Congregations Promoting Peace in Volatile Times – Reflections from a South African-born Mediator

By Harold Tessendorf 

Harold Tassendorf

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 protestors and counter-protestors 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, protest organizers and counter-protestors alike, can follow? 
  • Can congregations be active peace-makers who help bridge the gap between these groups?     

The answer to all these questions is “Yes!” A model that emerged in South Africa during the 1990s 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 church and business leaders hammered out among the leaders of the African National Congress Alliance (ANC), the white National Party government, the South African Police, the Inkatha Freedom Front and others.   

I helped 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 team also coordinated the training of thousands of community mediators and peace monitors.  Congregations were invaluable partners in all these endeavors.  

One of the many community-police conflicts that I mediated took place in the town of Graaff-Reinet. Its local government had repeatedly and without reasons refused to issue a protest permit to the local ANC. When the ANC attempted to force the issue by staging 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 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 future protest marches.  It was also a productive relationship-building opportunity which led to more cooperation among these leaders as South Africa continued its transition to a post-apartheid society.

How Congregations Created Citizen Crisis Mediators and Monitors in South Africa 

  1. The steps outlined below were facilitated by the prescient decisions of several church denominations to introduce training courses for members and non-members alike in the areas of non-violence, anti-racism, trade unionism and community development during the 1970s and 1980s.  
  1. A group of committed peace committee members, including pastors, collaborated to produce a training manual which introduced participants to the codes of conduct governing the different parties, mediation and observer ethics, along with negotiation and mediation skills and practices. 
  1. Church congregations and their pastors helped host, finance and publicize mediation training events in coordination with their local peace committees.   
  1. Experienced mediators used the manual referenced above to train community members, including members from local congregations. These trained mediators and monitors were deployed in their community and called upon as needed.   
  1. Some pastors served on local and regional peace committees, often serving as crisis mediators themselves. Through community connections, they built relationships with more extremist groups who did not support the negotiation process. This allowed for “backdoor negotiations” as needed.  
  1. Pastors legitimized peace makers by preaching from the “Sermon on the Mount” and commissioning church members who had completed their mediation training.    
  1. Street-level, crisis mediation sessions complemented other community mediations involving the ANC, police and local government over structural 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.   

I believe that community leaders in cities and towns across the USA can negotiate agreements just as their counterparts did in Graaff-Reinet and thousands of communities across South Africa. Denominations, pastors and congregations can, and should, utilize their resources to train and deploy crisis mediators to mediate agreements around protests while simultaneously engaging community leaders to address 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. In addition to his subsequent peace making and community development work in Haiti, Sierra Leone and Mozambique, Harold served as the executive director of three Habitat for Humanity affiliates in Georgia over the past two decades. Harold is a member of First Baptist Church of Christ in Macon, GA, is the founder of Tessendorf Consulting and, teaches social business at Mercer University’s Stetson-Hatcher School of Business.   

One thought on “Congregations Promoting Peace in Volatile Times – Reflections from a South African-born Mediator

  1. Pingback: Baptist layman offers lessons from South Africa on overcoming civil war – Baptist News Global –

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