7 min read
06 Aug

We continue this series where we focus on a recent public event that caused conflict at some meaningful level, and then study that conflict event in order to learn something practical for our own personal or professional conflicts from that event. 

The event 

A week ago, at the EFF’s 10th anniversary celebrations at the FNB stadium, their leader Mr. Julius Malema, sang the protest song “Dubul’ibhunu”, which in the popular mind is known as the song “Kill the boer/farmer”. The lyrics and the various interpretations thereof have been discussed at length, and the broad framework of the complaints about the singing of the song has been well traversed and ruled on by especially the Equality Court, with Judge Molahlehi’s 2022 ruling being the most recent authoritative guidance on the various topics that form part of the dispute (see the suggested reading section below). 

What should have been the clear waters of the legal pronouncements following on a series of formal litigation events between mainly Afriforum (as complainants) and the EFF and Mr. Malema (as respondents), are unfortunately somewhat muddled, at least for the sake of finality of the issue, by various interpretations of the 2011 Equality Court decision by Judge Lamont, the subsequent mediation agreement between the parties, and the fact that although Judge Molahlehi found Judge Lamont’s decision to not be binding on his own decision, that was arrived at by inter alia an argument about the weight  the expert witness’ evidence presented, and the words “kiss the boer” as opposed to “kill the boer”. 

While these legal events have certainly brought some clarity, albeit sometimes of a reluctant nature, it has not resolved the issue by any means, as we can see from the renewed dispute and the revisitation of many of its original parameters by some of the original parties in this last week. These recent events can be distinguished from (at least) the 2022 decision on several grounds, and future litigation between the parties cannot be ruled out. The singing of the song in July has also led to various calls for international attention and intervention, in various interpretations of the meaning and importance of these song. 

Our focus, and the conflict restated 

It is abundantly clear from even a quick read of just the publicly available material of this dispute that it has made very little progress towards resolution, despite the mediation and litigation efforts of more than a decade. It shows all of the classic conflict management symptoms of a cyclical conflict, with its recognizable, even predictable, patterns of conflict escalation and conflict rigidity. In conflict management terms it qualifies as a complex conflict, as well as an intractable conflict. These spirals will remain with the people of South Africa as long as the problem is approached in the way that it has been this last few years. 

From a conflict management perspective, the grave strategic error that is being made by anyone trying to effectively resolve the current conflict, right at the outset, is the failure to understand that this is a classic example of an identity conflict. The simple but crucial fact that this is a highly visible, contentious identity conflict means that it has to be understood and resolved in very different ways than the strategies and tools used this far. This is not going to be resolved through legislation or litigation. In fact, a modern understanding of the causes and triggers of identity conflicts show us that the efforts of the last few years in fact make the conflict worse, with greater levels of polarization, frustration and other negative conflict outcomes being the result of what is essentially an important mismanagement of the conflict (see the suggested reading section below for material on the concept of identity conflicts). 

We should of course pause here and observe that this could be not so much a case of conflict mismanagement, but a cynical abuse of the conflict by one or more of the involved parties. As we see with every new iteration of the conflict, it mobilizes the respective camps and involved interest groups, it leads to incendiary social media engagements and public pronouncements of intent, warnings of different responses, and in general focuses an inordinate amount of local and international attention on the combatants. If this is what we are dealing here then there is very little that South Africans can do about such manipulation, but at least we can then stop pretending that we are victims of this toxic process, or that we have a better, far more effective way of resolving the conflict available to us. I will then assume, for the rest of the article, that we are primarily dealing with a cyclical conflict where one or more of the parties are willing and able to consider, and implement, better tools in resolving this harmful, destructive conflict. 

