6 min read
26 Apr

Leading through conflict means believing in the possibility of what does not yet exist. It requires focusing on the luminous opportunity that lies at the end of the tunnel of obstacles.  

Mark Gerzon  

You know, I don’t at all hesitate to be a bit utopian about all this because I think hope is itself an act, a very big leap, which in a sense defies the grim facts always about us and opens up new ways of thinking about things.  

Daniel Berrigan 


The various South African parties have published their respective political manifestos during the last few weeks, providing us with documents intended to show us, as prospective voters for such parties, what principles and programs they stand for, and how they will lead the country if they are elected. These are generally regarded as important documents, as they provide roadmaps to guide those parties, and written records for us to monitor whether a party has fulfilled its promises made in such a manifesto. There is no shortfall of plans and promises in these manifestos. As political manifestos go, these documents do the job that they are called upon to do. 

It is however in the last two months or so that I see a disturbing level of conflict incompetence and an inability to constructively use the wonderful opportunities that conflict offer us among most of our political candidates and parties. A written plan on broad political ambitions is limited on what it can do, and in the meantime much harm is done. 

This is nothing new in our political landscape, most of our politicians seemed to have learned their conflict skills in a conflict book or workshop from the 80s, or a Clint Eastwood movie. But the country seems alive to the fact that this election is somehow different to the others, that we have run out of time, and that we need to get our leaders right this time. It follows then that poor conflict skills will lead to poor conflict outcomes, which will hinder or destroy our already diminished chances of getting the country back to where it belongs. Unskilful, inept political conflict clearly has dire immediate and long-term consequences for the country and its people, and it creates or keeps in place harmful conflict cycles and patterns, it destroys potential and benefit, it perpetuates damaging processes, structural conflicts and a range of interlinked harms and costs, most of them preventable. 

So what would it look like if our politicians had to run their campaigns by a Political Conflict Manifesto? A set of rules and guidelines not designed to be pedantic or tie us to a set of rules, but rules and guidelines engineered from current state of the art conflict management best practices, a roadmap to use the energies and opportunities of the inevitable, necessary conflict that lies ahead for our benefit as a country? I think that it should look something like this. 

Ten Conflict Rules to Run An Election By

1. Lose the compromise reflex 

We see this phenomenon often in the corporate world – unskilled, anxious or lazy negotiating parties settle for the quick fix, the safe bet, the easiest deal. We compromise, and so often in that misunderstood and over-used process we give away that which we would have preferred to keep. Political compromises are done everywhere, every day, they are caused by large, complex problems, by a lack of experience, a lack of skill and knowledge. A compromise can be spun as a win in the media, it gives that comforting aura of progress, and it paints the compromiser as the reasonable one. Lose this habit, and teach yourself the power and pleasure of constructive engagement, of creative solutions that lie, through the use of conflict, on the other side of those seemingly complex problems. So many of our national problems require more than these band-aid solutions, we need you to have the courage and the skill to step away from those compromises. Compromise is rarely the best conflict solution, stop using it as a default.   

2. Form a new relationship with conflict 

Our political conflicts, this election in particular, should not be a stage for the display of bad behaviour, entitled demands or personal agendas. Your opponents, and their followers, are allowed to oppose you, to ask you questions, to compete with you and your party goals. That is how democracy works. If you were more persuasive they would not be your opponents. Show some humility – we are here because of you. Conflict is the fuel that drives all of our best gains, wins, achievements. It can be a destructive, harmful force, or a creative, liberating energy. Bring back the power and beauty of creative and respectful disagreement, debate. Inspire. Lead towards something more than the mistakes of the opponent. 

3. Train yourself and your people 

Conflict studies have made such tremendous strides in the last decade or two. As a multi-disciplinary field it offers real, measurable and manageable tools combining art and science in the effective management of our conflicts. Real-world conflict skills from micro-sociology, psychology, neuroscience, technology and so many other fields await to be used in your campaigns. Teach yourself how to be really good at this essential skill, use professional advice, get a good conflict coach, design lasting conflict skills programs for your party, for the youth. Surround yourself with people skilled in conflict competencies, and train those that are in the firing lines. If you do not see the benefits of these available skills and programs, your opponent will increasingly do so, as trends in the UN, Europe’s diplomatic corps etc. are starting to show. Become proficient in the effective use of face saving, conflict ripeness and differentiation / integration phases of conflict, as a few examples. Your experience in the trenches is no longer enough, or the best strategy available to you.  

