Hannes Siebert

Ashoka Fellow
Illustration of a person's face depicting a fellow
South Africa
Fellow since 1991
Longkloof Studios
This description of Hannes Siebert's work was prepared when Hannes Siebert was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 1991 .

Introduction

Whenever a reporter covers a conflict, he or she affects that conflict, for good or ill, directly or indirectly. Hannes Siebert, a journalist and mediator, has developed a program that helps reporters use insights gained from the mediation field to become more incisive journalists while also helping parties in conflict move towards one another instead of amplifying their division.

The New Idea

The media can be mediators. Both words derive from the Latin medius, or middle. The press is a medium of communication. Therefore the reporter is "in the middle," the impersonal vehicle of communication for society at large. Hannes Siebert argues that reporters in South Africa often find themselves "in the middle" in a more literal and personal sense--- as the human intermediaries between factions in conflict, often violent conflict. Through his Mediation and Conflict Management Training Project, Hannes demonstrates that journalists can report about and mediate conflict simultaneously.
This broadened understanding of the journalist's role, especially in conflict-ridden societies like South Africa, challenges the myth of "objective" or "neutral" journalism. At the same time, it is critical of the emergence of what has been referred to in South Africa as "mouthpiece journalism"–the tendency of newspapers to be identified with particular political organizations and tendencies. It argues for a journalism that goes beyond simply reporting oppositional viewpoints to exposing the causes of social problems. To do this it must go beyond the stated positions of the parties to their underlying, often unstated interests. This pursuit of underlying interests is a central principle of effective mediation.
The Mediation and Conflict Management Project does not try to transform journalists into mediators per se. Rather it seeks to make them more aware of the deeper responsibilities and constructive possibilities in reporting on conflict in society. The first step is to educate journalists about the dynamics of conflict and orient them to become more expert in understanding conflict. The second step is to deepen their self-awareness as they intervene to report on conflicts. From there it is a small step to begin to look at the practical ways that reporters can promote conflict resolution.
The Project has tested its theories in what are often called South Africa's "killing fields", Natal. There they have found that reporters in the field do have golden opportunities to ask opposing parties questions that the parties would never ask each other. This gentle way of activating dialogue and deepening mutual understanding leads to other confidence building measures. Interviews, for example, are restructured as open-ended explorations of the nature of the conflict and methods of conflict resolution that might be brought to bear. Where appropriate, the journalist introduces the parties to professional mediators and other mediating institutions.

The Problem

In September 1984, the violence endemic to the forty-year-old apartheid system erupted dramatically in the form of determined popular uprisings against many governmental bodies. From late 1984 through mid-1985, television images of mass political protests, and state security repression thereof, were a regular part of the world's nightly television news. With the successive states of emergency imposed by the South African government, televisions crews were no longer allowed to film or broadcast images of political unrest.
By late 1989, a combination of determined popular resistance, international sanctions, and the unbearable economic consequences of the apartheid system brought new leadership to power in the South African government. It decided to negotiate a national political settlement with all South Africans. With the unbanning of the African National Congress, the Pan Africanist Congress, and other proscribed political organizations on February 2, 1990, and the release from prison of Nelson Mandela later that month, a process of national political settlement began in earnest. The television images of Nelson Mandela's first steps as a former prisoner stirred the hearts of the entire world and rekindled hope for peaceful change to a just order.
The unbanning of political opposition and the beginning of a national political dialogue, only begins to address the underlying problems. In fact, its first effect has been to further expose the deep and often violent divisions within African society. Relaxing the physical repression created a space in which formerly inhibited tensions erupted. The changing framework of political stakeholding and the expected extension of the electoral franchise to black South Africans has, moreover, precipitated a scramble for power among the major political actors, particularly those who have been forced to operate clandestinely for over 25 years.
The statistics on political violence in South Africa reflect all this. In 1989, after four years of state of emergency and the accompanying heavy state security-force containment of political unrest, 673 people died in political unrest-related incidents. In 1990, a total of 2,675 were killed, the highest figure for any year since the popular uprisings began in late 1984.
The danger is that this deeply riven society will become a terrible, giant Lebanon rather than an engine for development across the southern African region. Generations during which policy has systematically sought to separate each group from every other group has left levels of incomprehension, anger, and missing communication that make this danger all too real.
Journalists have the opportunity to help. If, out of haste of indifference, they merely copy down the stated positions of groups talking at one another, they will add to this danger. If they will do the work to dig deeper, to understand and report the real issues and interests and the real forces at play, they can contribute importantly to helping society learn how to move in a far more hopeful direction. They will also be writing better stories.
The South African press has a long way to go. One indicator is how little journalists seem to understand the causes of the last year and a half of violence.
In March 1991, for example, terrible fighting broke out between men's hostel dwellers and the rest of the residents of the Johannesburg township of Alexandra. There had been no prior record of serious hostility between the predominantly Zulu hostel dwellers and the rest of the community, and certainly nothing that led locals to anticipate a vicious little war that left 70 dead over two weeks. An article analyzing the conflict in the progressive Weekly Mail newspaper concluded, "It is a puzzle that sociologists, psychologists, and political analysts have all failed to answer. There is a gap to our understanding, something out there that defies all rational analysis–a monster which all our weapons have failed to slay."