A few thoughts on the relevant identity conflict principles involved here I

dentity conflicts, as the term indicates, have to do with our identities, our sense of self, our values, our place in the world. As a mountain of modern multi-disciplinary evidence, from psychology to social science, from neuro-psychology to conflict management, indicate, we are not always as rational and objective as we would like to believe. We often form seemingly objective opinions based on pre-formed subjective, emotional, even at times irrational concerns. Our identities are inextricably linked to everything that is valuable to us, it is, quite literally, a matter of survival to most of us. When we argue with each other about BEEE quotas, about taxi routes, about salaries, about the words and meanings of a song, we so easily get stuck in the symptoms of the problem, without understanding that we are dealing with symptoms, while the causes of that conflict remains in place, and that the way we conduct ourselves in those conflicts serve to make things worse, to entrench those conflicts. 

Of course these symptoms are important, of course they must be dealt with, but they should not become the sole focus of our conflicts. Of course the meaning of these songs are important, of course they can cause a range of terrible results, but if we are going to get to solutions for these conflicts we need to understand the questions, the issues involved, far better than what we seem to do at present. A few examples, using this specific set of events, will clarify this important distinction. When an EFF supporter, or anyone having any connection to their point of view, hear the song it plays into their specific identity. It supports that identity, it validates it, it reminds them of earlier offences, of camaraderie, of resilience, of hope, of the strength that can be found in community. When a group or individual offended by the song hear that same song, it plays into their identity and its values: fears of retribution and violence, of being a minority group, stories that they may have heard throughout the years and so on. One simple event, lasting a minute or two, triggers very different identity responses in people who have completely different identities. 

And it is here where the damage gets done. Because these relatively simple events play out against the backdrop of our identities, any criticism of the events themselves are viscerally experienced as threats, threats to our identity. Supporting the song, criticizing the song all take on vastly different and often unintended meanings. This is by then no longer the support or condemnation of a few words in a tune, it becomes, in the popular perceptions involved, an attack on the values and identities of the other group. Dissent is now, once we understand this early derailment, unreasonable, irrational, hardly worthy of any further engagement. Members of these groups start struggling to see how the “other side(s)” can hold those opposing views, polarization and conflict rigidity starts kicking in, and the original merits of the conflict get lost in what is, by then, a battle for identity survival. 

These processes are of course well understood by some of our leaders, and the creation, manipulation and maintenance of people’s identities in the furtherance of political agendas all become justifiable tools to those who may care more about themselves than the interests of the South African population. In this way, conflicts are manufactured around the identities of people, wrapped in the apparent details of a specific conflict, with all of its details and nuances, while under the hood we are dealing with something far more basic, far more important than the simple facts of a particular conflict such as this one. And once we see these principles in play, we can also see how so many of the conflict strategies that are being used are so harmful, so counter-productive. Lodging criminal complaints, launching Equality Court cases, repeating and escalating the behaviour in a taunting manner, social media rants and threats – all of this adds more fuel to the fire that we say we want to extinguish.   What does modern conflict management teach us about conflicts like these? How can we improve our own responses to these conflict events, how can we protect ourselves in processes that often feel outside of our abilities to manage? Again, we need not include those purposefully lighting these fires for their own agendas in our discussion. 

Applicable conflict lessons and skills 

Our first practical step can be a very easy one, and that is a simple reminder of context, of proportion. Had it not been for the pathologies that South Africans have to live with, and had to live with, a song such as this would not have existed, would not have had any pretensions of being a struggle song that meant, and means, a lot to so many people. Had it not been for our past, and our ongoing failure to deal with our unresolved conflicts, so many South Africans would not see the need to defend an event that clearly should have no respectable place in a healthy, hopeful and free society. To justify the words of the song, to contort ourselves into defending the clearly indefensible does violence to us all. In arguing that now, thirty years into our democracy, a song such as this still has a valid and respectable place in our democracy brings us up against our conflict failures, our socioeconomic and political failures, and simply recognizing that in itself should be of some value in dealing with the song and its place in our society. 

