Online Journal of Peace and Conflict Resolution 1.3 - Modelling Mediation

Modelling Mediation: Evolving Approaches to Mediation in South Africa

By Andries Odendaal

Mediation emerged in South Africa through its use in labour disputes during the 1980s, but remained suspect as a method to deal with political and community conflict. Due to the dramatic changes following the release of Nelson Mandela in 1990, mediation became not only acceptable, but indeed quite popular. With pre-election violence on the rise, the National Peace Accord strengthened this tendency, and introduced mediation as a tool for conflict resolution to communities across the country through the various peace committees established under its auspices. The demand for training in mediation escalated, and the Centre for Conflict Resolution (CCR) and its counterparts stepped in to meet some of this demand.

The approach towards mediation that CCR adopted was largely influenced by Ron Kraybill, former director of training at the Centre and now based at Eastern Mennonite University in Virginia. Kraybill came to CCR in 1990 as the nationwide demand for mediation escalated and the Centre was developing its mediation and training services.

Kraybill favoured a non-directive approach. This approach assumes that the best solutions are produced when parties listen to each other in a new way, by cooperate in the generation of options and jointly arrive at the preferred solution. There should be no form of coercion or manipulation by the mediators. The parties must solve their own problems, because in this way their self-respect is served and the outcome is more sustainable.

The role of the mediator is therefore to be a facilitator of communication. The mediator's task is to enable the parties to listen to each other on a deeper level than their previous hostile attitudes allowed. A mediator must ensure that the parties have heard each other adequately, and that each has developed sufficient understanding of the other's perceptions, motivations and interests. Improved listening then leads to better mutual understanding, which strengthens the imperative to reach an inclusive solution, as far as possible taking the interests of all parties into consideration.

In order to achieve these objectives, the mediation process is served by a basic procedural structure. This includes the establishment of process groundrules by the parties themselves, ample time for storytelling, uninterrupted time for each side to state their perceptions and feelings, and joint problem solving. The mediators rely heavily on their listening, paraphrasing and summarising skills, checking continuously whether people have been correctly understood.

This approach has suited South Africa well. Non-directive mediation is highly appropriate in situations where parties need to cooperate in future because the level of interdependence is high. It is also highly appropriate in conflicts fueled by basic differences in values or world views. Under such conditions the emphasis of mediation on promoting mutual understanding and on improving relationships is to be preferred over approaches that rely on arbitration or coercion.

In applying this approach, however, South African mediators have found themselves struggling with specific issues. These issues are certainly not unique to the South African situation, but they have influenced our understanding of mediation and its applicability. Three issues in particular deserve comment: namely, impartiality; dealing with the emotional and psychological dimensions of conflict in the mediation process; and mediation as a form of empowerment.

Why impartiality is impossible

An almost dogmatic tenet of CCR's understanding of mediation is that mediators have to be impartial. Impartiality is understood as an attitude that gives equal respect to the parties involved and treats them with an equal amount of fairness. It is deemed necessary because all parties concerned need to trust the mediator. Without such trust, the process of mediation cannot succeed. If one of the parties perceives the mediator as partial they will probably withdraw or disrupt the process in some way.

The problem faced by South African mediators is that so many of the manifestations of conflict at local level have their roots in the deep underground of the general South African crisis. The struggle in South Africa was (and still is) about justice for all, a fairer economic dispensation, addressing grossly unfair historical socioeconomic imbalances and promoting genuine democracy. At a still deeper level it is about the seemingly incompatible clash between the basic human needs of different groups, such as the needs for identity, security, participation, subsistence and freedom. No single South African can claim to be unaffected by the pull of these forces or by our historical background. It is admittedly possible for some people to put more distance between themselves and these issues than others, but real impartiality is not possible. The strong value-laden nature of so much of this condition -- as well as the deep emotions involved -- make impartiality impossible. How impartial can one be, for example, when the conflict is between a squatter community fighting for their right to a place to stay and officials bent on destroying their shacks in mid-winter? How impartial can one expect a black mediator to be when one of the parties around the table is a well-known apartheid stalwart?

