Focusing on Commonalities

Charles (Chip) Hauss

June 2003

"Understand the differences; act on the commonalities." -- Andrew Mason

The above statement by South African Andrew Masondo sums up a lot of what can be done to ease intractable conflicts in the short run.

Masondo's career mirrors his statement. In 1961, he was one of the first members of MK (UmKhonta wzSizwe - Spear of the People), the armed wing of the African National Congress (ANC). He participated in its first violent act later that year when a group of MK activists blew up some electrical towers. Like many MK activists, Masondo was arrested and spent nearly 15 years at the infamous Robben Island prison. After his release in 1976, he again became politically active in the armed resistance to the apartheid government, operating from the ANC's bases in Angola. After the transition from apartheid to a multiracial democracy, Masondo became a major general in the South African National Defense Force (SANDF) and was in charge of integrating the military until his retirement in 2001.

Peter Coleman

describes an abortion dialogue in which the parties came to respect each other and protect one another, but they were still very polarized on the abortion issue.

Masondo's comment is important because there is such fear, hatred, and intolerance in intractable conflicts that it is rare that a win-win outcome can be reached as the result of a single negotiated settlement. Rather, understanding the differences between the parties and finding ways to move forward on the basis of their shared interests seems to be the best way to make significant, if still incremental, progress.

Both parts of such a process can be seen in the South African negotiations, in which Masondo himself played a central role.

Understanding the Differences

Understanding one's adversaries is one of the most important parts of the negotiations to end any conflict. In this sense, "understanding" is not the simple intellectual comprehension of why the other side believes what it does, though that itself is often not an easy challenge. The "image of the enemy" and blaming language and behavior often lead the two sides of a conflict to "talk past" each other. Understanding, in this sense, also means developing the ability to empathize with the other side. You may not agree with their perspective, but you at least have to see why honorable people hold such a point of view.

There are two good examples of this in Nelson Mandela's behavior between the time he and the authorities began informal talks in 1986 and his release from prison in 1991. First, he took the initiative to learn Afrikaans so he could speak with his jailers and the national leadership in their own language. Second, he made it clear that while he was not prepared to make a deal that included anything less than one person one vote, he understood that the Afrikaners considered themselves to be Africans every bit as much as the members of the ANC did.

Acting on the Commonalities

Tamra D'Estree

explains how she finds the personal healing that occurs in some dialogues to be particularly inspiring.

In their classic book, Getting to Yes,[1] Roger Fisher and William Ury distinguish between positional and interest-based negotiation. In the former, people tend to cling to rigidly held stands on specific issues, as Israelis and Palestinians have traditionally done on the status of Jerusalem. In interest-based negotiations, they become more flexible and concentrate on their general interests or goals. When that happens, it is possible to "reframe" the dispute and begin to find areas of common concern where joint action is possible.

In the South African case, finding the commonalities occurred once the blacks and whites began to see some broader interests they truly shared. One of the most obvious and important of these was a desire to prevent the economic situation of the country from continuing to deteriorate. The two sides reached this point through different routes. Many whites came to the conclusion that maintaining their standard of living was more important than keeping apartheid. Many blacks, by contrast, concluded that the only way to achieve prosperity for the impoverished majority of the population was to build on the industrial and commercial base the white-dominated regime had created. That could only be done, they recognized, by accepting the continuation of the white standard of living.

In other instances, discovering the commonalities can take place in ways that seem trivial and/or have little to do with politics. For instance, one of the first Track Two meetings between the Afrikaner elite and the exiled ANC leadership occurred in England during an important international cricket match. South African teams had been banned from international competitions for many years, and the sports-crazed South Africans of all races began to realize that a political solution would allow their return to the soccer, rugby, cricket, and track and field tournaments. After Mandela was released, a conscious effort was made to integrate the previously all-white rugby and cricket teams and the crowds, which went to support those squads. In perhaps the most telling event of them all, South Africa was given the right to host the 1995 rugby World Cup, which it duly won. Rugby had been such a hotbed of pro-apartheid racism that many ANC leaders wanted then-President Mandela to ban the sport altogether. Not only did he refuse to do so, he appeared at the ceremony after the final game to hand out the trophy wearing a copy of the team captain's uniform, a man who was widely rumored to be a staunch racist.

[1] Roger Fisher and William Ury, Getting to YES. (New York: Penguin, 1981)

Use the following to cite this article:
Hauss, Charles (Chip). "Focusing on Commonalities." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: June 2003 <>.

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