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The Storytellers

Building peace over cocktails and barbeques

From sipping cocktails with rebel fighters to negotiating peace alongside Nelson Mandela, mediator Vasu Gounden says the first step towards resolving even the bloodiest disputes is being willing to find common ground.

As a student leader during the mid-1980s state of emergency in apartheid South Africa and training as a trade union lawyer, Vasu Gounden seemed to be set up for a life of conflict.

Under orders to make the country ungovernable, the anti-apartheid students would engage in civil disobedience, which often escalated into violent confrontations with the state. Gounden was jailed for his activism and put on trial for a year. Due to his high profile, thousands of students would rally outside the police station whenever he was arrested.

"When you are a hot-blooded young revolutionary you don't think about talking to the other side, you think about overthrowing the other side," he told DW during a visit to Bonn.

But later, while working on a Masters degree in law in the United States, he realized there was another way to tackle social and political conflicts.

"They can be settled in the courts, they can be settled through war, but there's a better way to do it - we can mediate it. We can find common ground. We can find what our different interests are and we can accommodate those interests."

Gounden returned to his homeland in the early 1990s, just as negotiations were underway to end apartheid. For him, it was a question of being in the right place at the right time. Not only did he have the skills that were needed, he also knew South Africa's political leaders personally.

It was time, he decided, to step back and play a mediating role.

He founded the African Center for the Constructive Resolution of Disputes (ACCORD) in 1992. Conflict resolution has been his focus ever since, and the organization has worked in Sri Lanka, Iraq and Palestine, as well as Africa, often for years at a time.

Breaking the ice

Gounden's ability to break down social and political barriers is apparent when he enters a room. Everyone gets a hug. New acquaintances are greeted like old friends. He describes his forays into poetry, cracks jokes.

Fighters in the Democratic Republic of Congo

Removing fighters from conflict situations is necessary for effective negotiations, Gounden says

His methods might seem unconventional - putting up hardened fighters from the Congolese bush in a holiday resort, for example - but there's strategy behind his warm hospitality.

Removing people from their conflict situations and into a neutral environment enables them to negotiate, Gounden says.

"We always arrange a social event, whether that is a cocktail in the evening or a barbeque. There's a hidden agenda to it, it's not just socializing. The chemistry that you can build amongst conflicting parties just over a social event can create so much political capital that can be useful in talks."

Refusal to judge

He says the key to resolving conflict is recognizing that everybody has an interest and a cause.

"Let's try to understand that too," he says. "We do not have to agree with it, we don't have to sympathize with it, but we might at least be able to empathize with it, if we can put ourselves in their position and look at it from their perspective."

He hastens to add that such empathy should not go so far as to justify terror: "I'd be the last to justify terror; I don't think terror is an instrument that should be used to advance a cause."

Soldiers in Mali

Gounden says people are too quick to label others as terrorists

Gounden says people are too quick to resort to the term 'terrorist' to describe their adversaries.

"I have dealt with so many rebel leaders who were considered terrorist, extremist, all sorts of things, warlords, warmongerers. I have found in discussions with them that the private discussion is very different from the public rhetoric."

"Nelson Mandela was considered a terrorist," he points out.

Mediating alongside Mandela

Gounden worked with Mandela to bring a peace process to Burundi. Their work bore fruit: The country, which had been ravaged by a 12-year civil war in which an estimated 300,000 people were killed, has held on to a fragile peace for the past seven years.

He calls Mandela an inspiration.

"It doesn't matter how many times you are in his presence, it gives you goose bumps," he says.

He does, however, recall that Mandela was anything but a typical mediator.

Nelson Mandela (Photo: Kim Ludbrook)

Vasu Gounden describes Nelson Mandela as an authoritative figure

"He could be very authoritative with the parties, which is unlike a mediator. He could dictate to the parties. But only if you are Mandela can you do that, not every mediator can do that. He had a kind of superhuman authority over the parties and he had huge credibility and huge political capital and they did not want to offend him or disappoint him in any way and he knew that.

"He's the one who famously said there is no point in talking to your friend, you have to talk to your enemy."

Gounden says that philosophy guides his own teaching in conflict resolution.

"You have to stretch out and talk to your enemy."

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