Sunday, May 29, 2016

The real purpose of dialogue and mediation

Keynote address by Chris Spies to the National Conference on Peace and Justice through Mediation
Annapurna Hotel, Kathmandu
27 May 2016

Ladies and gentleman (all protocols observed),

It is a great honour to share a few thoughts about Peace and Justice through Mediation. I do so in a spirit of admiration for what Nepal has achieved over the last decade and still continues to achieve. I am also grateful for the invitation by The Asia Foundation (TAF) to share a few thoughts. TAF  has consistently worked with its local partner organisations to make mediation part of the DNA of this country.

TAF’s dedicated focus on the empowerment of local stakeholders to prevent, manage and resolve conflict at village, regional and national levels is an excellent example of how external and internal partners should work together. TAF understands. correctly, the importance of local peace initiatives in building a peaceful and cohesive Nepal. At a time when international actors seem to be less willing to support dialogue and mediation, TAF has increased its activities to help build a Community Mediation Society, Regional Dialogue Forums and teams of local mediators in many districts.

Let me also congratulate the government of Nepal for having embraced and supported the need for a structure and institutions for mediation.

In this keynote address I hope to challenge us to widen the scope of our understanding of what the purpose of melmilab / mediation and sambaad / dialogue is. 

The core argument that I am putting forward is that the real purpose of dialogue and mediation is to rehumanise and heal societies so that they are stronger together to build a fair, just, peaceful and cohesive society.

But first and foremost, let us reflect on the concept of melmilab. (I will explore the meaning of sambaad  later in this address.)

The UN Guidelines for Effective Mediation describe melmilab as “a process whereby a third party assists two or more parties, with their consent, to prevent, manage or resolve a conflict by helping them to develop mutually acceptable agreements.”

Each word in this working definition is loaded. It is a good definition, especially in the sense that it places the responsibility of the resolution of conflict in the hands of the affected stakeholders.  The principle of local ownership is key to mediation. It further underscores the fact that mediation is about the prevention of destructive and violent conflict. While it is true that mediation normally produces agreements, we should not make the mistake to think that the only purpose of mediation is to produce an agreement—a signed piece of paper. 

In South Africa there was no single comprehensive peace agreement, but a series of messy and turbulent small footsteps away from a traumatic and dehumanising apartheid past towards a just and peaceful society. The ultimate seal of a peaceful transition was the adoption of our Constitution two years after the first democratic elections.

We completed the transition. A new system replaced the monstrous apartheid system. But our transition did not heal the wounds. It also did not offer justice and redress to the victims of apartheid. Geoff Budlender uses the following metaphor: “It often seems to me that apartheid was like a building: the apartheid laws created a scaffolding for the building when it was being erected – but when the scaffolding was removed after 1994 through the repeal of the apartheid laws, of course the building did not fall down.”

Today, 22 years after the so-called “South African miracle”, the country is at a boiling point. The past is still very much with us. The unfinished business of our transition has come back to haunt us. We have not paid enough attention to the transformation of the system, our institutions and the redress of injustices of the past. South Africa is the second most unequal society in the world. The young people are angry because of the lack of transformation in the country. They are facing an uncertain future in a country that officially has a 27% unemployment rate and where the majority of the poor is black and in many respects still disadvantaged and whites continue to benefit from privilege. Racism is sadly growing like a cancer that destroys us from inside.

The problem with destructive conflict, such as South Africa’s apartheid system, or a violent revolution, or a civil war, is that it wounds, fragments, humiliates and dehumanises people. Martha Cabrera talks about “multiply wounded societies” and cites research that millions of dollars are wasted on empowerment programmes because people are in need of healing.  They cannot move on with their lives because of the unresolved past.

In South Africa  white people inflicted these wounds on black people because we saw them as “less than” us. We humiliated them, destroyed their dignity and treated them as inferior people. We physically and geographically separated ourselves from “the other”, making sure, of course that we, the whites, owned the land and economy. We even manipulated theology and the education system to justify the creation of a brutal system of oppression.

We believed our own myths and stereotypes and acted on the basis of fear for “the other”. We institutionalised violent oppression through acts of parliament and the used the full force of the state apparatus to execute unjust policies.

Afrikaans—my language—became the tool to oppress black people and we forced them to learn Afrikaans in schools. That is why the Soweto uprisings started in 1976.

The way we spoke about black people was violent. We called them “kaffirs” and “hotnots”, compared them to monkeys and made derogatory jokes about them. I personally heard white people say to me:
“The only good black man is a dead black man.”

In our workshop earlier this week Nepalis told stories of Dalits and lower caste people who were denied water because of their caste. Of course the victims felt humiliated and dehumanised. Their only power they had was to fight back with matches and lighters to burn down the crops of higher caste farmers.

