IT sounds like a bar room joke: a Tutsi general meets a Catholic nun and, not knowing what to do, ends up in an arm-wrestling match. They both end up winning.
Except, says American peacemaker Howard Wolpe, that it really happened, in the small town of Ngozi in northern Burundi.
Well, if it was a joke, you might hope it would feature somewhere in the Zimbabwe talks, the dealmakers with their elbows on the South African-sponsored whisky bar, perhaps not to test each otherâ€™s superman qualities but to share the Johnnie Walker whisky both sides are said to like.
At the heart of the Zimbabwe crisis is the refusal of President Robert Mugabe to relinquish power.
After several years of trying, President Thabo Mbeki got representatives of the three main parties together to talk over a power-sharing alternative, and Mugabe joined his arch foe Morgan Tsvangirai for a surreptitious brunch in Harare.
Whether or not a deal is in the offing, in the view of the man in the street, there are still many bridges ahead to cross.
All have to do with how to get two belligerent parties, one of which swore never to serve the other, to work together to salvage what is left of the country. On the face of it, Burundi and Zimbabwe cannot be compared.
The first lost a third of its population in a genocide; whatever you want to say about Mugabe, and however loathsome his actions in Matabeleland were, the two are not in the same massacre league.
Yet Wolpe, who heads the Project on Leadership and Building State Capacity of the Woodrow Wilson Centre in Washington DC, is one expert who insists that Burundi has a lot to teach the continent, including Zimbabwe.
At an audience of the Centre for Africaâ€™s International Relations at Wits University recently, he explained his work â€“â€“ and one could immediately see what the connections between the two crises were. Burundi exploded into war, whereas one of the features of the Zimbabwean crisis is that the population â€“â€“ to the great puzzlement and exasperation of commentators with roots in South Africaâ€™s mass democratic movement â€“â€“ has been so loath to rise up against Mugabe.
A key African problem that Wolpe posits is the “zero-sum game” played by so many belligerent groups in African conflicts, or the “winner takes all” mentality.
One is used to this phrase being applied to the supposed unAfricanness of the Westminster parliamentary system, where the winning party in an election, if only by one vote, becomes the new government. But Africaâ€™s parties and militias demonstrate the phraseâ€™s real meaning â€“â€“ of the men with the guns insisting that they should have everything: parliament, radio stations, weaponry, mining concessions, ex-colonial homes . . . It is easy to see that this militarist mindset still persists in Zimbabwe, and has always been the basis of Zanu PFâ€™s approach to power.
This year a minister referred to non-Zanu PF voters as cockroaches who should be dealt with as such, echoing the famous description of Tutsis by Hutu extremists during the Rwanda genocide.
For Africaâ€™s armed groups, seizing the reins of government is just another arrow in the quivers of power over their adversaries, says Wolpe.
But when it comes to conflict resolution, they are not the only parties at fault.
His work at the Woodrow Wilson Centre “comes out of frustrations that I experienced both as a diplomat and as a policy maker . . . in the Congress”, where Wolpe served for seven terms before becoming Bill Clintonâ€™s special representative to the Great Lakes.
Diplomats, he discovered, had the right gravitas and the right connections to bring parties to the negotiations table, but often were unable to get real peace.
Very few envoys ever get any training in how to manage conflict resolution. Through the years they have developed a “checklist approach”, in which they impose organograms of impressive-looking programmes on belligerents.
A ceasefire is followed by peace talks, which lead to a power-sharing deal, and then demobilisation and re-integration of rebel soldiers in the national army. The underlying problems are not being dealt with, this is where the peace often breaks down. Look no further than the DRC, where “re-integration” has led to new abuses of civilians and even more charges of rape by soldiers, all leading to new breakaway militias taking to the bush.
“We have a tendency,” Wolpe told a US radio station, “to put a lot of pressure on the leaders in a conflict to come to the table, to sign agreements, but we do nothing to really work directly with their mindsets.
