16 min read
23 Mar

Complex conflicts can’t be controlled, they can only be influenced. 

Dr. Mark Szabo  

Introduction, and the problem stated 

Referred to by many labels and descriptions, ranging from “the taxi wars” to the transport violence in the Western Cape, South Africans across the country know of this blood-splattered battlefield. Although transport in general, and taxi violence in particular, is a serious political and socio-economic problem countrywide, its manifestation in the Western Cape seems more noticeable and distinguishable on several grounds than for the rest of the country.   

Transport, specifically taxis and trains in this instance, the lifeline of any modern economy, is used and targeted in sustained, sophisticated ways by various groups and subgroups, and the economic and personal cost of this cyclical conflict will be difficult, if not impossible, to assess with any accuracy. The cyclical problems, cost to the local economy, impact on unemployment and other factors are all well documented, regularly reported on and easily available for consideration. 

This article takes a summarized look at the current approaches to the conflict by the authorities and law enforcement, and then suggests a selected list of modern conflict management strategies that should be incorporated in a future comprehensive conflict strategy by such authorities. 

One of the insights of modern conflict management when dealing with violence, criminality and ongoing complex conflicts in an environment such as we see in the Western Cape taxi conflict is to effectively move on from a sole focus on the motives and methods of the perpetrators of violence and anarchy, and to study and combat the problems from a perspective that recognizes and uses the fact that these conflict actors are socially embedded power structures. This understanding, in its practical implications, is not always noticeable in the strategies employed by the authorities. 

` The challenges faced by government and law enforcement agencies run the gamut from political factionalism, financial constraints, a high level of criminality and other factors that we will briefly assess later on. A good summary of the position from law enforcement’s point of view can be gained from this 21 March 2022 press release by Mr. Daylin Mitchell, the Western cape Minister of Transport and Public Works - Ongoing taxi violence in the Nyanga area - News | Transport and Public Works (westerncape.gov.za) and an extended report on the violence and resultant damage by the Mail and Guardian’s Eunice Stolz (dated 22 March 2022) here Damages during taxi protest estimated at over R4-million – The Mail & Guardian (mg.co.za) 

These are complex conflicts in the modern mould, where seemingly isolated incidents and acts of violence, intimidation and a range of criminal acts may or may not at any given time be connected to a wider, orchestrated network of criminal interests, and where a wide range of conflict causes, triggers and solutions would need to be identified and addressed effectively. To arrive at effective conflict strategies we need to accurately assess the conflict causes and triggers, using the best and modern updated best practices provided by the interrelated fields of conflict resolution, social sciences, law enforcement and others. Some of these conflict causes are of course easy to identify, and here we can use pervasive economic inequality, unemployment and other socioeconomic influences. 

Other important conflicts causes are, as we will see, better hidden and the ongoing result of other major unresolved conflicts. In addition to the evident harm reflected in monetary terms, losses in productivity, job losses and so on, we then also notice at this stage an apparently intractable conflict, with all the classic conflict symptoms of complex, cyclical conflict, conflict spirals, polarization, conflict rigidity, scepticism and distrust. 

Responses and strategies from political leaders and law enforcement 

Depending on the specific period under review, local government agencies, law enforcement and a few other organizations have tried, and re-tried, all of the conventional conflict strategies to combat and contain the problem. This has included crackdowns by law enforcement, educational campaigns, discussions with various leaders, the closing of transport routes and various incentives at various levels. While measurement of such complex conflicts are notoriously difficult to manage, it is safe to say that the conflict has not been resolved or successfully managed in a consistent and enduring manner.   

As from March 1, 2023 a Taxi Task Team has been established by the Western Cape Minister of Mobility, Mr. Ricardo Mackenzie. This is intended to be a focused multidisciplinary group that will seek resolution of the minibus taxi problems. This is a step in the right direction, and an initiative to be welcomed. The test will of course lie in their results, and if they simply proceed with past strategies they will simply get more of the same results. If they have the right leadership, the right strategies and adequate funding this task team can be one of the important players in a successful campaign to reduce and manage the problem. 

As the appointment of this task team however correctly imply, the problem is far from resolved, it is urgent and important, and it needs effective intervention. It is also not the first task team of one focus or another to be put together, so there are conflict lessons from the past that will doubtlessly be carried forward to the present group. Given the complexity, local and national importance of the conflict and several other political and socioeconomic factors there have of course been no shortage of plans, suggested remedies and a flurry of renewed enthusiasm in various projects designed to combat the problem. 

