9 min read
31 Aug

The more we sweat in peace the less we bleed in war. 

Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit 

Introduction, and the problem stated  

At the time of writing this article the initial unprotected strike called by SAMWU in the city of Tshwane has been rolling along, leaving a trail of damage and destruction in its wake. Public pronouncements by the main parties involved all clearly show a sharp escalation of the conflict. The article takes a focused look at the conflict itself, as well as being a case study of conflicts that the South African population can expect to become more prevalent in the near future. It then concludes with a number of specific modern conflict strategies that cities in the position of Tshwane can adopt in order to increase their conflict competency. At the outset we need to briefly note that the conflict is technically to be categorized as a complex conflict, and this has certain consequences for the practical conflict assessments and strategies that should be implemented. The conflict furthermore has certain important differences and meaningful parallels with the recent Cape Town taxi conflict, and to highlight that I make use of the same framework in dealing with this conflict as I did in my March article on that situation, which article can be accessed here TRANSPORT VIOLENCE IN THE WESTERN CAPE - a few suggested conflict management strategies - The Conflict Conversations (conflict-conversations.co.za)

Responses and strategies from political leaders, law enforcement and SAMWU 

The city management and law enforcement’s responses have largely been reasonable and in line with commonly acceptable containment practices. As we will see later on, the escalation of the conflict has brought about a hardening of the city’s stance and responses, and this is also the correct strategy under the circumstances. As could be expected, there is of course also a certain level of political opportunism and blaming mixed in to the developing situation, and an effective assessment and response should be aware of that dynamic. As far as SAMWU’s management of the strike is concerned, we notice a familiar South African union strategy of only accepting selective responsibility for the actions that follow on unprotected strikes. It is true that SAMWU formally called off the strike, and requested their members to return to work, but by then of course some very powerful forces have been set in motion. The balancing act between the right to strike and the unlawful instigation and fomentation will of course be an important consideration in the management of this conflict, one that could conceivably involve a variety of legal processes. 

The conflict, assessed using modern conflict resolution principles 

Once we approach this conflict as a complex conflict, as it is understood technically in conflict studies and practice, a few helpful insights and tools will open up for those involved in the resolution hereof. In broad terms it will be necessary to view the conflict through two separate but interdependent lenses, the first being the specifics of the strike itself, and then the larger canvas of the conflict as a case study of unresolved South African conflicts. Further on in the article I set out ten very detailed conflict strategies that I would suggest the city management team consider and adopt, but those strategies should be seen against the backdrop of a selection of broader conflict management principles, a relevant few of which I will mention here. 

The first, and presumably somewhat controversial principle to apply is the observation that a much improved and stable environment will have to be achieved before substantive negotiations can be conducted. There is a popular South African crisis management approach, often found in these public conflicts, to negotiate while the fires are burning. While some measure of communication and behind the scenes lobbying is of course crucially important, global and local case studies and experience show us that any meaningful negotiations and enduring conflict resolution is bound to fail if it is done in the midst of anarchy and chaos. Parties tend to reach for drastic solutions, improper compromises are made and short-term solutions seem more attractive than they should be, especially when viewed against the current political climate, with major elections just around the proverbial corner. Here the city management of Cape Town handled that aspect of their conflict well in the recent taxi strike and resultant violence and chaos. One party cannot, and should not, benefit from a situation where negotiations are expected to happen in the midst of violence and lawlessness. 

Public pronouncements by the Tshwane city management seem to indicate that they understand this principle, and that an increased level of stability will be ensured before more meaningful negotiations are attempted. The situation is of course somewhat complicated by certain relatively enforced negotiations, such as required by the rules and timeframes of the Bargaining Council to which aspects of the conflict have been referred, but this can be managed with full recognition of these principles. The various court applications have also hopefully showed the parties involved the limited reach of litigation in complex conflicts of this nature. 

Other broad conflict principles that should be borne in mind and implemented would include considerations of managed escalation, the correct timing and sequence of certain conflict interventions, the correct methods to deal with the conflict rigidity and distrust that have set in by now, the influence of identity conflicts in the shaping of the remainder of the conflict and the role this plays in persuading opposing parties, and other important aspects that should all form part of the tailor-made conflict strategy map we discuss below. 

A brief comparative study of comparable international problems, solutions and results T

shwane is of course not unique in experiencing this type of complex conflict, conflicts with its roots in a variety of socioeconomic conflicts causes and triggers. We see these examples in the rest of South Africa, Africa and globally, such as the recent examples of France and other European flashpoints. South America has had decades of these conflicts, and various illustrative examples can be found in these case studies. While each conflict of course has its own unique factors and dynamics, the field of conflict studies and practice does provide a modern set of answers to these modern problems. 

