Strike nation – Tense SA work takes its toll on mediators

2012-10-13 17:26

When the tension of brokering deals between unions and workers gets too much for mediator Arnause Mohlala, he pounds the pavement in his running shoes.

His colleague Shawn Christiansen loses himself in rugby and community work.

“You have to find a coping mechanism to block out the work,” Mohlala says. “You can’t take it home.”

Mohlala and Christiansen are two mediators on the front line of South Africa’s boiling strike season.

Christiansen is head commissioner of the Johannesburg region of the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA) and a high level mediator, focusing on difficult retrenchments. He’s quite a rock star in mediator circles, known for saving thousands of jobs, and settling many tense strikes.

In the job for 15 years, he says it is imperative to earn and develop trust to gain acceptance.

“It is easy for parties to have a go at the mediator,” he says. “You need to be in a position to suggest creative options that the parties will trust. You don’t have the luxury of time.

“You have to understand the issues in a matter of minutes.”

CCMA director Nerine Kahn says mediators need specialised skills and vast experience, often working throughout the night to convince mine bosses to increase salaries, or to convince unions that more money doesn’t always solve problems.

“It’s exhaustive and we don’t sleep or eat at times. It needs a careful and patient listener.”

Before last year’s general elections, there was a tense standoff between municipal unions and the City of Johannesburg. Rubbish was piling up.

“We ended up with a 27-hour stretch (in negotiations),” Christiansen says. “The huge amount of time made physical demands that affect you mentally. But I care deeply for this job.”

Mohlala, Ekurhuleni’s head CCMA commissioner, mediated at Impala Platinum earlier this year. His favourite strategy is to place parties in different rooms.

“When it’s quite tense, we’ll separate parties, and then it gets much better,” he says. “Perhaps 90% of our settlements are done that way.

“In separate rooms we’re able to control emotions, and people will not try to score cheap points as they do in joint rooms.”

North West CCMA head Elias Hlongwane was in the hot seat during the Marikana talks which he says were the most gruelling of his life, with violence fuelled by outside influences.

“We struggled to understand all the influences. Even though labour was at the heart of the dispute, we became involved in quasi-political discussions during negotiation of the peace accord.”

There was a phase of the negotiations when it was “pure politics, and pure violence”.

“It didn’t make sense, but you needed it to make sense for the sake of everyone,” he says. “At one point it became a circus: visitors came to the hearings, people you would never see again. Who were they?”

As companies increasingly opt for mediation over litigation, Khan says the CCMA’s workload has increased by 25% in five years.

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