A roadmap for improvement
Leading through conflict means believing in the possibilities of what does not yet exist. It requires focusing on the luminous opportunity that lies at the end of the tunnel of obstacles.
This article is a reflection on the political situation reached in Nelson Mandela Bay a few days after the latest coalition government has been installed, and when the tired and despondent citizens of Nelson Mandela Bay again, not for the first time decide, against the probabilities and historical trends, to invest a measure of hope and trust in their political leaders in their battle for survival and, dare we hope, stability and prosperity.
The embarrassing and destructive political farce that the region has had to endure these last few years and the resultant socio-political harm that this political ineptitude and irresponsible governance has caused, and continues to cause in this depressed region, hardly needs further comment, and a political score-sheet is not the aim of this article. As such political commentary will be avoided where possible, and the article will seek to assess the current situation from a conflict management perspective, without reference to specific politicians or their parties. We will investigate the conflicts itself, the causes and triggers thereof, and then look at a few practical conflict management techniques that our political leaders can, and should, start making a part of their daily skill-set immediately.
The stakes are incredibly high, and the people of the region deserve better, more skilled leadership than what we have been asked to accept this far.
THE CONFLICT MISDIAGNOSED
It is in listening to various political experts discussing the Nelson Mandela Bay (NMB) conflicts through the years that we get a disturbing glimpse of why we are where we are, and why we have made no progress in the last few years: hardly anyone understands the correct causes and triggers of the political conflicts we are experiencing. The cycles of conflict churn through our city, with predictable monotony, and yet the actors in this crucial stage play keep repeating the same lines, the same roles. We keep on rehashing the same clichés - economical excuses, lack of resources, unemployment, factionalism, corruption, accusations of racism and a few other popular reasons for our endemic failures, without ever using the correct and effective tools for the task ahead.
Getting the causes and triggers of our conflicts wrong dooms us then to getting our conflict solutions wrong, repeatedly. As the one new leadership team after the other gets given the job of political messiahs the political and economic failures keep adding up, and as with all cyclical conflicts, this repetitive failure makes us more despondent, less trusting of each other and of solutions, it makes us more rigid in our thought patterns, and we become so defensive that we are not capable of being in the states of mind that may lead to the economic and political creative solutions that will lead us out of this catastrophe. We double down, we become more polarized and it becomes easier for those who benefit from seeing us divided to sow the seeds of so-called alternative solutions. We are, as the joke would have it, trying to dig ourselves out of this hole.
THE CONFLICT CORRECTLY UNDERSTOOD
Of course the NMB conflict is inextricably linked to the obvious secondary causes thereof, such as our economic challenges, our unemployment crisis, our shared socio-political histories, factional and party-political divisions and a host of other well-worn excuses. These “reasons” are however as much results of our conflicts as they are causes, and they are in any event not the primary causes for our conflicts. It is because we get the diagnosis of our illness wrong that we never get to the cure.
A comprehensive mapping of our conflict causes (and triggers) will need a lot more space and time than we have available here, but a few of the most important primary causes would include the following:
- With precious few exceptions these disputes are all value-driven identity conflicts. The issues, while described in everyday commercial and social terms, affect those involved on a much more personal level, and this requires a very different conflict approach than what is traditionally and predictably used in the metro’s conflicts. The fact that our leaders continue to argue them with mainly objective facts and related strategies simply entrenches the deep divisions and distrust, ironically making things worse the harder they try. Very different tools are necessary.
- Our political leaders continue to give in to the temptation of the cheap shot, the quick public insult and the short-term vote. In the process they seem to have no working idea of the consequences of treating political opponents with a marked lack of dignity. Dignity is an essential part of our humanity, and research and case studies show that people are quite prepared to prejudice their own positions in an effort to pay back opponents in conflict where their dignity is repeatedly disrespected. Additionally, this has as much to do with perception as it deals with facts, and the public attacks and insults that have become part of the NMB political arena do nothing for the dignity of the process, the public confidence therein, or for the political participants. These attacks are perceived and experienced as attacks on the dignity of its recipients, and these experiences make complex conflicts even more intractable and cyclical than what they would have been without such an important strategic error. The dividing line between playing hard and attacking the dignity of your political opponents is a real one, and should be respected. This real and perceived disregard for dignity is a major cause and trigger of our political conflicts.
