7 min read
14 Mar

I have striven not to laugh at human actions, not to weep at them, not to hate them, but to understand them.  

Baruch Spinoza

Why can’t you understand, it’s so logical, so simple?! 

Most of us  


Our upcoming elections have again highlighted a series of very reasonable questions that perplex a large number of South Africans. Why do people vote over and over for the same party when this is seemingly so clearly against their own best interests? Why do parties with seemingly far more rational solutions fail to make meaningful headway in election campaigns? Answers are then sought, with increasing frustration, in a variety of causes, from the perceived educational levels of the voters to the failures of individual leaders to persuade, from bad policies to these being poorly executed. 

In the process, we see the same cycles of unresolved conflicts, the same arguments recycled ad nauseam, the same results defeating spirals of hope and good intentions. While these questions are immensely complex, and I do not suggest that there is one simple solution to it all, I do see one simple but disastrous mistake that opposition parties continue to make in their renewed efforts to persuade and improve. Briefly put, the error lies in dealing with the realities of our South African identity conflicts, instead of understanding and addressing the causes thereof. 

This locks us all, thirty years after democracy, into the same spirals of hope and despair, of the inability to bring about meaningful change. In a nutshell: in order to effectively persuade people to support and implement meaningful change, our political landscape must be seen and managed as a complex identity conflict. 

A brief note on the ethics of persuasion maybe also due at this stage. If you look at South Africa and you are satisfied with the results that you see, you may not see the need for any change, for any persuasion being done. So be it, that is what a democracy is all about. For many of us, though, that is not the case, and we need change, we need persuasion, and we wonder why that is not happening when the facts and realities around us so clearly call for just that. Regardless of your position, I believe that our brief discussion of identity conflicts here can be of some benefit regardless of your position on this question. 

Identity conflicts – a crash course 

Identity conflicts are immensely complex areas of modern conflict studies and practice (see the examples of more in-depth material in the resource and suggested reading list below), drawing evolving best practices and strategies from a multi-disciplinary array of contributing disciplines. In the process, we have learned much about the levers and buttons involved in why people make decisions, and how to persuade them to change their views. In the space available to us here, we can but discuss the concept in the briefest terms. I have written about it more extensively elsewhere. 

Our identities, our values, our very idea and sense of who we are, are composed of a rich variety of views, beliefs, perceptions and lived realities. All of this combined makes up the wonderful diversity of what makes us human, with our differences of opinions, lifestyles and worldviews. This is uncontroversial, and a matter of simple observation. What we do not always realize is how important these values and identities are to just about everyone. Our identities, our values, in a very real sense, become us, it has existential value for nearly all of us. It is how we make sense of our world, it is “me”. So far, so easy. 

The next observable step is that if there is a “me” then, soon enough, there will be an “us”. People who look like me, think like me, behave like me, want the same things as I do. My identity now starts taking on very real consequences. It places me in the world, it reinforces my sense of self, my values. And, if there is an “us”, there has to be a “them”. The problem does not lie in recognizing these easily observed facets of society, but in how those pieces should be approached and arranged if we wish to persuade people. 

The consequences of getting these efforts wrong, as we can see so easily, are rather far-reaching. Our identity, our values, are often tacitly accepted, without much personal interrogation or criticism. For many of us, large swathes of our worldviews are unexamined, it is “just the way things are”, and “everyone knows that”. The identity conflict pendulum now sways in two very distinct directions, with two very clear categories of results: firstly, our identities shelter and reward us if we adhere to certain basic tenets and expectations, and non-adherence can punish us in many important ways, while secondly, it now follows that any attack on those views become, in a very real, experienced manner, an attack on the very values, the identity of that person holding them. 

It is crucial to understand also, as borne out by a rich vein of recent studies, that we are less rational in the assessment and adoption of our worldviews and identities than we would wish to think. We are, simply put, inclined to accept emotionally based reasons for decisions and then we rationalize in order to justify those decisions. We will do just about anything to keep our identities in place. 

From the fact that these are more than just held opinions or views, but an actual part of our identities, follow a few further crucial realizations. These worldviews are more than just loosely held opinions, they are what “good people” think or believe, they are what “we” (however defined) believe. Any attack seemingly built on the details of a position (say for instance that vaccinations are necessary, or that farm murders are not really a problem) become less of a rational exercise than an attack on me, on us, on my worldview. We return to the consequences of this fact later on below. 

A few observed errors 

With that summarized framework of how identity conflicts work, we notice a few repeated errors made by politicians in their efforts at persuading voters, we can mention the following examples: 

1. Not seeing the challenge as one involving identity conflict, but rather trying to deal with the symptoms of the problem (eg corruption, dishonesty, poor governance etc); 

Examples: Most political statements and speeches understandably deal with these symptoms, but this is very often framed as being the result of that sense of belonging, that identity, eg “the ANC has collapsed Johannesburg”, which makes a staunch ANC supporter defensive, as opposed to “under Mr. X’s leadership Johannesburg has collapsed”. 

2. Relying only on the argued rationality of the argument, often backed up by supporting evidence, scientific studies and so on; 

Examples: Arguments, full of factual references and evidence, often of an objective nature, showing how “Cape Town is the best run city in South Africa” or “Nearly all of the members of Party X have been implicated in the X Commission”. In identity conflicts, we need more than just the facts. 