Nepal has anti-discrimination laws in place, but these laws are fighting an uphill battle against centuries of norms and values in some Nepali societies.

Our capacity to inflict pain and suffering is mind boggling. Whether in Nepal or South Africa or elsewhere, all of us have the capacity to either destroy or rehumanise one another. I am ashamed of what happened in my name and will for the rest of my life try to understand the pain of those who suffered.

Two months ago, 26 years after this tragic episode in our history, I witnessed a black pastor broke down in tears as he told stories of how his team mates in a soccer team slit one another’s throats when the ANC-Inkatha Freedom Party conflict broke out in KwaZulu Natal in the early 90s. “Can you imagine”, he said, “friends killing one another. What for? For whom?”

The pain of the past is still with us. The problem with the past, say the Irish, is that it isn’t in the past. The scaffolding has fallen, but the building still stands. The past is here, now, and before us. We live between narratives of pain and hope for a better future. But this hope is often killed by humiliation and fear.

We create our past every day because we re-tell these stories to our children and grandchildren again and again. We memorialise fallen heroes and respect those who fought on our behalf.

So here are the questions we are facing: How do you mediate the pain of the past? What do you do with wounds, with humiliation, with memories, with destroyed aspirations, with economic futures being destroyed and people condemned to an existence of daily struggles in poverty? How do you make sense of the senseless deaths of children and breadwinners? How do you work for justice and healing? By jailing all the culprits? Will a truth and reconciliation process bring reconciliation if it only focuses on transitional justice? Is melmilab the answer? Sambaad?

Nepal puts a high prize on mediation. You have a mediation council and legislation to refer disputes to mediation. Working with Nepali mediators in TAF programmes has left me in no doubt that an 82% success rate in mediating 27000+ disputes with the assistance of over 7000 volunteer mediators is a fantastic achievement.

In many communities and VDCs mediation is now the preferred choice of response to conflict. That is really something to celebrate.

When I asked these mediators what inspired them to become involved in mediation, many of them—especially lawyers—said that what attracted them to mediation was the fact that they believed that while courts pronounced on who is right and wrong, the justice system could not heal the relationships or repair the damage of the injustices. Witnessing first hand how disputants got relief by reaching their own agreements was proof that mediation really work.

In theory everybody in Nepal has access to justice, but in practice that access is unequal.

This is where sambaad (dialogue) comes in. What do we mean by sambaad?  Sambaad, to my knowledge, is not a word that was frequently used in Nepal. People spoke of barta (negotiations) or bad bibaad (debate). Sambaad is “a voluntary and safe process of genuine interaction through which human beings listen to each other deeply enough to be changed by what they learn. This change happens because people develop joint understanding, shift their relationships and commit to taking joint action.”

The purpose in sambaad is not so much to reach an agreement. The purpose is to enquire, to understand better. We rehumanise one another and restore one another’s dignity by listening to one another. We are not so much interested in establishing who is right or wrong, but in what we need others to understand about our journeys and views.

Sambaad is part of the mediation process, but goes before and beyond the formal structure of mediation. If sambaad could become the default response to conflict, mediation may in many cases not even be necessary. Sambaad is not always the only answer, but it is the way to bring healing, peace and justice to wounded people and societies.

Dialogue spaces are completely different from mediation and negotiation spaces. In dialogue the emphasis is on understanding one another—seeing the world through the eyes of the other.
If you know that I understand what you want me to understand, our relationship may shift from a competitive one to a collaborative one. We can shift from “you” and “I” to “we”. It is not so much about “it” (the issue), but about “us” and how “we live together as citizens/villagers/families” in our common space with a common purpose.

In Africa we have the principle of Ubuntu: “A person is a person through other persons”. Put differently, “I am because you are.” We are interconnected. If you suffer, I suffer; your pain is my pain. If your dreams are realised I am celebrating with you. If you are hungry I cannot sleep well. If you are thirsty I need to share my water with you.

If our approaches to building peace through dialogue, mediation, facilitation, and negotiation fail to rehumanise and re-member our dismembered and fragmented societies; or fail to inspire and strengthen people to transform their own conflicts in future, those spaces were wasted. (I am using the word space not so much in the sense of a physical space, but a process and a structure where people feel safe enough to engage with integrity, honesty and a willingness to listen.)

John Paul Lederach, a long time friend of Nepal, talks about “mediative spaces”. Mediative spaces don’t fall from the air. They have to be carefully designed, nurtured and promoted. There is a saying that those who work for peace must be as well prepared as those who fight a war. Everybody in Nepal, from government, civil society and economic actors have an opportunity to design an imaginative infrastructure for lasting and genuine peace and justice.

