4 min read
08 Jul

A brief reminder of the purpose of the series 

Twice a month we will study a conflict event that played out in the media during the preceding week or so. While we may not be personally involved in these events we can learn from them, we can use them as examples of how conflict works and how we can prepare ourselves for conflicts in our own personal or professional lives. As such these conflict events serve as case studies only, using the known or presumed facts as publicly known at that stage. The series works from a broad definition and understanding of the concept of a conflict, as is the case in formal conflict studies. Conflict can be the physical or verbal events that we will be discussing, but we are also in conflict with anyone, or any process, that harms or competes with our best interests directly or indirectly, whether they have the intention to do so or not. 

The event 

In a viral video of events of the afternoon of the 3rd July 2023, South Africans witnessed members of a VIP Protection Unit viciously assault the driver of a vehicle and his two passengers. These violent, sickening events, committed in broad daylight on a national public road, led to a series of responses and comments from a public that was clearly horrified by the conduct of these men in authority, by their actions executed with apparent impunity. The conduct of these men will be adjudicated, one hopes, by the criminal and civil legal processes available to the parties, as well as the internal employment disciplinary processes. The events will also provide the authorities and the various departments involved with helpful training material to improve various areas of relevant conduct, if these authorities are so disposed. 

What is there that we can learn from these conflict events, using the witnessed events as a framework and points of reference? 

Applicable conflict lessons and skills 

From a general conflict studies point of view, assessing and learning from these publicly known events can help spectators in dealing with a sense of helplessness, we can deal with feelings of anger or despair at these and other events by feeling somehow connected to them, that we are witnessing these events together, and that we are not without power to reply. 

The following examples show us how we can gain some benefit from conflicts that seem to be out of our control, such as the events under discussion: 

(1) The various legal and administrative processes now in play following on these assaults will remind us that we should, where possible, base our conflict responses on all relevant facts. Snap decisions, emotional and angry responses are all understandable at some level, but such responses may not always be in our best interests. Where possible, gather as much evidence and facts as possible, not in order to be fair or to accommodate anyone else (as laudable as those goals may be), but in order for you to be as effective as you possibly can when you form your own opinions and conflict strategies. 

(2) Once we have the facts, such as may be available, at our disposal, it is justifiable to have strong opinions in a conflict, to choose sides as you see them, and to be allowed to express that reasoned opinion. Managing our conflicts have very little to do with lazy or convenient compromises. Having an open mind in gathering and assessing the facts of these events is essential, but listening to both (or all) sides does not mean that all opinions and explanations are equally valid. Events such as these call for a response, where relevant for condemnation. 

(3) To resolve and transcend conflicts, especially those as potentially traumatic as this event, we should allow people to express their views, even if that proves to be hurtful or irrational from our perspective. People are often quite willing to accept the consensus or decision in a conflict as long as they are heard and their possibly contrary views are expressed during what is known as the differentiation phase of a conflict, where we air our views and get it all out into the open. Refusing people this opportunity complicates that process, and an incomplete or badly managed differentiation phase inevitably leads to the escalation of the conflict, polarization, an addition of secondary but important conflicts and conflict rigidity. Allowing others to express their views is not an easy task, as we can see from several social media engagements following these events. This process can be easier in personal exchanges, and that is often where the real work needs to be done. If you struggle to engage constructively with such contrary views, rather remain disengaged or limit your interactions so as to not add to the polarization and escalation. 

(4) Mind your motivations. As we can see from our selected event, some individuals and groups now use this conflict as a platform for the advancement of their own agendas and interests. There is nothing wrong with this in principle, depending on those goals. Simply stay aware of (and honest about) your own biases and interests in the unfolding of such conflicts, as this will help you to deal with it without getting dragged into harmful emotional and destructive responses and conflict patterns. Is your response to these events caused by or exacerbated by your distrust of the government, are you afraid of being the victim of violence yourself, have you maybe been a victim of such violence, are you worried about your family being involved in such assaults and so on. Observing these thoughts should not be criticism of your own motivations and conflict triggers, you are simply noticing and being aware of such emotions and thought processes. The act of noticing them in this way already helps you in responding and dealing with them in a healthier way. 

(5) From these violent events we can notice the extremely harmful consequences of unresolved conflicts. Our society has hardly begun to effectively deal with so many of its complex and cyclical conflicts, and it shows in the lack of effective political leadership, an absence of care or respect for others, violence as a perceived solution for the most trivial of offenses or slights, and several other negative conflict outcomes experienced daily by South Africans. Conflicts that are ignored, minimized or compromised, without being effectively resolved, will have these spiralling and escalating consequences. Continuously dealing with symptoms rather than causes will tie us to repetitive conflict cycles that will further serve to escalate and polarize our environments. These observations can be transferred to our own lives. If we are living through repetitive, cyclical conflicts with individuals, at work or in our families these are signs that we are dealing with symptoms not causes, and that we need to assess and deal with these personal or professional conflicts in a different manner. These assaults, the disregard for human life and dignity, the apparent and arrogant confidence that they can act as they please all point to systemic and well-entrenched conflict pathologies that must inevitably lead to this type of conduct, all caused by poorly managed and unresolved conflict causes. 

(6) We have agency and the power to affect our lives. These events should remind us that complacency and deflection are awful conflict strategies, and that we have the power to shape our worlds, even if that is in a limited, small sense. We can demand higher standards from our leaders, we can use our democratic rights or our activism to influence decision making processes around us. We can, through how we conduct our personal and professional lives, show others through our lived examples how to effectively and competently deal with conflict. We can accept healthy and constructive conflict as an unparalleled method to advance and grow a nation and our communities, while rejecting and combating harmful and unacceptable events such as the ones we witnessed here. 

(7) We can try to remind ourselves that every one of these conflicts do not only have perpetrators, but also victims, and that if we do want to play a role in actually doing something more than say something on Twitter, we have the opportunity to help someone close to us, in any small way that we can manage and afford. Every conflict brings about opportunities as well as challenges and problems. A clear and accurate assessment of that conflict can lead to various levels of improvement, for those involved and others. 

We can use these awful events as fuel to be better and more effective at our own conflicts. While we cannot prevent them from happening, we can derive some benefit and use that in our own lives and communities. 

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

(c) Andre Vlok 

July 2023

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