3. Not understanding the choices that the framing of the argument places before the listener; 

Examples: The framing of an argument often demands, by implication, that the listener should face certain unpleasant or difficult alleged realities about the listener’s party affiliations, gender or race, or other important identity marker. Consciously or otherwise, the listener is faced less with the perceived choices of your carefully constructed argument as to (a) accept these unpleasant allegations or (b) find a way to dismiss your argument. 

4. Using the wrong argumentative and persuasive methods to convince, treating the argument like a debate where the most facts win, setting up a winner/loser framework, requiring apologies or costly step-downs; Examples: Identity conflicts here in South Africa are often held in place by severe consequences for any dissent or perceived disloyalty, and offered solutions and alternatives are often framed glibly as Choice A or Choice B, with no public recognition for the difficulties that may be inherent in such choices, and no viable answers to such practical problems being offered. I may be convinced by your argument, but the costs of that realization (a) threatens my own sense of identity and (b) has other adverse costs for me, costs of which you seem unaware of indifferent to. 

5. Having absolutely no idea as to the dynamics of face saving in identity conflicts, especially in the honour-based sections of our society; 

Examples: A legalistic insistence on winner/loser paradigms in political scenarios, the superiority of the one side / individual versus the inferiority of the other, crowing at victories, leaving no face-saving alternatives in the event of a reasonable proposal being accepted. These are but a few examples of a very long list of the strategic errors made by political parties, on a daily basis, because they do not approach their challenges through the crucial lens of identity conflicts. We can now look at a few of the costly consequences that follow on such errors. 

The costs and consequences of getting identity conflicts wrong 

A few of the well-studied, well-established consequences of either not understanding identity conflicts, or in getting your strategies wrong, include the following results, all of which we see in our politics on a daily basis: 

(a) The manner in which these political strategies are conveyed implemented threaten peoples’ identities, causing an immediate, visceral reaction in many voters, causing a choice between the maintenance and strengthening of their personal identities, or the difficult, costly process of dismantling of your own secure, established identity, with predictable results. 

(b) Case studies show that far from simply being unpersuasive (as if that is not bad enough), failed attempts at persuading people from their held views in identity conflicts actually strengthen the previously held view. This can be observed in a range of recent public identity conflicts, such as the Covid arguments, the Trump wars, and our own political cyclical conflicts. People are not really convinced, they have their opinions and the needle hardly budges, despite clear public instances of events that should persuade. 

(c) When identities are being threatened, it becomes easier to manipulate people with populist “solutions”, and to get them to accept consequences and results that may very well be to their disadvantage, but which can be accommodated within the manipulation of identity conflicts. 

(d)Perhaps the most harmful of these consequences can be seen in our political landscape in the increasing polarization of groups, of increased political scepticism and even a radicalization, where previously extremist views start taking on an increased attractiveness due to the perceived futility of other, more rational views. These spirals of despair and radicalization lead to conflict scepticism, and an increased unwillingness to consider or participate in problem solving with the “other side”. 

The only way out 

Even these few easy examples show us the extent and complexity of the challenge, and how the best intentioned, and best prepared arguments may very well be either ineffective or even counter-productive in entrenching already-held views. Persuasion in identity conflicts requires a scalpel, not the hammer we so often see in the hands of our politicians. Unless they then actually want these conflicts to continue (not a totally inconceivable possibility, in some instances, of course), they need to re-engineer their political strategies and approach these campaigns through the lens of the engine room that drives those differences: our identity conflicts. 

It is then, in the hands of the skilled strategist, that economic and societal realities such as unemployment, inequality, economic and infrastructural problems, policy and leadership failures and so on can become the tools that persuade, that convince, that bring change. The actual process of using the tools made available to us once we understand and use identity conflicts as the modern skill it is can be a complex process, and as I have written about that before I will rather direct the reader to my article at DIFFICULT CONVERSATIONS - part 2/3 - The Conflict Conversations (conflict-conversations.co.za)  for a framework of the actual process involved.


As we have seen, our political parties are using the wrong tools for the job. Significantly, once we view the problem through the lens of identity conflicts, everything we see in our political environment makes sense. The intransigent voter support, the seeming lack of real consequences for political incompetence, the continued failure of seemingly rational alternatives and arguments - all are expected, even predictable, consequences when we do not understand or effectively manage this as identity conflicts. The framework we have discussed here should be enough of a point of departure for those who are really interested in urgent, meaningful change. 

Summary of main sources, references and suggested reading 

1. Van Bavel, Jay and Packer, Dominic, The Power of Us, Wildfire (2021) 

2. Mounk, Yascha, The Identity Trap, Penguin (2023) 

3. Haidt, Jonathan. The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion. Penguin Books Ltd. (2012) 

4. Vlok, Andre, Dangerous Magic: essays on conflict resolution in South Africa, Paradigm Media (2022) 

5. Coleman, Peter T. The Way Out, Columbia University Press (2021) 

6. Various relevant articles on the Conflict Conversations blog at www.conflict-conversations.co.za 

  • 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

(c) Andre Vlok March 2024

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