At a time when Nepal is facing potentially devastating conflicts as it implements federalism and the new constitution, my plea to this conference is to do the unimaginable. Nelson Mandela said: "Time and time again conflicts are resolved through ways that were unimaginable at the start."

Dream about a Nepal that has sambaad in its DNA. Dream about a society that is inclusive and re-membered. Dream about institutions that focus on healing, restoration and rehumanisation at national, state, regional and community levels. Dream about peace with justice instead of peace at the cost of justice. Dream about a future where mediation and court cases are only needed in exceptional circumstances because people who are in the habit of sambaad prevent the escalation of destructive conflict. Dream about young people who use the energy of conflict to build a bright future. Dream about your grandchildren who, in 20 years from now, honour you for your contribution to leave behind a prosperous, equal, just and peaceful society.

If you can dream it, you can design it. If you can design it, you can build it. All it takes is imagination, political will and commitment. It is possible.

Thank you.

Friday, May 6, 2016

Haiku for the United Nations Department of Political Affairs staff. Sandö, Sweden

Haiku *
Chris Spies  

May 2016

I wrote these Haiku poems for the final closing session for participants of the Folke Bernadotte Academy (FBA) DPA Dialogue and Mediation Course. Haiku is a form of poetry, first made popular in Japan, which has become appreciated around the world. The poem has seventeen syllables, in three lines of five, seven, and five.

United Nations —
Divided societies
Building peace for all


Political work:
Who ever said it’s easy?
There are no soft skills


Shall we use our energies
To listen deeply?


Is our message clear
—Prevention better than cure?—
Or just a slogan?


Building blocks for peace
Can we measure our efforts
For effectiveness?


You are a leader
Use your imagination
To inspire all


Don’t get in the way
Of those who build their own peace
Keep your ego out


It’s not about us
It’s all about the people
That is our purpose


Follow your calling
To rehumanise the world
And foster healing

Monday, March 21, 2016

Hope as a basis for dialogue?

Yesterday a friend remarked that he was surprised at my outspoken activism re. the current South African political dynamics. My response was that my grandchildren should one day know for sure that I spoke out when we were in danger of slipping away from the values that our struggle was about. I'm doing it for their future. For me dialogue is, among other things, about keeping hope alive in a sea of negativity and pessimism.

Another friend admonished me recently when I expressed the hope that the publication of the report about the Walter Rodney assassination in Guyana would open up new dialogue. He said "hope is not a strategy". He was right, hope is not a strategy, but without hope no strategy will be pursued with energy. Hope is the beginning of a strategy.

Rebecca Solnit writes
"’s important to emphasize that hope is only a beginning; it’s not a substitute for action, only a basis for it...Hope locates itself in the premises that we don’t know what will happen and that in the spaciousness of uncertainty is room to act. When you recognize uncertainty, you recognize that you may be able to influence the outcomes — you alone or you in concert with a few dozen or several million others. Hope is an embrace of the unknown and the unknowable, an alternative to the certainty of both optimists and pessimists. Optimists think it will all be fine without our involvement; pessimists take the opposite position; both excuse themselves from acting. It’s the belief that what we do matters even though how and when it may matter, who and what it may impact, are not things we can know beforehand. We may not, in fact, know them afterward either, but they matter all the same, and history is full of people whose influence was most powerful after they were gone."
I refuse to let go of hope and when I die one day, my hope will live on in my children and grandchildren. We are all children of hope.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

