7 min read
20 Feb

Despite it being a source of cultural enrichment and creativity, cultural diversity may also be a potential source of conflict as it inevitably leads to a clash of heterogeneous value systems, each one deeply rooted in its respective society.  

Cinzia Spinzi  

Introduction, and the problem stated

South Africa is a country with a rich variety of cultures, and understandably this leads to very complex conflicts. Other than a rather ubiquitous reference by politicians and business leaders to this cultural diversity, and a certain lip service to the phenomenon, I believe that we do not meaningfully understand the conflicts that arise from our cultural diversity, or how to effectively deal with them. 

This locks us in a harmful, frustrating cycle of destructive, inhibiting conflicts, where we end up vainly trying to deal with the symptoms, while remaining unaware of the actual causes and triggers of these conflicts. On a superficial level (which is where the problem is usually addressed, if at all), it follows that different cultures would enter into conflicts with each other, arising from the normal causes such as resource scarcity, commercial competition and so on. The latest conflict studies and research however show that we are dealing with a significantly more complex problem, one that we are exacerbating with our current conflict strategies, and one that will need a better, more comprehensive understanding of these conflicts. 

It will also call on us, as individuals, business and political leaders, to educate and apply ourselves at significantly higher levels if the cultural influences on South African conflicts are to be managed competently and responsibly. Our study will show, for example, how it is not simply a matter of culturally different people, but that cultural diversity has a direct bearing on how we understand conflict, on which strategies we regard as appropriate, how different norms are contentious and how certain values are simply not compatible. We will see how our current strategies are in real and repeated ways making matters worse.  

We will see how not just conflict and its results are culturally influenced, but how the very creation and lived experience of meaning itself is wrapped in these cultural influences. We have different expectations of our conflicts. Conflict itself can arise from these cultural differences, in addition to other primary conflict causes such as unemployment or political differences. These cultural differences play a misunderstood, undervalued and crucial role in our conflicts with each other, but also with migrants and the conflict dynamics arising from those situations. 

It is here where I believe the new and impressive discipline of intercultural mediation and related conflict resolution tools can be of great practical benefit to the South Africans and their conflict environment. This will then be a series of focused articles on where these modern conflict tools can be of practical benefit to us. At the start then, we need to be clear on a few important concepts that we will need on our journey. 

A few important concepts

(i) Culture 

This term is remarkably difficult to pin down, even though most of us have a working idea of what we mean when we refer to our cultures. Rebecca Golbert suggests the following very practical definition, one that I regard as perfectly apt for our purposes here: “Culture may be defined as a set of values, beliefs, symbols, and traditions, socially transmitted within a group and across generations, constituting the framework through which individuals in that group interpret and give meaning to their own and others’ experiences.”  Modern conflict studies furthermore accepts that culture is hardly ever a monolithic, static concept, and that we often belong, from time to time, to more than one culture at the same time.   

(ii) Conflict resolution, mediation 

During these articles I will often refer to “mediation”, while in this context I often refer to the extended meaning of that term, so as to include a wider range of conflict resolution strategies and techniques. Mediation, in the wide sense of the term (akin to “peace mediation” often used in modern conflict studies), can refer to all conflict management techniques relevant to intercultural conflicts. On a national scale, this conflict resolution / mediation is a search for common meaning arising out of shared conflicts and its causes, the renegotiation of a shared reality (as Rebecca Golbert so powerfully refers to it). If, as we saw above, we understand, experience and anticipate conflict in these different ways, how can we resolve it through a template-shaped solution, as our institutions (the business world included) are attempting to do?

(iii) Intercultural mediation 

Intercultural mediation (or IM) is a modern, specialized focus on the wider mediation field, as it pertains to understanding and addressing the realities and problems arising from cultural diversity, and how that influences and shapes our conflicts. Conflict resolution, as a theory and practice, is awakening from decades of following a rather staid and settled template, designed and influenced mostly by a Western, global north approach that included Western values, a mostly classical liberal “right” and rather limited way of approaching conflict resolution and mediation, without understanding and applying the cultural dynamics to both the problem and the solution. 

