11 min read
05 Jun

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.

Solon Simmons 

1. Introduction  

Our political leaders, of various parties and persuasions, have come to a crucially important crossroads in the life of this country, with some very difficult and epoch-defining decisions that will have to be made (or be made for them) in the next few weeks. 

Most of the negotiations that lie ahead will be discussions between parties with their clearly defined goals and agendas, each trying to maximize its role and to execute its renewed mandate as given to it by its constituents. We look at a few conflict strategies that can aid the parties fruitfully in that process. As we can already see, some of these conflict events will also be designed to disrupt the normal, orderly process of parliament and the negotiations that must be attended to, for a variety of reasons. We will briefly focus on strategies to address that eventuality as well, in order to prevent being unnecessarily derailed from getting important work done, or being provoked into harmful conflict cycles and outcomes. 

Politics is rarely anything other than the clash of various interests, and this by definition leads to a complex Indra’s Net of conflicts. During this period decision makers will have to deal with a variety of unresolved older conflicts that are now coming to fruition, as well as a set of new conflicts that have arisen as a result of the change in recent conflict dynamics, most of which were brought about by the election results and their consequences. Coalitions or not, which partners to include, and a range of other important considerations all need urgent attention and resolution, one way or the other. New or revived conflicts bring about perceptions of opportunities, revitalised energies to change or affect the status quo, and to improve or protect the positions of constituencies, communities and/or individuals. 

These conflicts force change, change brings temporary instability, and most people are uncomfortable with that uncertainty, which in its turn then becomes one of the new conflict dynamics that should be taken into consideration. Narratives clash and become tools in online and other propaganda wars, informing the strategies of front and backroom discussions, and are misused to mislead the gullible and easily-distracted, turning votes and clicks into usable fuel to reach those goals. These goals are often of a mutually exclusive nature, at least in their public narrative form, and the incompatible nature of these claims are used by some to establish and strengthen their positions in the negotiations that must now follow. 

Even internally, each of the main four parties involved seem to have their own conflicts that will play a role in their eventual positions and negotiating progress. It is easy for leaders and decision makers to become distracted or bewildered given the importance of this period, the complex variety of options on the table, the tremendous expectations of their constituents and the seeming intractability of the various interlinked conflicts. Worst of all, and as we can already see, some of them are already being manipulated by conflict artists well above their fighting weight, and they are already locked in conflict patterns into which they have been painted and steered, all the while firmly believing that they are the puppet master and not the puppet. How can the various levels of leaders involved in this process negate the manipulative forces at work, how can they accurately, in real time read and anticipate the correct assessment of what is happening, and effectively react to conflict trajectories. How can they start leading the dance, as opposed to being led? 

This is a surprisingly vast topic, comprising several inter-related conflict disciplines and even a few other fields of input, so we are limited in our discussion to no more than a few observations which will hopefully give the reader a glimpse of what can and should be done in this time. 

2. Perspective at the start 

The din of various news media sources, social media influencers, internal and external political pressures, real and imagined market forces and a long list of other voices clamouring for the attention of decision makers at this stage could make clear thought and leadership difficult. The weight of history (hopefully) rests heavily on the shoulders of these leaders. The following conflict principles can serve as solid points of departure before the difficult work starts. 

2.1 As long as opinions and demands are made within the parameters of the constitution and the various applicable laws of our country, they are legitimate. The line between a robust, vigorous democracy and destructive self-interested politics is a thin one, try to accurately assess the difference at all times. We cannot insist on a democracy “as I want it”. Sometimes, disruption is necessary, healthy, and shows up old, outdated ways of doing things. Carefully assess, on an ongoing basis, where these fence lines run, and remember that your fence line may be someone else’s obstacle. 

2.2 Compromise is an attractive solution, and most politicians see that easy answer as their mainstay conflict tool. Immense demands and expectations from constituents, internal demands and debates and the human uneasiness with uncertainty are all addressed by quick-fix compromise solutions, and of course that often gets rewarded with assessments of how reasonable you are. It is also the standby favourite of those unskilled in modern conflict.  Conflict studies, as well as of course our recent political history when it comes to coalitions, tell us that these compromise band-aid solutions are often ineffective, and that they cause resentment and further conflict cycles. Be very wary of the lazy, quick compromise, and rather spend a bit more time crafting longer term solutions, even if that takes more work and more aggravation. Here constituents should be advised accordingly, and learn to support their leaders with patience and understanding, as much as we would want this resolved quickly. 