My reasons why the ANC must recall President Jacob Zuma

The ANC National Executive Meeting this weekend may be a watershed moment, but I'm not too optimistic that we'll see a major push to recall Zuma or that the ANC will decisively regenerate itself. The Gupta saga and revelations about state capture are a side-show. For me the real issue is that the governing party is not walking the talk. It says one thing and then in practice they do the opposite. 
The ANC and other political parties should measure their performance against standards that they have been promoting themselves. These standards, which are summarised in the vision statement in the National Development Plan, are my reasons why I want to see a complete overhaul of the ruling party. This has to include the stepping aside of Number #1, who is showing no signs of being able or willing to steer us towards this vision. 
Think about the following excerpt and tell me whether you think we are remotely close to treading a new path: 
“We all assist the institutions we have creatively redesigned to meet our varied needs; we reach out across communities to strengthen our resolve to live with honesty, to be set against corruption and dehumanising actions.
We have made the rules by which we want ourselves to live:
  • We hold the Constitution of our country as the covenant guide to a fair society
  • Since 1994 we’ve changed our laws to obey our Constitution
  • Now we live it: justice rules us, because just laws make community possible
  • The law enables us to live together fulfilling our mutual obligations and responsibilities in the shared public spaces of our mutual affiliation.
"We know that those to whom we have given the privilege to govern our land, do so on our behalf and for the benefit of all the people.
Government begins in the home, grows into the community, expands towards the city, flares toward the province, and engulfs the entire land.
We know our leaders as we have elected them and pledged them into office:
  • They are wise in the use of our wealth
  • Wise in knowing and understanding our wishes and needs
  • Wise in expecting us to express ourselves to them in any appropriate manner we have agreed to be allowable
  • Wise in not silencing those who criticise, but enable them, through our rules of engagement, to be even more rigorous in supporting a just society.
Our leaders’ wisdom is ours, because we sense our wisdom in theirs.
  • They do more than respond to us:
  • They bring new thoughts and ideas
  • They share with us what they think
  • They inspire us, because we then seek to aspire with them
  • With them we renew our world continuously.
But our gift of leaders extends far beyond politics. We have them in abundance in every avenue of life.
We have come far with our cultural, religious, and ancestral traditions. Contemporary citizens that we are, we are conscious of the intimate relationships between tradition and change.
We say to one another: I cannot be without you, without you this South African community is an incomplete community, without one single person, without one single group, without the region or the continent, we are not the best that we can be.
We love the land.
We greet one another again. 
We enjoy being visited. 
We are courteous and curious. 
We love arguing, we debate fiercely, we contest ceaselessly. 
We solve our differences through discussion. 
We refrain from being cruel, demeaning or hurtful in disagreement. 
We feel we belong. 
We celebrate all the differences among us.
We are not imprisoned by the roles ascribed to us...
The welfare of each of us is the welfare of all. Everybody lives longer. We experience fulfilment in life, living it in the successful society we are creating.” 
The people that give me hope that this vision may come alive are definitely not the political parties or their leaders. Watching parliamentarians in action is like standing outside the fence of a pre-school, watching children bullying and fighting each other and being helpless to intervene. If you need the courts to tell the speaker to apply the law, and the constitutional court becomes the place where the president pleads for clemency as to not being put in a situation that could lead to impeachment, and when the leader of the opposition is so rude that he is asked to leave the house, it’s time for citizens to step forward and demand from elected leaders to apply higher standards or step aside. 
Propagating a vision without living that vision is betrayal. That is why #ZumaMustFall. Make way for ethical and younger leaders to step forward.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

The thirsty politician

This is a true story about a community's response to a politician's empty promises.

It was election time. A politician was campaigning in a very remote and dry area of South Sudan.

Photo credit: UN OCHA
If you vote for me
I will make sure that every village will have a bore hole, he promised villagers.  For many women and children who had to walk two hours to the nearest river to fetch water this was news from heaven. Everyone agreed to vote for him.

The first time they saw him again, was four years later when he came to campaign again for the next election.

He told the people that there was no money to drill bore holes, but he would make sure that they would get water if they voted for him again.

A woman invited him to her house and offered him the locally brewed drink. This drink, as everyone in that culture would know, was usually served together with a separate water container. It was simply impossible to drink the brew without diluting it with water, The politician knew that very well and received the drink as the guest of honour.

The hosts left the politicians with the single pot of brew, but no water. It was a very hot day and the politician became very thirsty.

He called a child and asked her to ask the host to bring water so that he could dilute the brew.

The host came in and said to the politician: As you know, since you did not fulfill your promise, we unfortunately don't have any water to offer you.

The politician slipped out quietly through the back door and was never seen in the village again.

Monday, February 29, 2016

The story about the Sultan's elephant

A community leader called farmers from neighbouring communities to discuss a terrible problem. They needed an urgent strategy to talk to the most powerful person in the area, the sultan. His elephant was damaging everyone's crops.

Everybody came. The atmosphere was tense and the discussions were heated.

Worried about what would happen if the sultan takes offense at being told about the damage, they agreed that the community leader would lead a delegation to talk to the sultan. At the start of the conversation, the leader would simply say "Sultan, your elephant..."

If the sultan then says "what about my elephant?" the rest of the delegation would tell him about the destruction of their crops.

The sultan agreed to meet the delegation. The leader sat opposite the sultan with the rest of the delegation behind him.

"Sultan, your elephant..." he said.

"What about my elephant?" the sultan asked, visibly irritated.

The leader was waiting for the rest of the delegation to speak, but nobody dared to talk.

"What about my elephant?" the sultan asked even more irritated.

Silence. The leader tried to make eye contact with his comrades, but they were all sitting with their heads lowered.

Then the leader spoke. ", your elephant is lonely. He needs a mate."

The moral of the story? Being afraid to dialogue honestly and to speak truth to power will result in you having to cope with two elephants destroying
what you have built up.

Adapted from a story told to me by a South Sudanese peacebuilder.