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  • Writer's pictureNerine Kahn

Surviving the post-consensus society and redesigning conflict resolutions

We’re doomed… Or at least we’re doomed if negotiators and mediators don’t start paying heed to the new negotiation style gaining traction in SA.

I called this new approach to negotiation the post-consensus negotiation style in my previous blog (part 1 of 3 blogs on the new negotiation era in SA). Characterised by a predominantly poker-faced positional style of bargaining where there seems to be no room for compromise, leaders who try to guide their constituencies to alternative solutions are seen as weak under this approach. Just look at AMCU, the Marikana incident and even the current Fees Must Fall debacle – all of which embody the values embraced by post-consensus negotiators. In many instances embodied by Trump in his own approach and again emerging in European elections.

We would be foolish to think that the current protests and their methods are merely the opinion of petulant youths who want something for nothing. These are the actions of multitudes of people in South Africa (only some of them students) who no longer believe that those that lead them have their best interests at heart or even ascribe to the same moral code or values that they do.

And not listening to them could have (and has had) disastrous consequences.

Based on this, I think it’s fair to say mediators and negotiators need to sit up and take notice (which, ironically, is exactly what protestors like the students and negotiators like AMCU want us to do). If we stop clinging to the post-apartheid ideology where compromise is king, we’re able to start seeing the wood for the trees. From there we can deal with the actual approach to negotiation surfacing today; the post-consensus approach.

Once we fully acknowledge and accept this new era’s unique challenges, we can leverage the window of opportunity at our disposal to develop a model to drive conflict resolution in a less violent and more sustainable manner. To develop such a model, we need to:

  1. Re-evaluate how the collective voices its demands

We’re seeing a trend where the collective feels they have absolute rights and are not willing to shift even slightly to any other point of view, but often this is only an individual’s view everyone is following. One has to wonder whether these people fighting for their individual rights collectively draw their cue from some senior managers, government and Trade Union officials, who also appear to be only interested in what benefits them…

2. Identify why the collective won’t compromise

We need to deconstruct the context of the protest or demand. Why has the approach to conflict resolution changed in SA? Could it be a breakdown in trust (of the South African transformation process)? Perhaps there’s a concern with non-delivery on needs or previous demands or the fact that worker societal needs and aspirations are not being met (corruption of officials and the dissolving of public services). It may even be that the collective holds the employer responsible for other socio-economic issues.

Is it the voice of disempowerment that is longing to be heard? Or that “dreams” sold to protestors have been unfulfilled, whether by the government, society or trade union leaders? Perhaps this perception results in the sentiment that giving up on a demand will equate to giving up the “dream”.

Ultimately, leaders, negotiators and mediators need to remain cognisant of our unique local context if we want to truly drive synergistic conflict resolution…

To quote an article I wrote for Business Day:

“One profound lesson …. taken from Marikana is that the dream of collective bargaining structures, its voluntarist system and the manner in which we are conducting it, no longer meets the aspirations of the lowest-paid workers.”

Collective bargaining alone cannot be seen as the only mechanism to combat poverty. As long as the poorest workers are still disempowered financially, with no “real’ social wage and left believing their dreams are out of reach. If change isn’t effected and our approach to conflict resolution is not redesigned, there will never be common ground or trust between workers and leaders. Without this trust or drive to reach synergy, protestors don’t feel like they have anything to lose – a feeling which encourages violent behavior and is not cohesive to compromise.

And it rings true in the #feesmust fall protests. Violence in strikes and protests is a rejection of the slow pace of the consensus process and indeed a system that many workers and youth don’t trust anymore. If the belief is that the leadership of the country no longer act in the people’s best interest, desperation will birth desperate acts.

To combat this seemingly unproductive and frustrating approach to conflict resolution, mediators and leaders need to develop a different accord building style which speaks to the demands of protesters without facilitating empowered negotiation where protestors have absolute rights.

Never has this been more relevant than today. While we have transitioned into new protest law, we never redesigned our negotiation methods; we’re still using tactics from the 1980s… And while we may not agree with their methods, this is one of the things AMCU and the likes are getting right: they’re forcing the nation to stop living in la-la land and actually do something about our present system.

It follows that we need to balance individual needs with societal disappointments in negotiation by demonstrating that we are actively listening to the disgruntled collective. Simultaneously, however, the traditional approach of finding synergy needs to not be thrown out with the bathwater.

There is an immediate need for resolution by experienced entities like ERX, with a proven track record of assisting in disentangling the complex dynamics of negotiation and mediation.

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