Yet, in spite of this dilemma, mediators have been successful and conflicts have been solved. One of the theoretical ways to deal with this is to emphasise the moral justifiability of the position of a 'process advocate' The process advocate's task is to focus on the fairness and the effectiveness of the process of mediation in the belief that through the dynamics of an appropriate process, the parties will reach an understanding that meets their needs and interests (and thus serves the demands of justice and fairness). This enables mediators to suspend their own views and feelings for the duration of the process. 'Good process' becomes almost a value in itself. Commitment to 'good process' transcends the more pressing emotions and values because of the inherent faith in its ability to achieve a fair outcome. It boils down to a distinction between moral impartiality (which is impossible and unacceptable) and technical impartiality. Technical impartiality refers to the mediator's ability to treat all people with respect, to manage the mediation process in a way that is fair and even-handed, to listen deeply to what each party is saying, to identify deeper emotions and needs, and, through the skill of paraphrasing, to determine whether each party has been adequately understood by all.

The emphasis on being a process advocate, however, is not the complete answer. The extent to which one's perceptions of a 'good process' are influenced by one's own deeper values and experiences is often not acknowledged. Moreover, although the mediator mayachieve genuinely high levels of technical impartiality, in the final analysis impartiality, like beauty, lies in the eyes of the beholder. Impartiality is an allocated value --allocated to the mediator by parties deeply entrenched in their own perceptions and stereotypes. How impartial can a black group perceive a white mediator to be, and vice versa?

There are also other ways in which CCR has grappled with this issue over the years. Where feasible it sought to deploy a balanced team of mediators (e.g. one black mediator and one white), but in reality this was seldom possible. There were instances where CCR mediators exercised their option of withdrawing as mediators and moving into the role of advocacy. This happened, for example, when mediating in an ongoing taxi conflict which led to acts of violence and loss of life. Because one of the parties to the conflict was perceived to be defeating the purpose of finding a just solution, failing over an extended period of time to stick to agreements and being implicated in acts of violence, the mediators issued a statement in which they declared their understanding of the situation and withdrew as mediators.

In the final analysis mediators need to be in touch with their own feelings and recognise their own prejudices. Whereas impartiality remains impossible, the negative effects of this situation can be countered most effectively when mediators are aware of what is happening in their own hearts and minds and are therefore able to control it. The implication, however, is that the technical ability to be impartial requires a level of psychological maturity in the mediator. Training to be a mediator can therefore never be only about acquiring technical skills; it has at the same time also to be about personal growth and maturity.

The psychological dimensions of mediation

A phenomenon faced continuously by South African mediators is the recycling of conflicts. A mediation session produces an outcome. Both parties seem relieved and satisfied. A few months later, however, the same parties are in conflict again. Different issues appear on the agenda, but with strong indications that the conflict is deriving its energy from the same deep emotional storage tanks. It is as if every fight that is fought taps its energy from the collective pool of anger and fear built up during the centuries. Very few serious conflicts are apolitical or completely stripped of the impact of collective memories. In the South African context, therefore, avoiding or neglecting the deep-rooted emotional aspects of conflict results in recurrent conflict and an increasingly irrational aspect to it.

Three years ago a town in the Southern Cape was hit by a strike of municipal workers on remuneration issues. The workers were organised in two labour unions, one mostly supported by black workers and the other by white workers. This strike was by the black labour union and it became ugly. Rumours of threats against people's lives and property abounded. The municipal building was smeared with human faeces at one stage. There was absolutely no love lost between the workers and management and, more importantly, between the workers and those organised by the other union. When an agreement was reached between the union and management, the largely white union threatened to go on strike because they thought that the other union was getting away with unacceptable behaviour and that an injustice was done. Eventually the situation was defused and all went back to work, but relationships were not restored. In spite of attempts to encourage the municipality to pay attention to this aspect, it was ignored. Levels of frustration remained high. A significant number of officials reported stress-related illnesses, the labour union frequently embarked on obstructionist activities (the town clerk was kept hostage in his office twice in the past year), productivity fell, as did public perception of the municipality's performance. Solutions were being sought on the level of pay packages and disciplinary procedures, but the anger obviously was not going to go away.

The one outstanding lesson from this experience is that mediation should not be terminated once a superficial settlement is achieved. In order to resolve the conflict the mediators have to create a safe space where participants can talk openly about their past experiences and about their anger and fear. The purpose is to encourage the growth of mutual understanding and trust -- vital ingredients for the success of any corporate enterprise. Mediation in this context should therefore be viewed as a long-term process which should not be terminated at the moment of a settlement, and which cannot avoid dealing with fundamental emotional and psychological issues.

There are two practical realities that prevent the implementation of a long-term approach. The first is the aspect of financing. Parties are normally so relieved to achieve some form of settlement that defuses the situation, that continued expenditure of time and money in the process ceases to be a priority. Secondly, mediators are not necessarily equipped with the therapeutic skills to deal with the deep emotional underground of such conflicts. Training in mediation tends to emphasise technical skills and to neglect the equally necessary training in counselling skills.