- Important differences in cultural attitudes to a few very important conflict drivers are misunderstood or not factored in correctly. Our recent leadership and council teams have had visible and publicly discernible cultural differences in crucial areas such as their views on political participation, the role of personal honour in political dealings, group vs individual roles in political activity and accountability and several others. These cultural differences have nothing to do with right or wrong ways of dealing with political problems, but when misunderstood or disregarded they cause, and continue to cause, invisible but impassable barriers to effective conflict resolution. Conversely, when properly harnessed they create a dynamic force that can drive the dissolution of such important secondary conflicts.
- The conflict concept of face (saving) is not applied to these conflicts. People are insulted and their careers destroyed without much thought for the wider conflict implications of such strategic errors. The tit for tat strategies that we so often see in the media is one of the symptoms of such leadership mistakes. It has close ties with the cultural conflict differences that we discussed above, and it is a springboard for cyclical distrust and significant escalation of conflict.
- A form of political immaturity and even insecurity pervades much of what passes for political activity in NMB. One of the very basic conflict skills, that of being so sure and convinced of your own abilities and views that you can address the issue and not attack the opponent seem to not be considered or applied too often in the unflattering scenes that the people of NMB have to experience on regular media coverage of undignified outbursts, physical altercations, tirades, social media attacks and other events that would be more in place in a primary school playground. A secure politician who is working for the public will quite easily be able to restrain herself from these outbursts, will be able to listen to the other side(s), and to calmly but effectively argue their causes. Political activity can, as we have several examples of, be a wonderful example of the creative and necessary energy that conflict can bring to the table. When applied positively this creates a self-perpetuating cycle where people can participate constructively in the political lives of their communities, where difficult matters are vigorously but respectfully aired and resolved, and where the respect and dignity of politicians, as office bearers and as colleagues of each other, can be protected and enhanced.
- Politicians in South Africa are generally not required to bring any formal skills or qualifications to this important job. From our experience with political leadership here in NMB we however see the need for some basic conflict management coaching for senior politicians. These officials, or their parties, can accept responsibility for a basic course in understanding and applying modern basic conflict skills. For example, learn how to manage the difficult differentiation period in conflicts and debates (as our history shows, this is invariably where best intentions are derailed), learn how to understand and manage power, learn and apply the real, measurable benefits of constructive listening, of persuasion, of the varied and tested conflict tools available to politicians. This basic course skills should be transferable and can be internally run and managed either on a party or council level.
- Being more conflict competent and conflict confident will also allow our politicians to be less litigious. While some disputes are obviously best served and resolved by litigation, several of these court cases are costly and ineffective conflict resolution tools, causing further distrust, inefficiency, costs, resentment and polarization. Our politicians should learn the practical and immediate benefits of mediation (formal or informal), arbitration and a host of other conflict resolution options. This skill will, coincidentally, also lead to increased trust levels in each other amongst politicians and in the system.
These examples (there are many others) of increased political conflict competency are all realistic, practical solutions and improvements. They are, if approached with the right mind-set and application, easily managed, fully transferable, measurable, cost effective and quickly learned and applied. They do not dispose of other, more traditional methods of conflict management (such as litigation) but simply enhance such conflict management processes, internal discipline and professionalism.
They are far from “soft options” and have a measurable positive effect on efficiency and several political, social and commercial parameters. These solutions are available regardless of our views of the skills or motivations of politicians, and they should be applied despite, maybe because of, our deep-seated differences and high levels of distrust. The absence of these solutions leads to the unfortunate situation, playing out across our screens and in our streets, where our politicians are often involved in secondary conflicts (insults, distrust, factionalism) instead of dealing with the primary disputes and work that needs to be done.
This creates cyclical conflict and distrust that all but makes effective political work and progress impossible. The benefits of skilled peacebuilding and political stability will speak for itself. The new skills suggested above will in time become an internalized skill for our politicians, and they can then get to the political leadership and service delivery that this region so desperately need. In time, the Nelson Mandela Bay politicians can then become the role models for other politicians in how to effectively deal with conflict.
- Full references, further reading material, courses, coaching and study material are available on request.
(Andre Vlok can be contacted email@example.com
for any further information)
Andre Vlok September 2022