Specific South African conflict strategies – political 

South African political leaders, with only a few exceptions, have some work to do in order to update their conflict responses to problems such as the Tshwane situation. Remedies such as conventional law enforcement, litigation and partisan negotiations all have their valuable and necessary roles to play, but they are not sufficient in these modern city warzones. An important error made time and again by our political leaders is to deal with the symptoms of these conflicts, without ever effectively getting to the actual causes and triggers thereof. This inevitably creates cyclical conflicts, further polarization and distrust, and conflict rigidity that makes each new conflict more dangerous and more difficult. In the last few weeks of the Tshwane conflict, for example, we can already see the seeds of new future conflicts being sown. 

Specific South African strategies – community based 

This last decade has seen important and far-reaching developments in the way that political conflicts are waged globally, and the responses to these modern challenges have not always kept up. Communities are easily swayed and influenced, often against accepted standards and norms of rationality and even their own best interests. New techniques involving the creation and maintenance of grievances and protest action at differing levels have become very well developed, and the skilful use and abuse of identity conflicts and social media have placed very destructive tools in the hands of those who may not have the best interests of the community at heart. The introduction of non-conventional role-players, often not included in these strategies of response, all play into a South African conflict scene where the responders are significantly outplayed by the initiators. Add to this a South African public that is extremely polarized and despondent about political or other conventional solutions, and the scene is set for complex conflicts for which conventional law enforcement and other authorities are often simply not sufficiently trained to effectively deal with. 

Ten suggested strategies 

The combined result of our unresolved conflicts and the complexity of the conflicts, extending beyond simply the surface issues at play in a municipal strike, means that there are no quick and easy fixes to these threats to prosperity, growth and stability. In addition to some of the more self-evident conflict strategies already in place, already suggested or mentioned above, and limiting myself to ten in number, I would recommend the following specific conflict strategies, in obviously summarized form: 

1. Spend quality time in assessing and designing the conflict map discussed above. This should be tailor-made for each city, and end up as a live, interactive system that informs every further step. This is a technical concept, and should form the foundation of every complex conflict strategy. It is more than just memos, action plans and minutes. Assess, monitor and integrate all the conflict causes involved here. Keep a specific eye on unresolved conflict spirals. This conflict plan will eventually include all of these strategies, but we distinguish here for the sake of clarity. Be careful not to make some of the classical conflict management errors such as the Coherence Trap, oversimplifying causes and perceived solutions due to budgetary or political pressure, use dispute system design (DSD) principles, and get the foundation of the rest of the strategy accurate and updated. 

2. Identify a team of involved individuals and train them intensely, over a period of a month or three, in applicable modern conflict management principles and techniques. Let this team be involved in core macro and micro decisions, as issues on the ground develop. Bear in mind that, if conflict management is correctly assessed and applied in a complex conflict such as this one, things will get worse before they get better. Do not limit this part of the team to initial advice and then side-track them. This should include a practical and in-depth understanding of assessing and managing identity and complex conflicts. 

3. Learn to apply the dynamics of sequence and timing in conflict management better than what is apparent at the present moment. Some of the strategies have been acceptable on paper, but their moving parts get misaligned, and sequence of implementation, timing and sustained delivery fall badly short, dooming the best theoretical plan. 

4. Correct the current strategic defect whereby not all decision makers are given a place at the table, and remove or limit some of the disruptive voices at that same table. This hardly noticeable error leads to inevitable scuppering of otherwise good plans. Learn about and apply the modern understanding of conflict actors engaging as spoilers at various levels and times, and learn how to anticipate and combat that. Here some very illustrative lessons can be gained from recent conflicts on the African continent. This realization also includes a fully modernized understanding of the crucial role and management of inclusion in any conflict negotiation process. Study and apply the statistics and insights flowing from experiences in Africa on gender dynamics in conflicts and their resolution. Not everyone that should be at theses table are there, yet. 

5. Improve the involvement and conflict skill levels of involved communities, either collectively or separately as may be deemed most practical. Arm them with the tools to understand and meaningfully participate in the conflict. Rehumanize the conflict, study and deal with the us/them dynamics that are driving so much of the conflict outcomes.  Consider lessons learned from various regions in Africa, Singapore and Eastern Europe, where community mediation, including community leaders and volunteers being trained as basic mediators, resolves smaller conflicts and stops localised conflict from escalating and spreading. Make changes in the instances where mediation of some sort is used to include mediators aware of and skilled in the crucial discipline of intercultural mediation (IM). Regard this as an ongoing project, not once-off masking tape solutions. Give community members an increased say in a certain level of decision making. Empower (in responsible, legal and manageable ways) community leaders, faith groups and NGO’s to play an increased role in specifically designed and mandated tasks in the larger conflict project. Maintain weekly contact with them, and support them in these roles. This has direct and more subtle influences in shaping community behaviour and the costs of being seen to be in breach of such expectations. 