A related issue is the care given to the psychological well-being of the mediator. Mediators are subjected to particular kinds of stress. A mediation session in itself is very stressful because of the demands it places on the mediators to stay calm and deal with strong emotional undercurrents (and explosions) between the parties. It becomes particularly stressful when the conflict out there is nothing but an outward manifestation of an internal struggle. If, for example, the conflict has overtones of racism, it inevitably feeds on the internal struggle of the mediators to come to grips with the effect of racism on their own lives.

The implications are twofold. Firstly, it emphasises the need for mediators to have their own safe space for dealing with their internal struggles and to be open about the effects of certain situations on them. Conflict resolution centres (such as CCR) would do well to give much more urgent priority to this aspect than is currently the case. Failure to do this will not only have an effect on the quality of the performance of mediators in the field, it will also avenge itself on the internal well-being of the organisation.

Secondly, there are definite implications for training. Training would-be mediators in different skills without paying serious attention to self-awareness and personal growth will leave them unequipped to deal with the most difficult aspect of mediation. Even at the level of role playing it is demonstrated again and again how easily mediators become emotionally affected by a conflict if they are not aware of their own vulnerabilities.


The inherent ability of mediation to create greater equality in power relationships is one of its major attractions. By establishing groundrules for discussions that govern all parties in the same way; by allowing each party the freedom to tell its story; by introducing mechanisms to check whether each party's position has been adequately understood by all; and by sitting around the same table without the more powerful party being in charge of the discussions, the outward trappings of equality or of a level playing field are established.

Consider, for example, the scene where an illiterate and unskilled farmworker sits across from the farm-owner at a table discussing the fairness of the farmowner's plans to demolish the worker's dilapidated house. The discussion happens on a level not before possible because the mediator creates a safe atmosphere where the farmworker can express his feelings and ideas. Or, another example, where leaders of a squatter community meet the officers in charge of the local police and discuss relationship issues, expressing their feelings and frustration with what they perceive as bias by some police. These discussions could of course happen without a mediator. The process managed by the mediator, however, creates a sense of safety for the relatively disempowered and encourages the expression of ideas and feelings in a way that enhances the potential of good communication.

There can be no doubt that the mediation process empowers the relatively disempowered. This fact, however, creates a dilemma -- because it is precisely its potential to equalise relationships that raises suspicions in those in authority. Conflict resolution is and should be an aspect of good governance. It is the job of those in power to deal with conflicts. If outsiders intervene and call the authority to a table as an equal partner, it either gives the impression of a vote of no-confidence in the authority's ability to govern or it smells of an attempt to undermine the authority.

The challenge, therefore, is to promote mediation as an approach that shows great potential in the South African situation precisely because it equalises power relationships, but at the same time to avoid undermining the legitimate role of government to exercise its authority.

One way of dealing with this dilemma is to emphasise training. There is a growing realisation at CCR that the deepest form of empowerment takes place when the knowledge and skills necessary for constructive conflict resolution are transferred in a way that enhances indigenous understanding. Johan Galtung (1996) has defined peace as the context for conflicts to unfold nonviolently and creatively. Empowerment for peace means, therefore, that people should be enabled to react nonviolently and creatively to conflict by raising the awareness of alternative approaches. Non-directive mediation is one such alternative, and its potential to promote peace will be enhanced considerably if it becomes a tool of the people.

Mediation and the skills that accompany it should therefore become an aspect of common culture, rather than an elitist profession. At CCR there is a growing emphasis on providing training for people who find themselves in conflict situations rather than on mediating the conflict. Such training targets 'ordinary' citizens as well as government officials.

The training is largely based on an elicitive approach. This means that participants in training workshops bring their own insights and experiences to the workshop. The methodology used is to reflect on these experiences, draw lessons from them collectively and review past thinking and actions in the light of these lessons. This approach holds the best guarantee that indigenous wisdom and experience will be recognised. At the same time, however, the shortcomings of traditional approaches become clear as their appropriateness to deal with conflict is reflected upon.

Non-directive mediation (as well as training in mediation) holds a lot of potential for developing a culture of peace in South Africa. Its success, however, does not solely depend on the technical skills that come with the approach, but also on the way that mediators succeed in dealing with the tensions and dilemmas that go with being a mediator in South Africa. Success also depends on the ability of training institutions such as CCR to make this approach accessible to all communities.


Gaitung, J (1996) Peace by peaceful means: Peace and conflict, development and civilization. London: Sage.

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