Online Journal of Peace and Conflict Resolution 1.4

Beyond Mediation:

How South Africa's 'Other Mediation' is Challenging Conventional Models

Daniel Nina

After many years, mediation still is not seen as a mainstream solution to resolving conflict in South Africa. Official mediation - that particular exercise of conflict resolution facilitated by a neutral third party - is a contested experience. It is well known in the labour field and in certain community conflicts, but generally exists within a very narrow scope.

More popularly speaking, 'mediation' in South Africa refers to a diversified universe of conflict resolution. This 'other mediation' refers to multiple forms of conflict resolution used by non-professionals, employing basic skills similar to the ones used in official mediation, but also incorporating multiple methods that are based in local practices.

I would like to share the experience of popular forms of 'mediation' as they occur continuously in South Africa today emerging in more unregulated social environments where conflict is rife, and where resources for solving those conflicts are generally not available to those involved in the conflict.

In many communities mediation does exist as a normal way of handling disputes and solving problems. It may be seen in action in disputes that may end up in conflicts between individual or collective parties, and in handling problems that are more related to developmental or social issues. It still, however, does not receive the attention and use that it deserves.

Using the case study of Zwelethemba, a community in Worcester 120 km outside Cape Town, I would like to illustrate the 'other mediation that takes place daily in South Africa. I would like to discuss this experience within the perspective of developing a discourse on mediation that is broader than the notion of conflict resolution. In the case of Zwelethemba, mediation involves a serious developmental component and facilitation between the community and government.

First, I would like to argue the limits of official mediation in South Africa.

Mediation in South Africa

Mediation, as an official practice, has had more than one official discourse in South Africa. In particular, within the labour field, mediation has been around since the mid-1950s. However, it was not until the mid-1980s with the establishment of the Independent Mediation Service of South Africa (IMSSA) that mediation as a discipline (from training to the development of professionals) flourished. In this regard, mediation has to be seen as a very recent discourse and practice that was introduced initially in the labour field, but which has been subsequently diversified into various fields.

The 1990s has moved mediation beyond the labour field. Mediation has been used by many non-governmental organisations, international agencies, the state and political parties (in particular the African National Congress and the Inkatha Freedom Party) to handle conflicts specifically, political conflicts. However, the use of mediation in community conflicts (including political conflicts) moved beyond what was traditionally understood as mediation mediation was, in a way, redefined in South Africa.

Through the National Peace Accord (NPA), activated from 199 1-1994, 'mediation' was introduced at grassroots level to defuse inter- and intra-community conflicts as they arose. Parallel to the NPA s official process, a 'mediation industry developed in South Africa, bringing along national and international practitioners, training packages and people to be trained and re-trained in the art of mediating conflict. In this regard, the word 'mediation' was popularised and used in a more flexible way than the one traditionally conceived in the formal dispute resolution field. People began to perceive mediation differently to the way in which it is traditionally trained or taught. Throughout the 1990s, then, a dual system of mediation approaches began to consolidate.

The 'other mediation' found strong support in many communities which had their own mechanisms of conflict resolution in operation based in organic, traditional, or non-Western methods. This 'other mediation has been defined before as popular justice, community justice, and African customary law.

One can argue that this process encouraged the emergence of an indigenous South African model of mediation, which moved beyond the official/traditional version. This model took aspects of official mediation, incorporated aspects of African tradition, and enhanced this mix with a post-apartheid culture. In effect, when one considers mediation in South Africa, at least in the post-transition era (since 1994), one has to reflect on the emergence of a hybrid model of mediation characterized by developmental considerations and collective participation.

The 'other mediation' - the case of Zwelethemba

Zwelethemba, as do most of the communities where I have worked (Nina 1995; Nina 1997), has its own mechanisms of conflict resolution in place. Some of them are heavily organised for instance through residents associations and street and area committees. These committees, where they are functioning in the community, solve many disputes through a systematic process which involves a hearing, a people s type of due process, the resolution of the dispute and the implementation of the solution.

But not all is organised in Zwelethemba, and residents in most areas of the community do not have access to the residents association committees. However, conflicts still get addressed and solved in those areas where mechanisms are not in place. Indeed, a culture of mediating conflicts exists. Within this culture, common sense, local practices, African traditions, and non-African ways of solving problems are put in place to handle matters. The people are engaged in mediation, and by doing this, they are also solving many problems.

This dual approach of formal community structures and a general culture of problem solving does solve problems, and in fact 'mediates' problems in this community. Indeed, many of the community dwellers have been directly trained in formal mediation, or are part of the labour movement where mediation occurs, or were part of the political transition and, as such, participated in the NPA.

But what makes Zwelethemba an interesting case is that 'mediation there does not resemble, at all, a two-party, one mediator approach. Rather, it represents a holistic process of handling disputes and solving them. It involves containing the anger of the parties to a conflict. It also identifies, from the very beginning, the structural and other social aspects that are influencing or encouraging the conflict. Indeed, it attempts to solve interpersonal or community conflicts by mobilising all available resources in one direction: towards achieving peace and regaining stability in the community.

Within the above community context, providing traditional/formal mediation training is too limited the community has moved far beyond a narrow interpretation of dispute resolution. What does work is general training in problem solving techniques and in creating a network of community-based and outside resources to assist the community in their endeavour.

The following example illustrates my argument. For the past eight months, the Community Peace Programme, the organisation where I currently work, has been involved in training a community formation called the Zwelethemba Liaison Committee (ZLC) in problem solving and conflict resolution. Indeed, the training has moved away from traditional mediation techniques. The core of the training and engagement has concentrated on developing and consolidating a culture of community initiatives in problem solving, where the community is at the centre. The motto is that all problems have a solution, and that the solution to the problems should involve first the community and then bring on board external resources.

For example, last October we handled a case of rape. According to one of our community colleagues, a man involved in a rape was released on bail pending his trial and moved back to the place where he normally lived. This created animosity in the community, particularly with the victim and her family. The ZLC discussed the matter and decided that although the man has constitutional rights, he was not entitled to molest or intimidate the victim or the neighbourhood. The ZLC decided to speak directly to the man, and to advise him on their expectations for his behaviour while awaiting trial. The ZLC also informed the police about the situation and asked them to be on call, just in case.

As a result of the ZLC initiative, the conflict was defused, the victim and her family felt protected, the offender remained in the community, and the state was used strategically. The problem was solved mediated by the community.

Mediation is taking place in South Africa. However, our notion of what it represents is still narrowly defined within the realm of the formal/traditional mediation. The above discussion should help to widen our understanding of the terminology and to participate in what should be seen as South Africa s contribution to the development of the field of mediation.

This article appeared originally in Track Two, a publication of the Centre for Conflict Resolution and the Media Peace Centre


Nina, D (1995) Rethinking popular justice: self-regulation and civil society in South Africa. Cape

Town: Community Peace Foundation.

Nina, D (1997) "Watch out for the native: a comparison between non-state justice in black]

Australia and South Africa ~ Alternative Law Journal Vol 22 No I, February.

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