4. Study, and then work with the principles of identity conflicts-this is your biggest shortcoming 

The field of identity conflicts is a complex and expanding field, with wonderful, practical results and work being delivered in recent years. This is not the place to explain the concept (I have written on it enough, see the links and other citations below), but nearly all of the political programs and election campaigns on display at the moment show a marked absence of even the most elementary knowledge of the existence, much less the practical use of this immensely powerful conflict skill. This is why you are failing to persuade, this is why your facts and your logic is causing so much harm, and this is why we see an increasing polarization of voters into those identities.  

5. Learn how to respond to insults, dirty tactics and smear campaigns  Politics is a hard, tough road, and this is as it should be. It is also a reminder to you that what you are doing, and the results of your conflicts, matter to people in the real world. Your errors, your poor conflict outcomes, impact everyone. Modern conflict practice contains a range of skilful responses to insults and those traditional skulduggery employed by your opponents, why would you not teach yourself how to respond to those tired old tactics more effectively? Again, this is not about being polite, it is all about maximizing your conflict efficiency and its outcomes.  

6. Work on your conflict communication  

The political battleground can get very shrill and loud. Insults fly about, reputations and interests are under pressure, and there is a constant sense of being watched, judged, graded by opponents and voters alike. Our media is full of daily examples of how these conflicts escalate unskilfully, out of control, and into harmful and unproductive territory. Teach yourself and your team about conflict communication escalation, about sequence and timing, and we will all thank you for the results.  

7. You have to be better at collaboration  

Collaborative conflict management is a wonderful example of the proposition that being effective at your conflicts has everything to do with better results and nothing to do with being nice and polite. There is a science and an art to collaborative conflict that deals effectively with the seemingly intractable problems that we are facing, refuses to fall for the easy compromises on offer, and builds better relationships and solutions in the long term. Look at the mess our coalition politics have become. Given anticipated developments in voter patterns this election, the urgent need to be able to construct and maintain effective and lasting coalitions will become more important than ever before.  

8. Align your conflict goals with what the people need  

You will need to stop seeing political dissent and opposition as personal attacks, as much as that is exactly what they often are. This is not about you, it is not about your political survival. The country needs to be placed first. Conflict goals and strategies that do not align with reality are destined to come undone at some stage. Transcend the petty and the personal. Break the harmful cycles of personal and party interest, bring integrity and national interests to your conflict, and see the wonderful difference in your outcomes.  

9. Distinguish better between conflict causes and conflict symptoms, and address them 

Our media provides daily examples of politicians exhausting themselves (and the country) by fighting the symptoms of a given conflict, either not understanding, correctly assessing, or failing to effectively address the actual cause of the conflict. This creates cycles of conflict (service delivery, performance, failed coalitions, perception problems etc.), conflict rigidity, scepticism and polarization. This is an important skill to add to your conflict competency.  

10. Expand your conflict focus 

So many of our politicians seek to resolve community conflicts (or simply to make it go away, for now) by hasty and performative consultations. This sets that “solution” up for failure and increased frustration. Include the value of proper conflict mapping, inclusivity (have a look, for example, at the statistical conflict benefits of including more women at grassroots level, in the negotiation and maintenance of local conflict solutions), include parties not apparently involved but who nevertheless play a role. Modern conflict case studies show eloquently how apparently effective conflict solutions fall apart if inclusivity is not understood and implemented. This again has nothing to do with politeness or wokeness, it is a simple and measurable fact, the correct management of which improves your conflict outcomes. This is also a more complex and nuanced skill than just listening to a community and then doing what you wanted to do in any event.   


Not one of these rules are there in order to “play nice” or be more polite. Quite the opposite. Directionless, rude and ill-disciplined conflict makes matters worse for all of us, skilful application of the conflict tools that are available to you will measurably improve your own results and start giving the people of our much-abused country what they need, want and deserve. I hope these rules guide you, and are of benefit to you politicians and staff. I would like to think that most of you still have the spark, the potential of true servant leadership, that you want to achieve what is best for the country, especially at this time. I hope that we, the voters, can also use these rules in guiding us in the work that we have to do on election day. 

Summary of main sources, references and suggested reading 

1. Current books by Jonathan Haidt, Jay van Bavel/Dominic Packer or Yascha Mounk for a solid start to identity conflict work. 

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

3. Some practical discussion points as a point of departure in identity conflict management at DIFFICULT CONVERSATIONS - part 2/3 - The Conflict Conversations (conflict-conversations.co.za)  and Chapter 4 in Dangerous Magic

4. 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

Andre Vlok 

(c) April 2024

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