2.3 Whether we want to call these contestations politics, negotiations or anything else, in essence they are manifestations of conflict, conflict at an advanced level, and the sooner a leader and decision maker approach all of the next few weeks through that lens the clearer the assessment, conflict creativity and outcomes will be. Of course we are talking about coalitions, about unemployment, about redress, about representation, crime, accountability, and ten thousand other topics, but underneath all of those topics we find that they are symptoms: symptoms of a relatively few conflict causes. Continuously dealing with the symptoms will lead us astray, as we have been these last few years. Dealing with conflict symptoms can at best lead to short-term solutions, all destined to failure and cyclical patterns of deeper and more complex conflict outcomes, as we have so many examples of. Forget your conventional wisdom, your street smarts, your experience, and your workshop from 1995, that is what brought us here, and approach this using the science of modern political conflict. 

2.4 Face your conflict avoidant behaviour, and become comfortable with it, it is going to be a bumpy ride. 

3. The conflict environment 

The tempting, easy, lazy, low-skilled option here is to throw as much appeasement and compromise at the loudest people in the room, make the noise stop and start governing. To an extent, this happened in the negotiations leading up to the 1994 elections, and we are still, in part, paying some of those unpaid conflict bills, thirty years later. Learn from that, and ensure as stable and unhurried a negotiating environment as possible, and approach the various challenges as problem solving, not appeasement and compromise tight-rope acts. The importance of conflict management in a lawful and stable environment, and how to combat an unlawful environment, was dealt with in greater detail in my article of last year, which article can be found at CONFLICT MANAGEMENT IN A LAWLESS ENVIRONMENT- conflict strategies on the effective application of power - The Conflict Conversations (conflict-conversations.co.za)

4. Disrupting the disruptors 

I do not mean to pick on any individual or party here, but it would be unnecessarily coy to ignore the attempts by the MK Party in general, and Mr. Jacob Zuma in particular, to seize the narrative and conflict control during the last few days. They are very good at this type of disruptive conflict, especially as they are being given the space and opportunity to do so. A specific discussion of their efforts is further warranted by the relative success which they have had with such strategies in the last few days, as we will see. This is classic political disruption conflict strategies, and if you agree with those strategies and aims, then you would of course not see the need to disrupt the disruptors. Others may wish to do so. Of course, these conflict considerations are valid for use against any disruptor, as the situation may dictate and evolve. 

Disruption strategies are easily spotted, are often rather crude and simplistic, and they should be anticipated and prepared for long in advance – and yet… Some of the speed and ease with which these attempts at disruption have succeeded underscores the conflict ignorance of so many of our politicians, including some of the old hands who should know better. The strategies of disruption aim at instability, uncertainty, chaos and polarization as foundations where the work begins. Seeming irrationality, aggressive and even unlawful behaviour, irresponsible and unfounded allegations and rumours, co-ordinated social media attacks, disrespecting and undermining established sources and centres of power and authority are all examples of a relatively simple playbook, one that seems sophisticated to those who do not see the piano wires. 

From this foundation of chaos, once (and so easily) established, the real work begins, where unreasonable demands earn a place at the table, where concessions and compromise seem like the rational, or even only, way of contending with these attacks, and where distrust, division and disorder can be used as tools by those skilled in their manipulation. The first, and easiest, step for any leaders and decision makers on the receiving end of these strategies is to simply be aware of these strategies. Once you see and understand the mechanics of these traveling circus shows it becomes so much easier not to be caught unaware, not to be dragged into reactions, not to be distracted from your own agenda and goals. Here we see the practical necessity of approaching these interactions and engagements as the conflicts they are, not as negotiations or politics, or communication. These disruptive strategies are often met with a torrent of outrage and news cycles discussing and criticising the latest example of outrageous behaviour or unreasonable demands, and therein lies part of its power: your reaction is necessary to close the circle of chaos, and most of our politicians react as expected time after time. 

