Nelson Mandela's conflict resolution legacy at Pollsmoor prison

Nelson Mandela understood the power and effectiveness of conflict resolution in the hands of a skilled mediator. Photo: AP file photo

WASHINGTON, December 9, 2013 — The world mourns the loss of a great leader, Nelson Mandela. Mandela, a former South African President and Nobel Peace Prize recipient, was imprisoned for 27 years for opposing the racism of apartheid and the tyranny of the South African Government. Nelson Mandela understood that real change did not come about though violence but rather through peaceful conflict resolution and dialogue.

Mandela was held mostly on Rodden Island, but from 1982 to 1988, he was at Pollsmoor Maximum Security Prison in Cape Town. Pollsmoor was a notorious prison for violent black criminals. At Pollsmoor, Mandela was quarantined in an isolated rooftop cell away from the rapists, sociopaths, murderers and otherwise ruthless prison gang members. He was moved to the ground floor by prison authorities in 1985. 

In 2001, in the same roof top quarters where Mandela lived for four years, Joanna Flanders Thomas, a conflict resolution expert at the Cape Town Centre for Conflict Resolution, led a series of workshops titled “Change Begins with Me.” The workshops teach prison gang members to resolve conflict through dialogue not violence.   

The idea was that having the workshops in the same place where Mandela had been held would serve as a calming influence on the population. it was also the place where Mandela began negotiating with the apartheid government for the peaceful transition of power in South Africa.

The BBC documentary “Killers Don’t Cry,” chronicles Thomas’s courageous work. 

The documentary opens with Joanna entering the gates of Pollsmoor. In describing the prisoners, Thomas said, “I saw my brother, my uncle, my friend” to convey that the prisoners she saw could have been members of her own family or friend, and as such they were interconnected. 

Armed with conflict resolution expertise, faith in the human spirit and love of her fellow human beings, Thomas led a successful 10-day training for members of the 27 and 28 gangs. These rival gangs were notorious for raping and murdering fellow prisoners and terrorizing guards called warders.  

The Numbers gangs, namely the infamous 27 and 28 gangs, ran Pollsmoor. Barry Coetzee, a prison warder, demonstrated the conflict that occurs working in an overcrowed prison when the prisoners wielded most of the power. He explained, “a Number has been called on me. I will be stabbed or cut with a blade. My blood has to flow. There’s no way to defend yourself.  You never know when, you never know where. It’s terrifying. It’s a psychological war”

The 26 gang refused to meet with Thomas and tasked one of its members, also named “Thomas,” to kill her.  They feared Thomas was an informant and a threat to the Numbers gang system. Violence is what they knew. Attending Joanna Thomas’s workshop could get participants killed.

Joanna Thomas exhibited some of the same skill, faith and love that Mandela exhibited when she persuaded Thomas to join her workshops and interact with the group. It was amazing to watch her get him to drop his defenses and share how frightened he was of her.

Thomas, who was charged with stopping her, said, “This Joanna had to be stabbed in here. I did everything in my power to kill her, but perhaps God was with her without her even knowing.” Thomas wanted a way out of the prison violence, and Joanna Thomas was able to provide him with alternatives to violence.  She challenged members of rival gangs to change how they relate to one another–to work together and play together peacefully; something most had never experienced before, even as children.  

Due to the brainwashing of the Numbers gang system, many of prisoners had forgotten what it meant to say please and thank you. Additionally, most had learned to suppress any compassion or empathy that might lead them to treat one another with civility and respect. Hence the title of the documentary, “Killers Don’t Cry.”

I met Joanna Thomas in 2001, when she visited Philadelphia, under the sponsorship of the Philadelphia Leadership Foundation. I saw an ad in the paper about her training and invited her to lunch. I was curious to learn more about how she engaged the violent prisoners and why she stayed after learning that a number had been called on her.

Here are the three most important things that I learned from Thomas, which I have incorporated as key tools of my own conflict resolution training and mediation work:

1. Pay close attention to emotions and emotional responses (yours and others), and identify the cause of the feelings behind the distress.

2. Close the distance between yourself and others by acknowledging the perspectives of others, especially if they differ from your own.

3. Listen without criticizing and demonstrate that you value and respect the human dignity of others.

Nelson Mandela recognized the value of conflict resolution when he used it to negotiate a practically bloodless revolution in South Africa and the peaceful transfer of power with one the most financially wealthy and brutal regimes in the history of the world. 

Conflict resolution does work in the hands of a skilled and competent mediator. Nelson Mandela’s life and legacy is probably the best evidence that it is effective.    

Rest in peace Mr. Mandela, job well done.

All comments are welcome.


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Millicent Carvalho-Grevious

Dr. Millicent Carvalho-Grevious, is the founder and principal of Pennsylvania Conflict Resolution and Mediation Services, Inc. She has mediated conflicts for over 30 years, providing services in a variety of venues for private and public entities, including the United States Postal Service, the Office of Dispute Resolution of the Department of Education, and the office of Employer Support for the National Guard and Reserve. She was one of 14 conflict resolution experts from 11 nations invited to Chongqing, China in 2009 to participate in a forum titled, “Responding to the Challenges of Financial Crisis and Building Social Harmony.” Previously, she served as Director/Program Chair of Urban Studies and Community at LaSalle University, Associate Professor and Chair of Department of Social Work at Virginia Union University and Associate Professor and Social Work Department Chair at Delaware State University. She earned a Doctor of Philosophy, Master of Social Work and Master of Law and Social Policy degrees at Bryn Mawr College and Master of Education (Counselor Education) at Boston University and Bachelor of Arts at LaSalle University.

Contact Millicent Carvalho-Grevious

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