When all else fails: An Interview with Stef Snel

Reflections from Practice Series - No.09

ACCESS Facility shares from time to time insights on company-community dialogue and rights-compatible, interest-based conflict resolution from senior practitioners who are part of the Community of Practice hosted by ACCESS.

When all else fails: An Interview with Stef Snel

Stef Snel is an experienced practitioner and facilitator in multiparty mediation, conflict facilitation, policing, peace building and organisational problem solving. He practices in the public, business and non-governmental sector, specialising in implementing new systems and turning around intractable problems.

What is one of the more significant challenges or dilemmas you face when you are facilitating company-community dialogue?

The tendency of powerful actors to see third party facilitators as a last resort.

Relationships between local communities and the private sector or government typically have a backdrop of power imbalances and structural inequality. Expectations are raised when officials try to win favour from voters before elections, or when companies make promises they claim will serve the interests of communities. When benefits do not materialise, tensions turn to anger. Protests are often violent.

These upheavals place company and government officials in a difficult position. On the one hand, communities blame them for failing to honour their commitments or respond to community needs. On the other hand, companies and authorities expect to facilitate dialogues with communities meant to solve problems in which they themselves are embedded. They find themselves playing the role of both player and referee in the conflict.

This is very common when one of the parties involved in a dispute has disproportionately more power and resources. Uptake of third party mediation services is low, since those in positions of power seem to believe they can solve everything by themselves. But this is often not possible.

Companies and authorities often seek assistance from mediators only as a last resort. They literally wait until the tyres are burning before they seek third party intervention. By the time they decide to bring expert mediators in, things have already spiralled out of control, and the conflict has become intractable.

From a risk mitigation perspective this approach makes no sense, as the human and property costs of violent conflict far outweigh the cost of third party mediation at an earlier stage in the conflict cycle. It is a major challenge to change this mentality within powerful institutions.

What is an example of this challenge?

A crisis that unfolded between displaced refugees and a local community.

A small agricultural town in the Western Cape Province of South Africa was the scene of xenophobic clashes between local South Africans and immigrant communities from Zimbabwe. This town functions as a doorway for many people looking for work in the Western Cape.

Some local community members felt that Zimbabweans were taking job opportunities away from them. They forced about 3000 immigrants out of the area. Many were robbed and attacked. This crisis led the Provincial government and the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) to set up a temporary refugee camp on a sports field in the middle of town.

In preparation for hosting a major international sporting event, pressure was put on local and provincial government officials to deal with the problem. As a result, officials intensified the conflict through their heavy-handed approach. They started threatening the refugees, demanding that they leave the camp. The refugees did not feel safe enough to leave. Things got really nasty between government officials and people in the camp. Other groups started getting involved, including NGOs and local farmers who offered humanitarian assistance to the refugees.

It was only after a prolonged period of tension and after all the other options were exhausted that government finally agreed to get external mediators involved. By then the situation had become quite desperate, with potentially far-reaching economic consequences. One such consequence was a run-off of human waste from the camp that could have had a devastating impact on the area’s lucrative agricultural export business.

The private sector and local municipality were made aware of this threat. It was primarily this motive that finally led to the powerful actors, government and private sector, to treat the problem with more urgency and to make resources available for a complex mediation. Finally, a multi-party negotiation process among the refugees, NGOs, and the local and provincial authorities became possible.

How did this impact the parties’ ability to achieve rights-compatible, interest-based outcomes?

Third party mediation restored recognition of the refugee’s rights.

Before mediators got involved, the rights of the refugees were not respected. It was clear that they felt mistreated. The local communities displaced them, and once they found shelter in the camp, the authorities didn’t want them there either. They felt pushed around. Being treated in a respectful and humane way was their main concern.

Over the course of three days, local community leaders, officials and the committee representing the refugees developed a complicated, multi-faceted agreement involving many different stakeholders. The implementation process needed to be project-managed by the mediators over a number of months in an environment of distrust.

An interesting requirement of the agreement was that a mass mediation be convened between the refugees and the local residents who originally expelled them, as most refugees wanted to return to the communities from which they were displaced. As it turned out, many locals wanted them to return since the refugees were an important part of the local economy. After these terms of the agreement were met, the camp formally closed down.

If government had not finally brought third party mediators into the dispute, a lengthy and expensive 18-month court case would have ensued, probably leading to a decision to forcibly evict the refugees and even more conflict. Through mediation, refugees left the camp voluntarily and peacefully. The vast majority of the refugees returned to continue their lives within the local community. The UNHRC official remarked that he had never seen a camp like this one close down without any violent incident whatsoever.

This shows that mediation has the potential to change the trajectory of a conflict, even in the less-than-ideal scenario when it is used as a last resort. This begs the question, however, of the conditions and mind-sets that would make it possible for powerful parties to call upon independent and skilful mediation expertise to help them resolve their disputes before a conflict escalates.

Written by Lindie Botha. It may be cited as

Lindie Botha (2016). When all else fails: An Interview with Stef Snel. Reflections from Practice Series No. 09 (B. Ganson, ed.). The Hague: ACCESS Facility.

It may be freely copied and distributed with proper attribution.