Crisis Mediation – Some Reflections from a South African-born Mediator

Harold Tessendorf

September 2020

As the United States enters the final stages of the 2020 presidential election and as the summer of protests and counter protests continue in cities and communities across the country, the following questions keep recurring to me: 

Is it possible for protesters and counter-protesters alike to express their political views in a non-violent and safe way?

Is there a way that police efforts to maintain public order can resemble community-policing?

Is there a template that local police, protesters and counter-protesters alike, can follow?

The answer to these questions is … “Yes”.   There is a model that emerged in South Africa during the 1990s that can, and should, be adapted to work in the United States in 2020. 

Between 1992 and 1994, I served as the Director of the Eastern Cape Regional Peace Committee.  This organization was created as part of South Africa’s National Peace Accord which business and church leaders hammered out between the leaders of the African National Congress Alliance (ANC), the white National Party government, the South African Police, the Inkatha Freedom Front and smaller parties.  I helped to establish local peace committees in communities across the Eastern Cape and mediated numerous local political, community-police and business disputes. In addition to serving as a crisis mediator, my office also coordinated the training of thousands of community mediators and peace monitors

One of the many community-police conflicts that I mediated took place in the town of Graaff-Reinet.  Its local government repeatedly refused to issue a protest permit to the local ANC.  No reasons were given for this denial.  When the ANC attempted to force the issue using an illegal march, the marchers were dispersed by the local police, resulting in injuries and the destruction of property.  I was called upon to mediate the dispute.  Through a series of joint sessions and caucuses with the parties, we were able to arrive at an agreement.  After learning that the local government’s key concern was that the marchers would destroy property, the ANC agreed to have sufficient marshals on hand to deal proactively with any unruly elements.  The police agreed to keep sufficient forces on hand to line the parade route while also closing and re-opening intersections as the marchers made their way to the City Hall. Paramilitary units were kept on standby but out of the marchers’ sight.   In exchange the ANC agreed to a set march route and timetable.  Local peace monitors also marched along the route to observe that all of the parties kept to the agreement.  They also were to let the mediator know about any potential flashpoints so that these could be addressed before they became violent.  Finally, the mediator, ANC leaders and police leaders remained physically close to one another so that they could quickly respond to any flash points that emerged during the march. 

This protest march went off without incident with all parties keeping to their agreement.  This gave all the parties the confidence that they could effectively manage protest marches.  It was also a productive relationship-building opportunity which led to more cooperation between these leaders as South Africa continued its transition to a post-apartheid society.      

Creating Citizen Crisis Mediators and Monitors in South Africa

  1. A group of committed peace committee members and peace secretariat staff collaborated to produce a training manual which introduced participants to the codes of conduct governing the different parties as well as sections on negotiation and mediation skills and practices. 
  2. The peace committees and their staff reached out to civil society organizations such as business groups, congregations, civic clubs and student organizations to educate them about mediation and to ask them to publicize the mediation training events.  This outreach was made easier as the peace committees themselves included representatives from these different stakeholders who kept their respective organizations updated about the work being done.   
  3. Experienced mediators used the manual referenced above to train members from the regional and local peace committees, as well as individuals identified through civic associations.  After completing their training, these mediators and monitors were deployed in their community and called upon as needed. 
  4. The regional and local peace committees created mediation teams which reflected the composition of the parties to the conflict.  Team members trained alongside each other so that they understood one another’s strengths, weaknesses, and personalities so that they were could work well together as co-mediators.   
  5. Business and church leaders engaged with national and regional political leaders, including those associated with extremist groups, to ensure that they understood the reason for, and role of, the crisis mediation teams.  This outreach also gave greater legitimacy to the mediation teams and the process that they followed.   
  6. Crisis mediators and peace monitors were clearly identified by their distinctive vests and caps.  They had communications equipment which allowed them to remain in touch.  Mediators also followed a set protocol to engage with the parties in a way which ensured that they were viewed as impartial.  
  7. Crisis mediators and monitors followed a code of conduct which included the values of impartiality, fairness and competence.  These values are ones associated with mediation.  This code of conduct was included in the training session and was also shared with the parties to conflict so that they knew what to expect from the mediators and monitors.    
  8. As the elections drew closer and as more peace monitors were recruited to augment the mediators, the decision was made to provide these monitors with small stipends.  This was especially important in neighborhoods and rural communities experiencing high levels of poverty as these economic realities would otherwise have prevented people from these areas from being able to serve as mediators and monitors.  It was felt that the absence of representatives from these communities would have undermined the effectiveness of the crisis mediation teams.
  9. Street-level, crisis mediation sessions complemented facilitated negotiations between ANC, police and local government over issues such as housing, policing, education and local government services.   

The Outcome and the Possibility

While it was difficult to envisage how bitter rivals such as the ANC, Inkatha and Police leaders could negotiate community agreements to keep the peace, their success in doing so with the help of local mediators proves that people who passionately hold different opinions can find common ground.  The South African example shows that it is possible for parties to keep the peace while simultaneously tackling the systemic issues which lie at the heart of their conflict.  In the process of building relationships to keep the peace, they discovered a shared humanness which made reconciliation possible. 

I believe that community leaders in cities and towns across the USA have the ability to negotiate agreements just as their counterparts did in Graaff-Reinet and thousands of communities across South Africa.  With the resources and capacity that US communities have at their disposal, communities can invest in crisis mediators to help deal with volatile flash points during marches while, and this is very important, simultaneously engaging community leaders to begin addressing the underlying issues and practices that gave rise to the protests in the first place. 

Harold Tessendorf served as the Regional Peace Director of the Eastern Cape Regional Peace Secretariat between 1992 and 1994.  An experienced mediator and trainer, he also served on the committee that drafted the training manual used to train crisis mediators and peace monitors in the lead up to South Africa’s first democratic elections in April 1994. 

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