These efforts, for years now, have been high on good intentions, energy and soundbites, but low on modern conflict knowledge, a comprehensive understanding of the conflict causes (other than the superficial and well-worn ones) and actual best practice strategies. In the process, those tasked with this unenviable but crucial assignment have been left standing with some outdated, blunt tools to combat what is a textbook case study of various intermingled, complex conflicts. From the more research and academic oriented side of the various involved disciplines we have also seen major contributions. 

In a very helpful essay from 2021, we find Mmakwena Modipa assessing the various problems with adequate accuracy, but then reverting to generalized problem solving by suggesting, for instance, that the Department of Transport should regulate the problem, as well as a few other general and self-evident solutions. This is a further example of grappling with the symptoms, as opposed to identifying and resolving the conflict causes. The problem does not exist and continue to wreak havoc because of a lack of legislation or regulation. Throwing more rules and laws at it will have limited success, at best, and should be considered as simply one small strand in a more comprehensive strategy. Ivo Vegter’s 2021 call for better policing, political leaders like Fikile Mbalula and Daylin Mitchell trying to negotiate improvements with the various parties involved like CATA and CODETA, the 9 July 2021 gazetted notice and so many other suggestions and pleas for improvement all contribute to these ongoing efforts at managing this important conflict, but as we can see, they have not really scratched the surface. They continue to approach the symptoms, not the illness. 

The conflict, assessed using modern conflict resolution principles

In order to assess the problem accurately, and to discuss and arrive at a few examples of effective conflict strategies that could be implemented, we will need to briefly view the problem(s) through the lenses that modern conflict resolution theory and practice provide us with. A few examples should suffice to show the level of complexity and focus that will be needed. One can assume that the relevant leadership, and the taxi task team, would have designed an appropriate and helpful conflict map, where updated and real data on the causes of the conflict, the various players involved, the divergent interests and developments on the ground can be tracked live and fed into ongoing dynamic strategies. 

Such information will only be of real and lasting value, however, if the conflict itself is studied, understood and approached from those insights. Continuing to deal with the symptoms will mean guaranteed failure in the long run. To an extent, the problem, in all of its manifestations, have been dealt with as a crisis management exercise, without making an accurate assessment of the conflict causes and triggers a part of the ongoing strategy. Conflict research, case studies and practice all show us that if you get your conflict causes even slightly wrong, your solutions and strategies will be inadequate at best. It also, unintentionally, sets those involved up for failure as they battle an endless torrent of unresolved conflict symptoms. 

Although occasionally acknowledged as playing a role in these conflicts, the existing structural and procedural arrangements involved in the transport industry contributes significantly to both the causes and the triggers of this complex conflict. 

Our environments have a direct and significant impact on several conflict drivers, and this remains so in this particular conflict. Any recognition of the problem is never really addressed effectively. Here the modern conflict management discipline of peace engineering, as one example of a range of conflict tools, can be of great assistance in managing existing causes, and preventing or minimizing future ones. 

As the following explanation by conflict experts Alpasian Ozerdem and Lisa Schirch indicates, this conflict tool applies science and engineering principles to establish, promote and support peace in a community:  

An engineering project is never neutral. Whether designing a city, a building, a medicine, a machine, a social media platform, a mask or public transportation, new technologies and inventions impact relationships between people. One new engineered product or technology can alter the dynamics of a community, either creating more conflict or improving intergroup relationships. Peace engineering aims to anticipate and prevent unintended negative consequences of a new product or technology while maximizing social cohesion or positive relationships between groups. 

This influence of the physical environment on the conflict has not been sufficiently studied or integrated into any solution. Such an assessment of the comprehensive causes of the conflict(s) should be carefully managed, with quality time spent on the process and its result. Much work downstream will depend on the quality and integrity of this work. 

While such a conflict map will need to be a sophisticated and live multimedia effort, it should include, as a few examples, the following aspects: 

(i) An acknowledgement of the more obvious conflict causes such as poverty, unemployment, factionalism, educational challenges, inequality and an understanding that these are, in important respects, not the only causes of the conflict; 

(ii) A modern understanding of how identity conflicts work, how beliefs and worldviews are formed, shaped and maintained, how these views can be changed or modified, and how using the incorrect conflict strategies serve demonstrably to entrench such negative earlier views, thereby making much of the current strategies not just ineffective, but counterproductive. These conflicts are of course about money, territory, survival and so on, but one of the crucial aspects missing from the work done to date is this understanding of how identity conflicts work. This is, at its essence, an identity conflict; 

