Nonviolent Direct Action in South Africa

by Susan Collin Marks
Only a dozen years ago, South Africa seemed headed for a blood bath. No “reasonable” person saw any prospects for a negotiated settlement. The ANC and other forces in the African community were escalating the internal struggle against apartheid, the international community was applying economic sanctions with increasing vigor, and South Africa had become a pariah nation. Cornered, the white security apparatus was hitting out savagely, imprisoning children and killing activists.

Few people who look back at those dark days recall that militant nonviolence was the key tool in the struggle against apartheid and, in the end, precipitated a negotiated revolution instead of the widely anticipated carnage. The scope and creativity of methods employed by anti-apartheid activists in the 1980s amounted to what the theologian Walter Wink describes as “probably the largest grassroots eruption of diverse nonviolent strategies in a single struggle in human history.”

Hunger strikes ended the mass use of the detention without trial, and protests against beach apartheid showed up the injustice of segregation and the unacceptability of police action. Gandhi’s legacy loomed large as economic boycotts of white businesses, court actions that challenged apartheid laws, rent boycotts, demonstrations, and marches proliferated.

From the government perspective, as the 1980s advanced, the options were increasingly bleak: maintain the system with escalating brutality or be overrun by the swart gevaar, the black danger. The dilemma was at its starkest in the psyches of the Afrikaners. They had built the apartheid system on humiliating memories of their 1902 defeat by the British in the Anglo-Boer War, and their subsequent poverty, deprivation, and lack of recognition as second-class citizens under British rule. The purpose of apartheid was to achieve socio-political and economic dominance for the Afrikaners as a group, whatever the cost to British South Africans – or blacks, who they considered inferior to whites.

When their Nationalist Party was elected to power in 1948, the Afrikaners lost no time in implementing grand apartheid with its brutal, inhumane, and crushing agenda. In 1961, they finally turned their backs on the British and declared South Africa an independent republic. The dream of Afrikanerdom as a white, independent nation had been secured.

It lasted less than 30 years. Built on oppression and maintained by force, apartheid was unsustainable. As the 1980s wore on, the collision course between the nonviolent actions of the anti-apartheid movement and the violent reactions of the government reached cataclysmic proportions.

And then, something extraordinary happened. In February 1990, President F.W. de Klerk astounded the world by unbanning the ANC, releasing Nelson Mandela, and opening the way for negotiations about the future of South Africa. Roelf Meyer, then minister of the constitution and chief negotiator for the apartheid government, says that it was a pragmatic decision, and that “de Klerk's pragmatism also enabled him to see that international sanctions were beginning to exact a heavy toll and that black protests would not go away, rather they would grow stronger and more strident.”

Many years earlier, in his Letter from Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King had explained this dynamic exactly: “Why direct action? Why sit-ins, marches, and so forth? Isn’t negotiation a better path? … Indeed this is the very purpose of direct action (which) seeks to create a crisis and foster such tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront this issue.” De Klerk’s decision generated four years of negotiations, during which his government grew to understand that majority rule was inevitable and, in Meyer’s words, made a shift to a paradigm of “trust instead of paranoia, of ownership and risk, of a different kind of leadership.” (See Roelf Meyer, Leadership in South Africa: From Dogma to Transformation, an Account of Paradigm Shift, UN University, Amman, 2001.)

So why did the opponents of apartheid choose a nonviolent approach? Certainly, the ANC was born as a mass movement through nonviolent action - yet Mandela served 27 years in prison for espousing armed struggle. These two strands lived in a tension that was somewhat relieved by the practicality that as there was no possibility of winning the war against apartheid by force, violence was not a viable option anyway.

But nonviolence was also a moral choice, with deep roots in Ubuntu, the African humanism that Desmond Tutu says is about “the essence of being human … We believe a person is a person through another person, that my humanity is caught up inextricably in yours. When I dehumanize you, I inexorably dehumanize myself.” Ubuntu acknowledges the dignity of every human being, and the primacy of respectful relationship. Within this framework, black South Africans were committed to ending the injustices and indignities of apartheid, and their “weapon” of choice was nonviolence.

This spiritual dimension is perhaps the X factor in the South African equation. “Any social scientist would expect 98% of blacks to hate whites and wish retribution, and yet the reality is the reverse,” said University of Cape Town political scientist Robert Schrire after the peaceful 1994 election. “And since we cannot explain it rationally, we will have to regard it as one of the great miracles of the South African dilemma.”

People often refer to “the miracle” of South Africa. If courageous leadership, committed citizens, a willingness to embrace forgiveness and reconciliation, to find solutions even when it seems impossible, and to take a leap of faith into the unknown make a miracle, then, surely, that’s what it was.

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Susan Collin Marks is the Executive Vice President of Search for Common Ground, an international conflict resolution and management organization based in Washington, DC. She is a South African who participated in the South African peace process and the author of Watching the Wind (United States Institute of Peace Press, 2000), which chronicles the grassroots conflict resolution movement in South Africa that helped foster a peaceful transition from apartheid to democracy.

Written exclusively for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).

Distributed by Common Ground News Service (CGNews).

Copyright permission has been obtained for publication.

The Common Ground News Service (CGNews) provides news, op-eds, cartoons, features, and analysis by local and international experts on a broad range of Middle East issues. CGNews syndicates articles that are accurate, balanced, and solution-oriented to news outlets throughout the Middle East and worldwide. With support of the European Community, the Dutch Foreign Ministry, and UNESCO, the service is a non-profit initiative of Search for Common Ground and the European Centre for Common Ground, international NGOs working as partners in the fields of conflict resolution and media production.

The views expressed in these articles are those of the authors, not of CGNews or its affiliates.
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Nonviolence in the Middle East
The Other Armed Struggle
Nonviolence and “Civilian Jihad”
A Plea for Realism
Nonviolence: Direct Action for Peace
Palestinian Women and Nonviolence
Nonviolence: A Powerful Alternative
Weapons and the Two Palestinian Intifadas
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Other articles in this series

Nonviolence in the Middle East by Arun Gandhi
The Other Armed Struggle by Chris Miller
Nonviolence and “Civilian Jihad” by Khalid Kishtainy
A Plea for Realism by Bassem Eid
Nonviolence: Direct Action for Peace by Gila Svirsky
Palestinian Women and Nonviolence by Lucy Nusseibehv
Nonviolence: A Powerful Alternative by Jonathan Kuttab
Weapons and the Two Palestinian Intifadas by Tawfiq Abu Baker