“I deeply believe we can resolve our differences through communication, by talking to each other and finding solutions jointly.”

Where it all began

Ben grew up in South Africa, during the dark days of the Apartheid. After secondary school, he was conscripted to serve two years in the South African Defense Force and spent most of the second year in northern Namibia and Angola. He states, “during that time I increasingly questioned the legitimacy of the border war and my role in it, and eventually decided to have no further part in it.” This crisis of conscience led him to seek a role as peacemaker, and eventually to the Independent Mediation Service of South Africa (IMSSA) who trained and certified me as a mediator, arbitrator, and trainer in the early 1990s.  He was among the first Afrikaans-speaking mediators, trained by IMSSA, in South Africa. He stated, “I developed a practice as an independent, free-lance third party, eventually focusing on complex multi-party commercial disputes.Most of his work has been in South and East Africa. Now, he is based in Perth, Australia, where he holds national accreditation as a mediator. 

In his University years, he started working as a paralegal and became involved with Anti-Apartheid activism. His clients were mostly farmworkers in South African’s wine-growing region. Farmworkers were not protected in any labor legislation in South Africa; in fact, they were excluded. None of the legislation applied to them. Ben states, “As a result, I could not litigate on behalf of farmworkers, they had no legislative rights, so I had to mediate. This is how my mediation journey started; out of necessity.”

Ben worked as a mediator during South Africa’s very difficult transition to democracy. Everything had to be transformed including local government, to include newly democratically elected members and a much wider range of stakeholders. He was involved in many of these processes. In 2001, he decided to take a much-needed sabbatical and moved to Australia. He eventually returned to South Africa in 2008. Ben said, “the meaningful work for me was in South Africa.” He worked there and in East Africa for a decade but has recently returned to Australia for other project prospects and family reasons.  

MBBI Involvement 

Ben is a member of MBBI. He stated, “having relocated from Cape Town to Perth in late 2019 I came across the MBBI online and decided to attend the MBBI International Congress in Bali in November 2019.”  Being based in Australia he hopes through MBBI hopes to re-connect with a larger network of mediators. Ben is a process-focused mediator recognizing that everyone takes some level of risk when they engage in this type of process. For Ben, “the magic of mediation is in the process itself.” In fact, building a relationship with the existing parties and slowly working on the issues themselves brings outcomes or at least leads to outcomes.

Projects and Initiatives

Ben has multiple projects going on at the moment. However, he conveyed, “I am working at setting up a practice in Australia, with the aim of working locally and also the South East Asian region.” His last major project was a long-term process on behalf of the Compliance Advisor Ombudsman (CAO) in Uganda.  He is currently interested in supporting mediation efforts within the indigenous context in Australia. He sees a lot of potential in this area of work. For Ben, “Mediation is always going to bring better outcomes.” This does not necessarily mean every mediation effort is successful but when it is, the outcomes must be sustainable long term. He states, “I do not believe that there is any dispute that cannot be mediated. I was trained in the classic Harvard Law School model of mediation that separated right disputes and interest disputes. However, as far as I am concerned, there are no disputes that can be excluded from mediation entirely.” Thus, he became an asset for a lot of local and national scale mediation efforts in South Africa.

Mediation Post Pandemic Reflections

For Ben, the pandemic has forced him to explore ways of working online rather than traveling and dealing with parties face-to-face. He states, “the pandemic and its multiple impacts are leading to conflicts in multiple places, and it will get more intense. Thus, there is plenty of potential for new and innovative mediator solutions.”  Though he finds face-to-face interactions of huge value he recognizes that “we have to adjust.” He states that “some situations require people to be in the same room, there is a whole lot of magic that happens when people in dispute are able to face each other. However, there are cases where it can work and others where it does not.” Therefore, one must adapt and work creatively. Furthermore, he has stressed that the pandemic crisis will not be resolved if society does not work together towards that. However, he also acknowledges that we are not in this together at all. This forces us to find global solutions because “we cannot leave people behind.”

New Mediation Perspectives

Ben remains hopeful despite the pandemic. He states, in this time of global stress and anxiety, and the overwhelming impacts of the pandemic being felt everywhere, I believe that our role as mediators has become even more important in helping to facilitate conversation and problem-solving.” Thus, the global community has learned that everyone in all in this together, though one’s own experiences of the crisis are vastly different. For him, it has become more visible and clearer that those nations which have embarked on more integrative strategies and methods of addressing the Coronavirus crisis have enjoyed greater success in meeting the challenge, reducing the uncontrolled spread of the disease and saving lives. Those that have been able to put immediate partisan interests aside, and have worked across sectoral and political barriers, are faring better than those attempting unilateral approaches or adopting isolationist strategies. Ben states, “those which have eschewed objective facts and the rapidly advancing science, maintaining their binary worldviews, adversarialism, false dichotomies, and polarization are suffering dire consequences” It is in this world where the role of independent, impartial third party facilitators becomes ever more critical and necessary. He stresses that “we should be doing everything we can to present ourselves to decision-makers and offering our services in facilitating the most important conversations.”

Article by Elizabeth Gamarra, MBBI Writer