(iii) An understanding that some of the players involved will not, cannot respond to conventional conflict strategies as these conflicts are their main or sole source of income, and as such the existence of the conflict and its perpetuation is an existential matter for them. This, as we will see, requires certain adjustments to the strategies used as opposed to more conventional conflicts. This may, for instance, require targeted local legislation and law enforcement that may seem unusual or heavy-handed in other environments. Modern conflict management techniques do not advocate, or use, compromise or appeasement with certain participants in conflicts of this nature, and while persuasion and better alternatives must always be on the table, some of the more naïve strategies of past law enforcement (arbitration, conventional negotiation etc) should be set aside or relegated to limited use; 

(iv) A consideration and then implementation of the conflict question of inclusion: who gets to participate when in the process of resolution? Here too narrow a focus is often adopted, with only direct role players involved, while very potent decision makers are not optimally aligned in such process. Taking a leaf from modern global mediation practice these strategies can also start excluding some of the bad faith actors in the process of discussion and incremental benefits, so as to start creating a carrot-and-stick system of participation in the process. The obvious presence and influence of conflict spoilers must also be better understood, modernized and implemented. This requires a rather comprehensive knowledge of conflict, and an ongoing, maintained monitoring and pressure in implementation, not just periodical meetings, promises and action lists; 

(v) As briefly referred to earlier, such a strategy should be aware of, and include in its ongoing strategy, the realization that in the Western Cape there are several instances of structural conflicts, where the very structure, organization or process (and not necessarily the people working there) create or perpetuate conflicts. Distances to be travelled, barriers to accommodation, limitation of access to services or information and so on, all play a role in creating, maintaining and / or perpetuating conflicts, perceptions and conflict triggers. There is manifestly little benefit in persisting with dealing with the symptoms of these structural conflict sources unless the causes are identified and understood.

A brief comparative study of international problems, solutions and results 

Modern conflict research and practice derive great benefit from suitable comparative studies, learning from global conflicts in other jurisdictions. Obviously, lessons and solutions so gathered can only be of practical relevance if they are in some meaningful way comparable and transferable to the second jurisdiction. The conflict solutions that work in Boston may not translate and be applicable to the streets of Nyanga. 

With that caution in mind, then, we nevertheless find fruitful comparison in recent conflict studies and real life conflicts from several areas, which can be studied and applied in the Western Cape transport conflict. In simplified form, for purposes of our summarized assessment, South America is of some practical value, as is several areas of post-conflict African areas, where comparable power groups, criminality and other conflict dynamics play a role in effective local government. These comparisons also have the multilevel conflict cause and trigger environments, with the mixture of pervasive inequality, unemployment, socioeconomic disparities, criminal consequences and entrenched mafia-like interests all feeding into, at its deepest level, an existential and identity-type conflict for most of the multiparty actors. 

Here conflict experts like Johan Galtung’s work on structural and cultural violence has been adapted and applied with meaningful levels of success, something that has not been done effectively in the Western Cape, on any organized level, even though there are obvious parallels to pursue. Brazil, Colombia and Venezuela have made real progress in dealing with this mixture of socioeconomic tinderbox conditions and blatant criminality set in a multiparty identity conflict. The approach in all three these jurisdictions have been wider than just transport related conflicts, mostly seeing such disruptions as part of a wider societal conflict. All three these countries still have excessive homicide and social violence statistics, but some of the first steps in effective peacebuilding have been taken, incorporating modern conflict management best practices.  Given their violent and conflict ridden pasts and presents, they offer helpful comparisons to our focus. 

As we will apply in this article, some of these lessons and solutions are indeed fully comparable and transferable to the Western Cape environment. Even more instructive is if we compare why a country like El Salvador has largely failed in its efforts at conflict management, while Nicaragua, comparable in most respects, have had much greater success in such campaigns. The same comparisons can be conducted in several contemporary African conflicts and post-conflict arenas. 

While a comprehensive treatment of these reasons, insights and strategies requires its own space, we notice in a comparative summary that the essence of progress lies in targeted political and law enforcement interventions, upgraded conflict knowledge then applied in tailor-made peacebuilding strategies, a better synchronization between such knowledge, strategies and law enforcement, greatly increased local community involvement and some of the strategies we will be referring to further on here.

