Heading for new home: Children of the Dingleton community in the Northern Cape. All the residents have had to move to Kathu, 30km away, as Kumba Iron Ore rehabilitates a mining site. Picture: DAYLIN PAUL
Heading for new home: Children of the Dingleton community in the Northern Cape. All the residents have had to move to Kathu, 30km away, as Kumba Iron Ore rehabilitates a mining site. Picture: DAYLIN PAUL

It is an unfortunate reality that humans lean towards crisis management. Only after the crisis arrives do we ask why it was not prevented.

This pattern is common in Africa. In Ghana, Sierra Leone, and elsewhere on the continent, any number of large-scale mining, commercial agriculture or infrastructure projects have all but ground to a halt, due almost entirely to probably preventable conflict between governments, companies, labour and communities.

This is a story familiar to SA, too: there are numerous conflicts between communities and mining companies. In April, GroundUp reported on conflict between Kumba Iron Ore and members of the Dingleton community in the Northern Cape. Kumba wanted to relocate residents of Dingleton to a town nearly 30km away, but 25 families did not wish to move. The dispute was costly and unpleasant for all.

Attorney Richard Spoor, representing the Dingleton residents, said mediation might assist the parties in interpreting the International Finance Corporate Guidelines and help Kumba comply. Kumba argued that the residents had disrupted essential rehabilitation of a site where blue asbestos had been spilled and were calling for a R1.6m payout. Spoor described the situation as intolerable.

An example that may be more familiar — and has complex roots — is Marikana, where tensions turned bloody and 44 mine workers were shot dead. The bitter dispute gave rise to the longest known wage strike in SA. A commission of inquiry into the killings eventually released its report in 2015, but many argue that the situation remains unresolved.

The absence of effective and timeous processes to mediate issues that result in conflict can have disastrous consequences, ranging from extensive financial losses to loss of human life. It can also result in less quantifiable losses: a breakdown in trust and working relationships, lost opportunities, delays, the absence of services and valuable infrastructure or potential for economic growth.

No organisation or individual wants these outcomes. Why, then, does it all go so wrong, so often? The starting point for failure often lies in the strengths of the company — planning and execution. These become weaknesses in the context of community and other external stakeholder relations.

The company intent on pursuing some complex plan of action (such as expanding a mine) is prone to reducing its interactions with others to mere transactions — they ask, what do we need to pay or do in order to move our plan forward? Yet at various junctures, different stakeholders may be fearful, suspicious or angry about company plans and actions and need greater interaction or reassurance.

In complex environments, companies need to proactively build relationships and manage tensions

Governments and communities have their own aspirations that may be very different from those of the company. When they don’t trust the company, or don’t believe their fundamental interests are being met, there is often no deal the company can put on the table that will defuse tensions.

Firms that think in terms of transactions rather than relationships may also tend to compartmentalise stakeholder "problems" within a community relations department that is handed company plans and told to implement them. These companies often fail to see how tensions arising through executive actions (such as negotiating agreements with authorities without involving communities) or operational decisions (such as hiring practices that neighbouring communities believe exclude them) need to be tackled by the whole organisation.

Community relations officers may have good relationships with local officials or community leaders, who all the same remain fearful and distrustful of the company.

Finally, companies too often fail to respond to even acute tensions, until a crisis stage is reached. Sometimes mediation does take place once other avenues have been exhausted, but it can be likened to calling in the fire department: by then, things are already burning. It would be far more effective to invest in fire prevention.

In complex environments, companies need to proactively build relationships and manage tensions. This would include mapping stakeholders, their interests and the environment around them; collecting and analysing information in ways that are useful and credible to all concerned; facilitating communication between parties who may have little history of constructive relationships; and perhaps most importantly, helping it develop plans and operations that would avoid (often predictable) conflict in the first place by aligning these with the plans and expectations of others.

Fire prevention is not how most people (including many practising mediators) understand mediation, which is more commonly focused on bringing in an expert to help pick up the pieces after a conflict has manifested itself.

But the highest and best use of mediation is to build the foundations for constructive working relationships that are resilient enough to manage the challenges that will inevitably arise. This needs to be done before the flames of conflict have burnt out of control. And it is not a one-time intervention, but a continuing process.

Imagine the benefit to SA and its economy if Marikana had never happened. Clashes between companies, labour, communities and governments tend to make headlines when there is a crisis or tragedy.

But research shows that such headlines can be avoided when we are attentive to lost opportunity, when we properly engage others around their interests and when this is done timeously and continuously.

• Ganson is head of the Africa Centre for Dispute Settlement and adjunct associate professor at the University of Cape Town Graduate School of Business.

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