of the skills and solutions that are available to them. Our society also often expects, and rewards, the “hard man” approach, the tough guy that takes no nonsense. Here again this often misunderstands modern conflict management: effective conflict management has nothing to do with soft skills, being polite, agreeing with principles that you abhor or condoning bad behaviour. It is simply about being effective in your conflicts, and using the most efficient tools to achieve that. A few general principles can give us a glimpse of what is necessary, and what is possible.
1. One of the more obvious strategies should be to refuse to negotiate on any meaningful issue in a lawless environment, especially where the negotiating opponent is causing, or has a meaningful input in the lawlessness. This leads to harmful standoffs (such as the one we are witnessing in Tshwane at the moment), but the alternative is no solution either. Much of the conditions the parties in such a situation experience are the results of past unresolved conflicts, and this will require some hard positions and difficult periods of repositioning in order to reset some of the basic requirements of respectful and effective conflict negotiations. This includes the wise and pinpoint use of law enforcement, selected interdicts and a few other conventional tools. The Cape Town city management team applied this principle well in the recent Cape Town taxi conflict. But that in itself is at best simply designed to establish an effective conflict management foundation and background, and cannot serve as long-term and efficient strategies in itself.
2. These visible and often tough strategies should be guided by a culture of accountability. Some of the larger mechanisms of such a process are already experimented with, such as civil damage claims, criminal complaints and so on. These are, at best, double-edged swords that can, in the wrong hands, do more harm than good and serve to entrench resentment and future conflicts. They are nevertheless good foundational tools, and if used wisely can be very effective in establishing this crucial culture of accountability. It however also requires accountability on a far more personal level: broken promises, rude or aggressive behaviour, crude insults should all have immediate consequences. Here conventional solutions such as criminal and civil litigation are often blunt and ineffective tools, as is tit for tat behaviour. An often overlooked part of this strategy is to not only punish unacceptable conflict conduct, but to reward constructive conflict conduct. Training in effective and advanced conflict behaviour on that personal level, as most politicians have to engage with on a regular basis, becomes essential. So much great work has been done in recent years in interdisciplinary conflict management (new approaches to mediation, retraining your opponent’s moral vocabulary etc.) but despite these skills being available to the South African politician, at relatively minimal expense in cost and time, the old ways remain the popular ways, despite their dismal results.
3. As we witness on a regular basis (with the Gqeberha mayoral conflicts being extremely illustrative examples), personal relationships matter in conflicts. South African politics (not exclusively, as most global political conflicts show) are characterised by open interpersonal contempt, distrust and grandstanding for short-term gain. While political activity by definition requires an ongoing level of negotiation and alignment, the current levels are in themselves destructive of effective conflict management. The hair-pulling, shrill shouting matches that are so often mistaken for political debate are ineffective, and the record of the last few years bears this out. One of the aims of the short-term management of lawless conflict environments should be the eventual restoration of a workable level of dignity and respect between political opponents, because that is where the real work necessary to rebuild our country will get done. All current conflicts should balance the effective handling of current lawlessness with long-term relationship rebuilding. In the immediate future this would require rather significant overhauls to public and social media communication.
4. Dealing effectively with a lawless conflict environment also requires that you deal with your opponent as you find him or her. Outdated conflict strategies attempt to get participants to be reasonable, to conduct themselves according to an informal set of expected rules of behaviour and conduct. Every time this “rulebook” gets broken it is experienced as a jarring and troubling event, which derails progress and attitudes of goodwill, with a depressingly predictable series of polarizing reactions and an escalation of the conflict and its additions. This is often a part of the opponent’s strategy, and the bait is taken with monotonous regularity. Design your conflict strategies around the worst of such conduct and thinking processes, and deal with that on that level. Stop being surprised and unbalanced by it. If an opponent acts in a predictable way, even if that behaviour is seemingly irrational, you should have a distinct advantage in those conflicts if you learn to correctly use such conduct. Make peace with chaos. Learn to effectively stand, and thrive, in the middle of the storm.
5. It is futile and naïve to try to convince people that benefit from lawless behaviour to change their conduct. Much of our current political conflict management is conducted from moral and nationalist platforms, expecting a change in conduct. Effective modern conflict management is, at this level, about creating feasible alternatives that are persuasively sold as better options to those that are involved in such lawlessness. This is necessary to build an environment where the merits of the conflicts themselves can be addressed and engaged with. Design your conflict strategies around dealing with the selfish needs of your opponent, in his interests lie your solution.
Modern conflict management has established the crucial importance of conflict influences outside of the primary merits of a particular situation. Strategic factors such as timing and sequence play a most important but underrated role in complex conflicts such as those witnessed in the South African political environment. Applying outdated or inadequate conflict strategies while in the midst of a manifestly lawless environment is destined to end in frustration, polarization and failure. Effectively dealing with such lawlessness is a necessary prerequisite for the effective management of these conflicts. The record and results of current political conflict management, especially those conducted in lawless environments, speak for themselves. Our politicians have an urgent responsibility to upgrade their conflict skills.
Summary of main sources, references and suggested reading
1. Dangerous Magic: essays on conflict resolution in South Africa, by Andre Vlok, Paradigm Media (2022)
2. Root Narrative Theory and Conflict Resolution, by Solon Simmons, Routledge (2020)
3. Urban Africa and Violent Conflict, edited by Karen Buscher, Routledge (2019) 4. As an example of a set of conflict strategies to consider and implement, my article on the Tshwane conflict at THE TSHWANE SAMWU STRIKE - a few suggested conflict management strategies - The Conflict Conversations (conflict-conversations.co.za)
(Andre Vlok can be contacted on firstname.lastname@example.org for any further information)