Specific South African conflict strategies – political 

One of the pervasive strategic errors made by a succession of political and law enforcement leaders in the Western cape is to identify and then address the symptoms of the conflict, leaving the causes and triggers thereof either untouched or given little more than lip service. We find a good example of the authorities’ reactive thinking processes and strategies in this August 2021 article (Parties agree to arbitration to resolve Cape taxi violence | SAnews ), setting out a variety of what appears to be measures designed to end the conflict, but which hardly scratches the underlying causes thereof. 

A strategy that, by design or by ignorance, focuses on dealing with symptoms is doomed to become a cyclical conflict such as we see these past few decades, with an obviously adverse effect on budgets, political confidence, distrust, polarization and conflict rigidity.  In fairness, of course, the addressing of such causes generally fall outside of law enforcement’s abilities, and this needs to be taken up primarily by the political leaders. 

The best place to start here will be the practicalities and granular detail that will go into a conflict map as we referred to earlier. In addition to getting this foundation right, I am also suggesting a much firmer hand in certain areas of the conflict cause remedies. There are areas that could be firmed up quite legally, without any meaningful controversy, and which would remove or water down some of the current conflict causes. 

Specific South African strategies – community based 

Modipa’s essay mentioned above correctly points to awareness campaigns as one of the strategies that may improve results. This suggestion has however been low on detail in the following through, and the content of those awareness campaigns, such as they are, have been inadequate. The principle is a healthy one, worthy of better understanding and application. For one, this principle should go much further than clichés and media blurbs. It should accept the invidious position that commuters find themselves in, with distrust and dependency having to find their uneasy peace in one environment, and actually arm these communities with real knowledge and practical skills to improve their own fortunes on a local, even street level, and in a responsible, law abiding way. 

This applied in real world terms would build on the conflict management discipline of peacebuilding and community activism, where these communities, with full cognizance and respect for their personal safety and logistical needs, be taught how to use such skills as community mediation with transport service deliverers, nonviolence as community level persuasion and carrot/stick strategy and other established peacebuilding strategies. 

This will, if implemented and managed correctly, raise confidence and trust levels, incrementally bring about small improvements, and take some of the pressure off law enforcement and other governmental institutions. This can be an urgent, low cost exercise in skills transfer and micro-level conflict management. It will also, if correctly designed, bring about an interesting change in the group dynamics of the various silos and interests. 

Ten suggested strategies 

This conflict is complex and exacerbated by so many political and socioeconomic factors, and anyone suggesting that any resolution, or even a meaningful improvement in the conflict will be quick or easy simply does not understand the complexities involved. 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, designing the conflict map discussed above. This should 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 so, 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 this 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 so-called “taxi mafia” 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. 

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 structural and procedural causes, such as spatial planning past and future, taxi routes, administration and many others. 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 like the WC transport conflict often (and for understandable reasons) try to come 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 this conflict also, that meaningful gains are lost when attention is steered elsewhere, causing a backsliding of progress, an increase in despondency and mistrust in each other and in the process. 


In a hierarchy of South African complex conflicts, the Western Cape transport conflict must have aspirations of being in the top three of such conflicts. Many a conflict strategy has run aground on these sharp rocks, not to mention the continued suffering and frustration of the commuters themselves. The direct and indirect cost to our economy, the impact on continued unemployment, inequality and other society dynamics resulting from this conflict makes one flinch in even considering the scope thereof. Our brief look at this complex conflict has shown that not all the proverbial puzzle pieces are on the table, and those that have been assembled are not always fully understood or correctly assembled. 

As with all complex conflicts, the smallest of errors over time create the biggest of divergences from success and original intentions. In some instances, some of the strategies discussed above have been partially understood and implemented by the authorities in the past. In those instances my request is one of knowledge, scale and persistence. We often see good plans and intentions dying on the vine in this environment, simply because all of the moving parts were not fully understood, or an initial energy is not sustained, or an individual or group is not supported throughout the period necessary for the real benefits to manifest itself. This conflict has been built up over decades, it will need a lot of knowledge, patience and time to reach meaningful success. 

I know that this conflict can, and will be resolved in time. I do not envy the various leaders and groups involved in this immense task, and I wish them all the very best in this battle. And above all, I fervently hope, for the sake of the ordinary South Africans caught in its everyday grip, that we now start making real progress with this painful, harmful conflict. 

Summary of main sources, references and suggested reading 

1. Fight Different, by Dr. Mark Szabo, Szabo and Partners (2020) 

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. Carte Blanche program 14 July 2019 and follow ups 

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 first in a two part series on violent South African conflicts.

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

Copyright Andre Vlok March 2023

* The email will not be published on the website.