This is high-end conflict, and the best armed participants will win, every time. Practically speaking, leaders and decision makers should have an above-average skill level in conflict in general, and identity conflicts in particular, and have access to the highest available level of modern conflict advice on an ongoing basis, before, during and after the most important of these skirmishes. It is of crucial importance, on several levels, to accurately anticipate and negate these disruption attacks, and if really ambitious, to actually turn these attacks into internal, political and national victories that the country can benefit from. These opportunities have so far all been left on the table, to the amazement and disappointment of some of us. 

An important part of the effective opposition of disruption attacks, at least in this specific place in our history, is the effective application of conflict communication at its various applicable levels. This would include the correct messages being sent to constituents, opponents, collaborators, the nation and the outside world. Here again an above-average knowledge of modern identity conflicts will enable the leader dealing with these disruption attacks not to make matters worse, to lead to further polarization and disinformation, and other conflict pathologies. Conflict studies clearly show, for example, that in many identity conflicts (of which these events are classical examples) using objective evidence only, or in the wrong manner, sequence or time, not only fails to persuade, it actually leads to further entrenchment of people in their earlier position. The result: your facts and your best efforts make matters worse. 

There is a clearly established right and clearly wrong way of communicating these anti-disruption messages, and a clearly right and clearly wrong way of seeking to persuade opponents or their constituents. At this stage, I cannot name a single senior South African politician who has shown a working understanding of these skills and available tools, and the arguments simply lock us into those conflict cycles more permanently and with a range of very negative secondary conflict outcomes that follow on the failure of opposing such disruption attacks, such as national conflict rigidity, process skepticism, and a growing attractiveness of radical “solutions”, as we can already see. 

On a more interpersonal level there are a range of available anti-disruption conflict skills available for the political stage or the negotiating boardroom, but these are best prepared on that individual basis by an appropriate conflict coach. Given the crude and transparent nature of disruption tactics, and the measurable success that can be had in opposing such tactics (with several international examples available), it is difficult to understand why our politicians are still so easily, so effectively, and so disastrously dragged into these agenda-setting strategies. Here I do not believe that our leaders and politicians have enough time (or the will)to really understand the options and outcomes available to them, as the window of perceived negotiations is so small. If that is the case, the results of this round of negotiations, like the disruption strategies that will walk those corridors, are rather predictable.

 Let’s be clear on one thing, though: it can and should be done very differently, with clear, predictable and more stable results. 

5. The crucial importance of identity conflicts 

The engine driving all of these conflicts is our respective identities, our values. Our identities (whatever they comprise of) are the primary definers of who we are, it gives our lives meaning, it provides us with place, purpose and protection. It is literally “us”. And with that “us” it follows that there is a “them”, and this has tremendous emotional and psychological consequences for our lives, for our conflicts, some of which processes and results we do not understand or are even aware of. 

All of these realities create powerful influences and drivers on which we base our decisions, sometimes in processes that we are unaware of, and sometimes as a result of more directly visible forces, such as acceptable in-group behaviour, punishment of any perceived breaches of the accepted behaviour towards the out-group, victimization narratives and so on. Conflict and other, related, studies in recent years show clearly how we our identities shape subtle but very strong preferences, that we then lean towards those results and views, searching for seemingly objective “facts” to bolster those pre-existing views. Our cherished view of ourselves as supremely rational beings who do not allow our emotions into important decisions is by now a clearly debunked myth, and yet we base so many of our political conflict strategies and responses on that outdated, if instinctive, understanding of our world. The impact of identity on our conflicts, how it shapes them, how it keeps them in place, and what is needed to argue people out of those positions is a vast, fascinating and complex field in conflict studies and practice, and we do not have the space here to scratch the surface. 

Engaging in modern conflicts, especially those as nuanced and complex as what lies ahead for our political leaders, without an advanced knowledge of these identity conflicts (which is not quite the same as identity politics), is as irresponsible as it is futile. The results of these poor conflict outcomes, with which South African citizens will have to live with for years, are completely predictable. In practical terms, and for these specific negotiations, a skilful handling of this aspect of these conflicts will, among other benefits, guard against using factual / objective evidence in a counterproductive and ineffective manner, it will avoid entrenching people in their existing worldviews, and it may start persuading those whose views you are seeking to change, or at the very least start sowing important seeds of doubt that can be explored later on. 

