Summary of "Principles of Communication Between Adversaries in South Africa"

Summary of

Principles of Communication Between Adversaries in South Africa

by Hendrik W. van der Merwe et al.

Summary written by: Tanya Glaser, Conflict Research Consortium

Citation: "Principles of Communication Between Adversaries in South Africa," in Conflict: Readings in Management and Resolution, eds. John Burton and Frank Dukes, (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1990) 216-40.

The authors describe a number of principles governing negotiation, mediation and legitimacy, in the context of South Africa. The authors argue that following these principles would produce more effective conflict management.


The principles of negotiation begin with the assumption that conflict is natural, and can be constructive if handled properly. They point out that the social and political conflict in South Africa in the 1980s could not at that point be resolved, but could only be accommodated and managed. Even accommodating the conflict would require fundamental structural changes. They argue that negotiation and coercive pressure are complementary elements of the communication process. Violence must also be recognized as a type of communication. Large power imbalances between adversaries undermine negotiations, by making it more likely that the more powerful side will benefit most. Hence to be successful, negotiations must create a balance of power by empowering the weaker party, and possibly disempowering the stronger.

One way to empower parties is through their participation in legal and legitimate organizations and institutions. Conflict management procedures should be institutionalized, and those institutions must have legitimacy within the state. Negotiating parties should accurately represent their constituencies. Coercive pressure should be non-violent, constructive, and should be released when conditions are met. The authors remind us that there can be no peace without justice, and no justice without peace. Negotiations should take both long- and short-term views. Radical goals can be achieved by taking incremental steps.


When adversaries cannot negotiate directly, mediation is needed. When formal mediation is not possible, then informal mediation should be attempted. Saving face can be a significant issue for parties. Mediators should strive to give parties some way to change their positions without losing face. Mediation at the highest levels should be complemented with education for the public. At the same time mediators must recognize the public officials are bound to their constituencies, and so their private views may have to give way to public positions. Mediation is more effective when it emphasizes needs rather than values or interests. Mediators must be neutral and impartial, yet still compassionate. Mediators must recognize the parties needs, their positions, and understand the larger context.

Mediators must be credible to the contending parties. Effective mediation requires more than just goodwill, it requires expertise in the field of conflict management. Mediators help the parties analyze the issues. They may also offer solutions to the dispute, and apply pressure on the parties to work toward settlement. Finally, the authors note that "mediators must be willing to take the blame for negotiations that break down and allow the parties to take the credit for negotiations that succeed."[p.234]


Laws and rules should accurately reflect social reality. Living laws that reflect social reality will have legitimacy, while laws that are simply imposed by the State will not. States should recognize the ability of autonomous organizations to produce their own rules by collective agreement. States should provide legal frameworks within which groups can negotiate their own substantive rules and settlements. Finally, "laws must be consistent with negotiated settlements," that is, the social reality created by the negotiations should be made into law. Living laws require a healthy democracy. The sort of local negotiations and collective agreements which form the basis of living law are only possible in a democratic state.