From that assessment of our context we can move on and become more aware of how we are manipulated by some of the political and other forces in our society. Notice the predictable responses by some of our political leaders. They react like they do because they know how you are going to react. Being aware of the immense power of identity conflicts in itself already arms us to be less susceptible to manipulation, to be able to see how the pieces on the chessboard are being moved around, and for us to arrive at our own conclusions. This in itself is already a valuable modern conflict skill. Being aware of the mechanics of identity conflicts also enables us to opt out of some of the harmful responses and reactions that serve to exacerbate the situation, to lead to polarization and further harm to a South Africa that hardly needs additional conflict challenges. We can refrain from social media outbursts and polemics, we can understand the other identities involved without prejudicing our own, and we can refuse to be a part of the problem. 

This in itself often leads to a reduction in feeling of helplessness, frustration and despair in people that have to experience these complex conflicts. We find then that even on a rather passive level, without actively getting involved in any of these conflicts, we can already help ourselves and those around us, by understanding the mechanics of these identity conflicts. That in itself is already a valuable contribution to your own interests and those of South Africans in general. 

For those of us who may wish to take an even more active role in conflicts such as these, several additional strategies are available. We can mention a few here. Once we understand the complexities of these identity conflicts and the human, emotional values involved, we are struck by a simple, if sometimes difficult to accept, observation: the facts of these conflicts do not really assist us in improving them. It is a crucial part of the remedies and strategies to be used in identity conflicts to understand, and apply correctly, the fact that we look after our identities first, and facts deemed to be in contrast to those interests are simply rejected. 

We see daily, visible proof of this conflict fact in for example the “wars” involving the pros and cons of Mr. Trump, Covid-19 vaccination, the environmental disputes and a range of others. Each side comes armed with the latest in facts and science and shiny new studies, and none of that ever works in convincing people. In identity conflicts, in other words, your “objective” and “true” facts matter very little, and they actually entrench people further in their held views, as these are seen as attacks on their identities that for most people start taking on an existential level of danger. 

It is important to note that this realization does not mean that you are called upon to walk away from your own values, your own identity. Quite the contrary. The modern approach to resolving identity conflicts mean that effectively resolving these conflicts are of greater importance to you than simply being right, but in order to be successful you can, and should, continue to value and protect your own interests. It is a matter of the recalibration of your strategies, not your identity values. In practice these are designed to be effective, measurable conflict management skills. If you do wish to not just refuse to contribute to the problem, but actually change people’s minds as far as their identity views are concerned, there are a few very complex conflict strategies that you will need to teach yourself. I included a link to a simplified nine-step process below in the suggested reading section. We can also start holding our leaders more accountable, especially once we understand that their actions and reactions to conflicts such as these may seem perfectly reasonable and correct, but nevertheless still contribute to the conflict and end up making matters worse. 

Again, if for you it is a contest about who is right and who is wrong, and clicks on social media, continue with that approach but let’s just stop calling this effectively dealing with the conflict. Such approaches are as much a part of the continuation of the conflicts as the casting the first proverbial stone are. As we have seen, these identity conflicts are tools in the hands of a few who derive benefit from the fanning of these flames. So it has always been, so it will always be. For those political and other leaders who however no longer wish to be a part of the problem, there are clear, measurable, effective alternatives. 

For us citizens also, as we have seen, there is more power available to us than what it may at times appear. The choice, and the responsibility, is yours. 


1. Judge Molahlehi’s 2022 Equality Court judgment, with links to the earlier disputes at Afriforum v Economic Freedom Fighters and Others (EQ 04/2020) [2022] ZAEQC 2; 2022 (6) SA 357 (GJ) (25 August 2022) (saflii.org) 

2. For those interested in the psychological and social science discussions of identity conflicts, I would recommend the published works on the topic of Jonathan Haidt, Peter Boghossian and Jay van Bavel. 

3. The process of changing minds in identity conflicts is a complex one, often best left to those experienced in these conflicts, but a simplified 9-step process can be found at DIFFICULT CONVERSATIONS - part 2/3 - The Conflict Conversations (conflict-conversations.co.za) 

4. My book “Dangerous Magic” (available through Amazon or the publishers directly) deals with various levels of these conflicts and how to effectively deal with them in our personal and professional lives. Chapter 4 in particular deals with identity conflicts at some length. 

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

Andre Vlok 

August 2023

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