This, understandably, caused immense credibility, logistical and practical problems in places like the global south. While the conflict research field is making inspiring progress (especially within the dedicated area of IM), much of that wisdom still needs to filter through into conflict resolution practice. 

A conflict is an intercultural one where the various cultures of the parties play a meaningful role in differing ways that they understand, approach and experience that conflict and its outcomes. Intercultural mediation work has also moved on from the simplistic approach of paying lip-service to a nominal acknowledgement of culture as we have seen in the early days of conflict management, when we would deal with “Zulu culture” or ideas such as “This is what Afrikaans people believe”. 

Cultural intelligence (CQ) 

One of the fascinating concepts that IM brings to the conflict table is that of CQ, or cultural intelligence (think of IQ or EQ). Practically speaking CQ is how well you understand cultural differences, how effectively you can work with them in order to use the dynamics of a specific intercultural conflict in order to create options and solutions. CQ is seen as an effective, essential skill in intercultural conflict management, in identifying, explain and implementing resolutions. CQ understands what makes us human and what makes us different, it is not surprised or limited by cultural diversity, and it knows how to work with difference in order to transcend conflicts with respect and dignity. 

A few examples of South African conflicts caused or worsened by poor cultural understanding  

Given our conflict history, our high and complex cultural diversity and an incredibly polarized society, with high levels of conflict rigidity already having set in, as well as a general leadership inertia in comprehensively understanding and dealing with these conflicts, South Africans find themselves in conflict spirals where their cultures are by now playing directly into the creation of new conflicts, and making existing ones worse. These foundations create emotional and strategic blind-spots where we start dealing with our lived conflicts from a reactive, defensive perspective. 

Perceptions of threat then drive our conflict reactions, feeding into continued conflict patterns where it becomes really difficult to accurately gather and respond to information. Social media and some politicians of course play into, and worsen, these conflict cycles. We now can actually start tracing how these conflicts are caused and driven by these cultural influences, where we see a clear us-vs-them polarity, where destructive behaviour get allowed and rewarded, where any constructive behaviour across cultural group lines are treated with suspicion and even punished, and with Othering of course, as history shows so eloquently, comes an increase in actual or potential fascist and extreme behaviour, both on the individual and group level. 

In the process we notice both a blurring and a crossing of normal, healthy lines from where one’s culture is appreciated, respected and enjoyed to where it is regarded as under threat, superior and form where it becomes justifiable to disparage and harm those of another culture. Living in the middle of all this sound and fury makes it increasingly difficult for South Africans to acknowledge and respect these cultural differences, and it has demonstrably become socially acceptable in certain circles to make overt or subtle disparaging remarks about other cultures. This talk and behaviour often, at this advanced stage, have its own code and rituals such as a reference to “them” or “they” where everyone in that in-group knows exactly who is referred to, it leads to cynical “jokes” and expectations about what to expect from each other, how conflict outcomes will be affected by these cultural perceptions and this in turn leads to a decrease in willingness to even attempt constructive resolution of our differences. We “know” how “they” are, how “they” will react. Practical experience often shows how far these lazy clichés of The Other are removed from the actual realities. 

An often unnoticed danger in our society, one that has certainly have had decades in which to grow its roots, is how these cultural perceptions affect our experience of the other, how we start building and “proving” our own prejudices, and how these make us very much conflict incompetent on personal, professional and political levels. If I want to believe any of these items of street wisdom, that culture X is lazy, or culture Y are racist, then I will search for and find, using that wonderfully warped tool called confirmation basis, to strengthen my false perceptions. And that is where we are, living behind our thick cultural walls, throwing rocks at each other, being too short to see over the walls and not being prepared to open the doors that already exist in them. 

Practical strategies for our conflicts taking into consideration cultural influences 

Our earlier studies of value and identity conflicts have shown us how extremely counter-productive certain popular conflict strategies such as compromise and appeasement can be. We have learned there that modern conflict studies, social psychology, neurobiology and a range of other interrelated disciplines all show how, as a particularly illustrative example, an insistence on homogenization of a society and its cultures can, ironically, set off a very harmful chain of threat perceptions and its resultant defensive strategies, thereby not just causing cyclical conflicts, but actually creating new causes, new polarization and an increase in conflict rigidity. 

