Mahmood Fadal

Ashoka Fellow
South Africa
Fellow since 1995
Mediation and Conciliation Centre
This description of Mahmood Fadal's work was prepared when Mahmood Fadal was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 1995 .


Mahmood Fadal has combined labor relations education with conflict resolution techniques into a unique strategy of overcoming differences and promoting development in South Africa's volatile informal and small business sectors. The strategy at Mahmood's Mediation and Conflict Centre assists competing small business owners and their employees to appreciate their commonalities and thus the benefits of cooperation.

The New Idea

The relaxation of economic apartheid in the small business sector in the late 1980's precipitated an explosion of informal business activity among black South Africans. In the more than fifteen years since the legalization of black trade unions in the 1970's, conflict resolution and labor dispute mediation methods have proliferated, but they have not yet addressed the rampant violence in the informal and small business sectors. Trade union leader Mahmood Fadal has combined his union negotiation experience with training in dispute resolution to mold an original approach to this problem. He established a Mediation and Conciliation Centre to foster awareness and empowerment among small business communities through a better understanding of the constitution, the bill of rights, and the new Labor Relations Act. He offers an alternative to violence as a method of resolving conflict: use of the law and accepted labor practices. He holds structured discussions where he trains disputing parties, who include taxi drivers, domestic workers and street vendors, among others, to talk through their conflicts in the context of greater understanding of their legal and human rights. The members of the community thus develop greater ability to protect themselves against abusive employers or competitors and learn how to educate those who may inadvertently seek to violate their rights. These techniques are well suited to small and informal sector business, where there is often very little difference in the economic status of the employer and employee. By developing awareness of the common interests and problems employers and employees share and of the substantial benefits cooperation brings to all the parties, Mahmood shifts cooperation to a higher plane and helps small business owners, competitors and workers. Mahmood's process also encourages his clients to build new institutional mechanisms to resolve conflicts that arise in the future.

The Problem

The rapidly growing small and informal business sector in South Africa is under intense pressure and has few resources and services to cope. High and growing unemployment in the mainstream economy prompts increasing numbers of individuals to attempt to enter the informal sector, typically as street vendors and other service providers. Yet the livelihoods, wages and working conditions within the sector are rarely adequate to sustain a basic and decent life for even a small number of traders. The flooded market results in heavy competition and high tension as sellers compete for scarce customers. Shop traders battle with hockers and street sellers over space, and the fierce competition frequently leads to violence. The absence of credible commercial standards and law enforcement leaves few non-violent resources to parties in conflict. Furthermore, there is widespread suspicion of the police, who are still remembered for their role in enforcing apartheid. The state provides no formal structure for affordable conflict resolution and court procedures are frequently time-consuming and cumbersome. As a result, the call for private, third party mediation and conflict resolution services is particularly urgent. The taxi industry offers only the most notorious and visible example of the inevitable spillover of these forces into violence. Rival taxi associations battle each other, often with guns, for the right to control travel routes. They are also in pervasive conflict with the state over roadside amenities, safety regulations and licensing laws. Police often moonlight as taxi service owners and abuse their policing role to favor their commercial interests -- often directly fomenting the violence. There is also tension between employees and employers. Taxi drivers typically work long hours and receive low wages from the owners, while working in dangerous conditions. In many cases, both employer and employee are ignorant of accepted labor relation practices and workers' rights. Other factors such as poor education and the absence of a common language exacerbate conflict.

The Strategy

Mahmood's project offers training in mediation, "train the trainer" sessions on the new Labor Relations Act, how to use state accredited private mediation agencies, the role and function of the Commission for Conciliation Mediation and Arbitration, and how to negotiate with the Land Commission and employers. The Mediation and Conciliation Centre also provides a mediation service to small businesses, the informal sector and community-based development organizations. The Centre's experience suggests that many important problems within a dispute surface only once mediation is underway. However, the parties often lack an understanding of the need for conflict resolution and of the value and the proper role of an independent, third party mediation service. The Centre's conflict intervention methodology begins with a workshop that all the parties in conflict attend. The style of the workshop is one of active participation, debate and role-playing to raise awareness of the common goals all the parties share. If the dispute touches on labor practices, for example, the Centre would hold a workshop on "Basic Conditions of Employment" and labor legislation. A common workshop subject is the concept and techniques of mediation and conflict resolution themselves. These sessions give participants an opportunity to act as mediators in hypothetical conflicts. The second step of a Centre mediation typically involves all the disputants in an effort to diagnose the causes of conflict. The Centre tries to help everyone to see that a lasting solution requires cooperation. Mahmood then moves on to stimulate the disputants to design institutional mechanisms that address the underlying causes of conflict. The Centre helps workers to organize themselves into representative groups that resemble small labor unions but are geared towards cooperation rather than conflict. They are then prepared to identify problems, such as the need for health and safety standards, and bring them to the attention of their employer before a crisis emerges. This also provides a convenient opportunity for employers to communicate their concerns about labor issues to employees. The Centre has a wealth of resource materials and experience to share with parties committed to building such mechanisms. Mahmood markets his services through joint ventures with civic organizations, legal aid offices, domestic workers associations and other community representative organizations in their areas. The Centre has already commenced joint initiatives with the South African National Civic Association in several of the most violent townships in Guateng (the small but intensely populated province in which Johannesburg and Pretoria lie), the Eldorado Park Advice Office, the Lenasia Advice Office, the South African Domestic Workers Union and the Soweto Legal Aid Board.

The Person

Mahmood Fadal was born in rural western Transvaal. His family was forced to moved to a township for people the government classified as Indian, outside of Johannesburg. His father's poor health and the family's financial position forced Mahmood to leave school at an early age to seek employment. As a worker, Mahmood soon discovered the importance of belonging to a trade union in order to improve his and other workers' positions. His ability to grasp the dynamics of industrial relations and dispute resolution was recognized by his fellow employees, and he was made a full-time shop steward, a position he held for eight years. Through the early and mid-1980's, Mahmood was called upon with increasing frequency to resolve disputes outside of the workplace in the local community. Both his fellow workers and the wider community of those promoting black leadership development recognized his efforts during this period. Despite his youth, in 1986 he was elected vice-chairperson of the Witwatersrand region of the country's largest union federation, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU). In 1991, a scholarship took him to the United States, where he spent a year studying mediation and conflict resolution. The program involved intensive academic studies and practical experience with various mediation agencies. On his return to South Africa, Mahmood launched the Mediation and Conciliation Centre.