For those who wish to read more about the important challenges and potential of identity conflict management, I can recommend, as examples, the various sources and further reading material to be found at the end of this article. Skilful use of identity conflicts has become an important component of modern political conflicts, and we are already seeing it being applied successfully in the US, Europe and Asia. 

6. General conflict considerations 

Errors in political conflict management at high level have been a fascinating, if frustrating study in recent years. Much of what we as citizens have to live with are completely unnecessary consequences of poor conflict outcomes, and we can only hope that this important set of negotiations will be different. We can highlight a few observable recent errors that can be avoided during this round, without specifically naming any party or individual. In addition to the earlier comments then, especially those regarding the dangers of compromise and appeasement agreements, we can add the following strategies. 

6.1 Slow down the process. Give enough time for decision makers to conduct a sufficient differentiation phase before embarking on the integration phase of these conflict negotiations. Slowing down the process need not add weeks and months to an urgent national crisis, slowing down for the skilled negotiator is a state of mind, an approach to being rushed and making unwise decisions. 

6.2 Do some work on better understanding modern conflict techniques and strategies around the sequence and timing of such strategies, the controlled escalation and de-escalation of specific conflict topics, and how this all hang together when the whole orchestra is playing. 

6.3 Prepare your core team and designated individuals to at least understand these concepts, to know what you are doing, and to participate constructively in that process, throughout the duration of the process. 

6.4 Become comfortable with being uncomfortable, identify your own understandable rush to resolution, and see the shortcuts you are leaning towards. Beware the coherence trap process, and respect the process for the complex conflict that it is. 

6.5 Update your own nonverbal communication skills, and that of your team, and include the benefits of micro-sociological contributions, especially video data analysis (VDA) in your processes. This is of great benefit in these disruption battles. 

7. Conclusion 

It is difficult to disagree with commentators that these are indeed extremely important times for our country, and that we are truly at a crossroads of momentous importance on so many levels. The ANC’s drastic collapse from their earlier domination has simply reminded us of the established conflict truism that unresolved conflicts will have to be settled some day in the future. That time has arrived, and the ignored, misunderstood or mismanaged conflict patterns of decades gone by must now be dealt with, or continue to deepen and cause harm on an ongoing basis. These are the scales by which history judges our leaders. 

As daunting as these challenges may be, they should also remind us that conflict can be a cleansing, healing energy. Too often in our recent past we have avoided the most important conflict causes in our society, continuing to rather try to deal with the symptoms of those causes. Inevitably, and predictably, that has simply locked us into prisons of our own making. These negotiations, these important conflicts, also provide us with wonderful opportunities to clear out some of the old deadwood, and let some fresh air and sunshine into our negotiating boardrooms. We can reset some of our squabbles, we can communicate clearer, and we can re-adjust some of the puzzle pieces that we locked into the wrong slots in the past, often with the best of intentions. 

For this our leaders, as supported by us, will need a few things. They will need a new level of conflict skill, as we have seen. That is up to them to decide whether the old ways will bring new results or not. They will need bravery, and an unflinching resolve to stare down those who want to destroy the Constitution and who wish, or need, to establish their own agenda for personal benefit, and they will need the integrity to do this across party lines, to remember what it is that we have asked them to do in the first place. I wish them all the very best. Because after all of this, we deserve that. 

Summary of main sources, references and suggested reading 

1. Dangerous Magic: essays on conflict resolution in South Africa, by Andre Vlok, Paradigm Media (2022), including Chapter 4 on identity conflicts. 

2. Selected work by Jonathan Haidt, Jay van Bavel, Peter Boghossian, Sander van der Linden or Yascha Mounk on identity conflicts from a sociological and psychological perspective. 

3. Relevant articles and their source material to be found at www.conflict-conversations.co.za 

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) 

5. Selected conflict works by Peter Coleman, Roger Mac Ginty, I William Zartman, Kenneth Cloke, Mark Szabo and others. 

  • Full references, further reading material, courses, coaching and study material are available on request.

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

Andre Vlok 

June 2024

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