Our Approach to Managing Community Conflict Matters

Updated: May 20

We have a unique opportunity to change the trajectory of the way our society manages its differences. This will prove to be an essential method of resolving the ever escalating prevalence of community conflict that is exacerbated by a depletion of resources, growing inequality and unemployment. We need to change the normalisation of violence and destruction as a legitimate approach to resolving conflict. We need to teach ourselves how to talk, listen and persuade each other.

Conflict is experienced in situations where people perceive differences between themselves and others. Differences are common and in fact natural in all societies and may become more pronounced in diverse, unequal and complex societies. The capacity, desire and opportunity for people to want to resolve their differences matter to whether the conflict can be resolved and most importantly the manner in which the conflict is resolved.

Good negotiators strategically select the appropriate approach to manage such situations in order to derive outcomes that matter to them. The approaches available include power, avoidance, accommodation, compromising and collaboration.

As a mediator I would argue that people in such situations must seek the opportunities that differences bring; seek to understand the underlying issues, needs, risks and benefits of all sides; and develop enhanced solutions that may have a deeper benefit to all of the parties. Collaboration is thus for me the preferred approach of managing conflict in long term relationships.

People's choice of an approach to manage conflict is influenced by a multitude of factors which may include people’s ability, knowledge, past habits, past methods of achieving gains, a power imbalance, a reaction to the other parties approach, influence, perceptions, or at its best a well thought out strategic choice.

Community conflict in South Africa, reflects that there is a general tendency to seek change through the use of power which manifests itself through the use of violence, destruction of property, protests and general disruptions. It is very unsettling to observe this. I scanned online reports on community protests linked to the upcoming 2019 general elections and found numerous observations. I include some below:

  • "A study conducted by the University of Johannesburg’s Centre for Social Change between 2005 and 2017 defined a "community protest" as a protest in which collective demands were raised by a geographically defined and identified community that frames its demands in support or defence of that community. The research was based on an assessment of media reports as well as available police data. According to the research, 14200 community protests took place between 2005 and 2017 in Gauteng and the Western Cape.” - Karishma Dipa And Shaun Smillie; Protests spike across SA as election date looms

  • Kevin Allan, M.D. of Municipal IQ notes: “As was widely anticipated, protests have surged – to a new record for the first quarter (of 2019). It is likely that protesters are making the most of the opportunity to draw politicians’ attention to their grievances in the run-up to elections"

  • In a briefing to Parliaments Police Portfolio Committee “Major General Zeph Mkhwanazi said a threat assessment by SAPS ahead of the polls identified community protests, issues with demarcation, violence in the public transport sector, student protests, anti-foreigner sentiment and political conflicts. "The main threat for the elections is unrest situation which is caused by different issues ranging from water, houses and roads...we are looking at those issues...we have contingencies on that…There appears to be an escalation of community unrest in South Africa as we get closer to the 2019 general election.Chantall Presence, MPs hear community unrest biggest threat to May 8 polls

  • South Africa generally experiences higher than average service delivery protests per day, even outside the election cycle. Whilst researchers do not agree on the number of protests per day, South Africa is reported to have experienced over 2 000 protests in 2017. That's a high number and means that protesting is becoming a preferred mode of engagement between politicians and communities. Voters have already realised that politicians often hastily make promises when elections are looming. Besides this, our political system responds better to crisis than a normal conversation about delivery of services. This is the reason why voters tend to engage in disruptive behaviours when they stage protests. The more violent a protest, the more disruptive it becomes; and the more disruptive, the more likely it will be reported in the news. Localised protests become national news by the degree to which they are disruptive. Quite often, parties are generally concerned about extracting political mileage out of the protest. The Alex shutdown is a case in point whereby the ANC seeks to embarrass the DA-led administration struggling to build a relationship with the people of Alex. The ANC should be blamed for failing to deal with the squalor that is Alex, whilst the DA should be blamed for failing to tread a new path with Alex.” - Ralph Mathekga Alex shutdown might be only the beginning;

It would appear, that the use of destructive power by communities is perceived by these communities as the best approach of obtaining the attention by the media, society and politicians. It is perhaps the only way that vulnerable and disempowered communities seek to obtain relevance and access to the bargaining table to achieve social, economic and political change. It would also appear that politicians and policy makers swiftly react to such crisis.

It is naïve to assume that community issues that spur these protests will simply dissipate into the democratic election process and other legitimate governance structures. These legitimate alternatives that have been created to manage the concerns of communities are perhaps viewed as slow, inaccessible, costly, unpredictable, outside of the control of the communities and stacked in favour of the ‘haves’ rather than the ‘have-nots’. In simple terms, for the communities, the use of power through community protests provides better and quicker outcomes than anything within the legal structures.

The consequences of persistent community conflict being managed through the use of power and rewarded by politicians and policy makers with swift compromises undermines legal structures, damages the relationships that are required for stable communities and in effect undermines the economic and political system. It is also not healthy for the communities as it tends to allow crime to take root, criminals to take advantage, reactionary community members to take the lead and often the costs of the community protests far outweigh any gains achieved.

While we may not have answers to the grave problems that our communities face, we have a responsibility to change the game in the manner we deal with community protests. It requires the commitment of political and community leaders to agree to sustainable dispute resolution processes such as community mediation. It requires education programs to be invested in to educate communities, universities and schools in the skills and knowledge required to use effective processes such as negotiation and mediation. It requires communities to have access to a diverse body of mediators that are willing to give their services. It requires the state to invest in this as a sustainable project in every community.

Mediation can work as it allows for the self determination of all sides, it seeks to uncover the underlying issues and develop sustainable solutions, it is conducted in a manner that protects confidentiality, it is designed to deal with the imbalances that exist between different parties, it does not remove or affect legal rights and it remains voluntary in its continuation. Overall the mediation process will empower dialogue required within and between parties to effectively move toward solutions. If constructed wisely it is quick and cost effective. It will has the real possibility of providing an alternative process other than violent community protests to deliver sustainable outcomes. Over time it itself develops skills and changes patterns of behaviour in people in the way they seek to resolve differences.

There are numerous trained and highly experienced mediators in South Africa that can be deployed nationally to make this work. Mediators and peace builders have a relevance in finding effective solutions to the numerous conflicts that persist at our community levels.

Call us today to find out more about our community mediation services. Your comments are always valuable as it engages our thoughts.

Yours in Peace