The exact same occurs with our ineffective understanding and handling of the cultural influences on our conflicts. Future articles will deal with more comprehensive strategies to deal with our cultural conflicts, but for now we can maybe make two larger points. Given the polarization and the decades of harm behind us, let’s not be too ambitious and ask for South Africans to fly before they can walk. Let us be clear on one thing: you do not need to accept other cultures to understand that being more conflict competent is, at its simplest levels, in YOUR best interests. If you struggle with allowing anyone else a place in the sun, good and well for now. At least use these conflict tools to secure a place in that sun for you and your people. We can work on those other miracles later on. 

Secondly, becoming conflict competent is your responsibility. No one else is going to help you with your CQ, with your conflict skills to be used in your home, your community, your workplace. Understand simply, for now, that we are caught in complex cultural conflict spirals, and that the consequences of what we see around us are not going to disappear in time, our current strategies or be removed by the next government in 2024. Also understand, as our future work will show, that in developing your CQ you need not give up anything dear and of value to you, you do not need to make peace with “the enemy” if you do not see the value of that. We do not need to avoid our conflicts, we need to simply have better conflicts. For that, an increased understanding and respect for the place of these cultures in our conflicts is necessary. 

Challenges for the conflict resolution profession arising from these insights 

An important responsibility rests on the field of conflict study and, in particular, its practice, to not just educate conflicting parties on the impact of cultural diversity on their conflicts, but for conflict practitioners and mediators to also educate themselves, and to actually apply the principles of IM. So far, there is very little to be seen of this crucial discipline in South African conflict studies or practice.

 Once we understand that mediation and conflict resolution is not, should not, and can never be truly neutral in its application, and once we understand that mediators often actually guide and shape opinions, alternatives and outcomes, the abovementioned responsibilities snap sharply into focus. By not being sufficiently sensitive to cultural diversity, by having a poorly developed or improperly applied cultural conflict intelligence mediators will effectively be limiting parties in telling their stories, developing their interests, understanding their options and solutions, problem solving will become limited, certain parties will effectively be shut down and with that, an inevitable loss of respect, dignity and trust in the system. This requires an increased and ongoing awareness and study of intercultural mediation when we work with these challenges.

 It is a growing, complex field that requires more than a nodding acquaintance with the main principles of the field. A fully developed CQ should be a prerequisite for meaningful work in South African conflict resolution. Further study, development and educational work (including mentoring) should be a high and urgent priority in the South African workplace and political arenas. 


South African conflicts are generally interlinked, complex problems that involve measures of politics, identity values (race, gender etc), economic realities and these cultural influences. For various reasons, ranging from our past to using very outdated solutions for our problems, we tend to ignore or take hammers to all problems, while in so many of them scalpels are necessary. 

We have, in the process, largely and often, lost sight of each other. We see enemies, we see people who are unreasonable, we ascribe the mess we see around us, the fears and concerns that we must live with, to these “others”, and this gets exploited by unprincipled people who do not have other, workable strategies or our best interests at heart. Like fish in a net, the more we struggle using the strategies are using at present, the deeper we will get stuck in these cultural conflicts. 

Just as we see the waste of human potential in the generally wrongheaded application of BEE principles, where a good principle is ineptly applied in practice, we see how our cultural diversity, which should be a source of pride and strength, ends up becoming a formidable problem in our South African conflicts. Frustratingly, the conflict outcomes are all rather easily manageable and even predictable if correctly understood and applied. 

It hardly needs any financial outlay, it needs a minimum of time, it does not depend on anything like a general consensus, and it does not require any cultural changes or even compromises. It starts with small steps: you and your CQ. How you understand culture and conflict, how skilled you are in that. Not for them, not for a cause: for you.


  • Full references, further reading material, courses, coaching and study material are available on request. This article is part of a series of topics that are being written as discussion pieces in the overriding debate on cultural intelligence (CQ), intercultural mediation and our South African conflicts.

   (Andre Vlok can be contacted on andre@conflictresolutioncentre.co.za for any further information) Andre Vlok 

February 2023

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