“There is no reason, therefore, to believe that the day after they have signed an agreement they would see their conflict or each other any differently than the day before they signed that agreement, and so it is not surprising that, within five years, most societies that have signed agreements are back at war.”
Wolpeâ€™s alternative is simple: training, training and training, to change the military mindsets.
This comes down to practically learning a set of very ordinary skills: the nitty-gritty of negotiating, when to shake hands and when to wink, the art of communication, how to assess perceptions of oneself, and how to collaborate on simple tasks.
“We do not think it is very useful to lecture people, to preach to them about human rights or about democracy. The challenge is to get people to begin to comprehend their inter-dependence, to see each other as part of the same political universe so that they will not dehumanise their adversaries.”
This is where the Tutsi general and the Catholic nun come in. Wolpe and his project team designed a series of interactive, simulatory, role-playing games when they began with their peacemaking in Burundi in 2003.
To break the ice, they asked a number of key players in Burundian society, from both the Hutu and Tutsi sides, to arm-wrestle with each other. Each pair of arm-wrestlers would form a team, and score points when eitherâ€™s backhand touched the table. The general and the nun were quick to realise that by letting each other win, they would score the most points.
Since 2003, more than 100 leaders and army commanders from all sides in Burundi have been trained in a range of skills, enabling them to build trust and a sense of commonality.
Wolpe claims his team needed only three days to get groups on fiercely opposing sides to work together.
Another successful game was setting imaginary oil prices for imaginary oil-producing countries. Instead of the contest raising prices, they eventually hit rock bottom because of competitorsâ€™ fears that the other side would undercut them with even cheaper prices.
Wolpe said this taught the valuable lesson that what one side might see as an attack was often a defensive measure.
A little of the outcome was evident during the meeting of Burundiâ€™s main rebel leader, Agathon Rwasa, government army generals and emissaries from the international community in Magaliesburg, North West, recently. It was touching to see the circle of staid diplomats, young and pretty technocrats, intense intelligence types and lounging soldiers taking hands and praying with Rwasa, who afterwards confessed he wasnâ€™t particularly religious.
So what was Wolpeâ€™s prescription for the Zimbabwean crisis? The thick veil of secrecy over the dialogue might hide all sorts of carpet games between the Tendai Bitis and the Patrick Chinamasas â€“â€“ anyone for skittles under the coffee table?
Wolpe did not hesitate with a suggestion, what one might call â€œZim socksâ€, or, more accurately, â€œSimSocsâ€.
Four participants are assigned to four imaginary regions with different sets of resources, manpower, political structures and the like.
SimSocs was devised by William Gamson in 1966, and is used widely in the US to train sociologists.Â Wolpe believes this ability is one of the keys in any conflict resolution â€“â€“ but will this really work in the Zimbabwe case? The key would be for Zanu PF bigwigs, especially, to acknowledge that they are still playing a â€œzero-sumâ€ game after all these years, when it is not necessary.
Tsvangirai is said to have told Mugabe during their brunch that they are all Zimbabweans, and that no foreigners would be at the dialogue table.
Playing a zero-sum game in a country that every now and then has to lose the zeros of its constantly inflating currencies is a contradiction in terms but SimSocs teaches another lesson.
One of the scenarios that is shown up beautifully, says one student who has played in a SimSocs game, is that of a dictatorship. That South Africa is molly-coddling the dictator Mugabe can no longer be in doubt.
Even if Mbeki delivers a deal, it would be several years too late, a Pyrrhic victory in a Potemkin village stretching from the Zambezi to the Limpopo. The odds would be stacked against it achieving Zimbabweâ€™s resurrection.
Another theme in Wolpeâ€™s approach is the â€œhuge gap between the political class and the mass of the populationâ€. Central to bridging the gap is to bring influential civilians â€“â€“ listed as such by all the sides in a conflict â€“â€“ into the process, and give them training too.
This has long been the call from various Zimbabwean civil organisations, the unions and the churches. Mbeki has declined their offer. Perhaps he is the one who should play a game of Zim socks, with lots of holes in them.
*Hans Â Pienaar works for the (SA) Independent’s foreign desk.