The Strategy

Hannes has a straightforward strategy of educating journalists in the nature of conflicts, the techniques of mediation, and their own ability to contribute to the resolution of conflict through their reporting. Through workshops, externships, and publications, he intends to build a critical mass of journalist/mediators who might then catalyze a paradigm shift in their profession.
Using his intimate knowledge of the field, Hannes seeks out reporters from the major media who are covering the country's violence and draws them into his media-as-mediator program. Knowing their work and working circumstances, he tries to fit the program's components to each reporter's needs. He will also follow-up with the reporters over time, encouraging and reinforcing their further development.
Hannes has reinforced his own journalistic understanding and credibility with the mediation skills and reputation of the University of CapeTown's Centre for Inter-Group Studies. He and his colleagues and the Centre's staff develop and give their training courses together.
Initial training is provided in four-day workshops that can be attended individually or in a sequence of three, four, five, or six workshops over the course of a year. Each year, nine-month, full-time internships with the project's own magazine give six experienced journalists an opportunity to concentrate on this new field of journalism for reconciliation. They are encouraged to become expert in understanding and reporting conflict and are given unlimited opportunity to do so. They are encouraged to write for their own publications and others, as well as for Hannes's more specialized magazines. Hannes is also planning a "Media as Mediator" conference to expose South African journalists to their counterparts from other parts of the world with deep experience of how media shapes conflicts.

The Person

Hannes Siebert was raised in the deeply religious and conservative Afrikaaner community in Bloemfontein in the Orange Free State. Bloemfontein is the capital of what is a predominantly agricultural province characterized by the most polarized race relations in South Africa. Hannes went to the University of the Orange Free State determined to become a Dutch Reformed Church dominie, or reverend, like his father. But he found his Christian conscience and principles increasingly at odds with his church and, in 1982, he changed his career track and became a journalist.
After working for a short time in the establishment Afrikaans language press, he founded the first black newspaper in the Orange Free State, City Beat, in 1984 . The newspaper grew quickly over one and a half years to a circulation of 30,000, when its pro-democracy content and commercial success prompted the government to shut it down as a, "so called threat to state security." Hannes then worked as an editor at a Christian publishing house and set up a successful national Christian newspaper in Namibia before founding the Trust in 1987. The Trust provides the overarching structure for the Mediation Project and other media-for-reconciliation activities.
Hannes is actively involved in a number of progressive Christian groups that pursue reconciliation and economic empowerment objectives. This religious commitment sympathetically forms his professional judgment that the individual journalist has a significant role to play in healing the wounds of South African society.