6. Move away from outdated appeasement and compromise approaches. Given the dynamics and composition of some of the groups, individuals and interests involved (for example, the municipal influences and realities), these efforts (often seen in action in publicized events during the last two years) are at best naïve and at worst exacerbating the situation. Identify areas and groups where significantly increased law enforcement and legal pressure can be applied so as to steer conflict management strategies. Ensure and maintain specialized law enforcement platforms such as dedicated teams, ongoing training, dedicated courts and so on. Create actual value and meaningful, long term alternatives to people, as opposed to an enforced life of crime. Create and sustain hope. Study and apply the latest insights in the crucially important field of face saving in conflicts, especially one such as this where honour systems and public perceptions play such vital roles, and incorporate that in goals, outcomes and media statements. In the Tshwane case, there is value in publicly linking accountability to criminal and violent action, such as dismissals and not negotiating re-employment of proven offenders. 

7. Understand and incorporate measures to counteract existing and prevent future structural causes and triggers of conflicts, as discussed above. This remains a significant hidden factor that leads to these conflict cycles. This includes, in the Tshwane example, keeping an eye on conflicts in the municipality as they develop. Perceptions are key triggers here. Salary negotiations where employees believe they are being refused payment of available money means that several earlier de-escalation opportunities were missed. As activist Ben Phillips reminds us, “Inequality is dangerous. It harms security and stability”. 

8. Change the conflict behaviour parameters involved in the situation. At least in the beginning of any new strategy in a complex conflict of this extent and nature, such a strategy should not expect people as commercially entrenched as the main actors here to adhere to agreements, court orders or legislation. For an extended period (details can be monitored) there simply has to be an internal, self-regulating conflict reaction system in place that automatically and incrementally rewards constructive conduct and punishes destructive conduct. Examples could include creative rewards such as small subsidies dependent on certain behaviour patterns, and a loss thereof and other penalties such as suspensions, fines and so on for certain negative behaviour. This strategy should be a pervasive one, built into the everyday lives of the users of the system, especially the service providers. The system of reward and sanction must be meaningful, and of an ongoing basis without directly prejudicing the commuters, as far as possible. We have seen during the 2021 two months closure of a specific route that the taxi operators are prepared to sit out once off attempts at large scale punishment if this is not nuanced enough, as they understand that at some stage the route will have to be reopened. Such attempts at shaping positive conduct is too blunt and too easy to circumvent, and of course the commuters are the ones ending up bearing the brunt of the punishment. 

9. Make better and more coordinated use of high-end technology, such as available artificial intelligence driven conflict tools, eg data gathering drones, facial recognition and access control technology. Incorporate these tools into gathering, maintain and using live data to make, monitor and assess strategies, and to adapt them to changing conditions where necessary. Use this technology to design and run the push / pull system of reward and punishment for selected conduct. 

10.  Build on incremental gains. Large, complex peacebuilding exercises that will be necessary given the ongoing nature of the various working relationships involved here are  often (and for understandable reasons) attempts at coming up with one shot solutions. Teach the leading team, as well as the various conflict actor and the community that small gains add up to larger gains, and focus on building on and preserving these gains. Too often we see, in these conflict also, that meaningful gains are lost when attention and resources are steered elsewhere, causing a backsliding of progress, an increase in despondency and mistrust in each other and in the process. 


The SAMWU strike is a micro-study of an important type of urban conflict that I predict will grow in intensity and prevalence in the next few years, if our political and other leaders fail to get ahead of strategies used against them. These are no longer political or security or legal problems, these are multi-facetted complex conflicts that hold all the potential to tear the country apart at a time when it can ill afford such errors. As we can see from the abovementioned assessment, complex conflicts require modern, conflict responses. 

Summary of main sources, references and suggested reading 

1. Routledge Handbook of Conflict Response and Leadership in Africa, edited by Alpaslan Ozerdem and others, Routledge (2022) 

2. New paths and policies towards conflict prevention, edited by Courtney J. Fung et al, Routledge (2021) 

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

4. International Conflict and Conflict Management¸ edited by Andrew P. Owsiak and others, Routledge (2023) 

5. As an example of strategies available for community empowerment in conflict resolution, my articles at THE CASE FOR NONVIOLENCE AS AN EFFECTIVE TOOL IN SOUTH AFRICAN POLITICS - The Conflict Conversations (conflict-conversations.co.za) and PRACTICAL PEACEBUILDING - The Conflict Conversations (conflict-conversations.co.za)

  • Full references, further reading material, courses, coaching and study material are available on request. This article is the second in a two part series on violent South African conflicts.

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

Andre Vlok August 2023

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