Peter Ackerman, a strong advocate of non-violent struggle, in his book, A Force More Powerful, highlights the power of non-violent, community based struggles. He shows how popular movements have been successful in overthrowing dictators, obstructing military invaders and securing human rights in country after country in the last century.
A lot of people do not understand or deliberately distort the crucial role played by ordinary people in liberating South Africa. If truth be told, many people who rose to be leaders and icons were drawn from the ranks of ordinary and simple people.
This is true whether you talk about Lech Walesa, of Poland, in 1981, when his trade union movement for 16 months shook the foundations of communist power and brought that regime crashing to its knees.
“He had never fired a shot, nor had anyone in Solidarity (the union). But together they threw back the shroud of authoritarian power and freedom to every Pole,” the book says.
It was peaceful, non-violent action that brought the military global power of the Soviet Union crashing down in 1991, when the 86-year-old Boris Yeltsin stood on a tank in Moscow shouting scorn to coup plotters in Moscow.
The Soviet Union power bloc crumbled at the hands of peaceful action.
In the case of South Africa the civil movement, led by religious, community, trade union and political leaders, broke the apartheid government’s power.
With the assistance of international sanctions and other forms of struggles, Nelson Mandela was freed, a condition that ushered in the current democratic dispensation in our country.
In the 1980s, it was the actions of ordinary people that turned the tide against the powerful apartheid state.
Before that, all individual actions taken by dedicated and brave political cadres did not shake the power of that regime.
The political tide and the attention of the whole world started to focus on South Africa after numbers of ordinary people decided that “enough is enough”.
Those of us who saw the power of the people are not shocked to see that people’s power is back with a bang.
From #FeesMustFall, #ZumaMustFall and #SaveSouthAfrica to other community-driven initiatives, people are calling for a change in political direction.
The government is emboldened by the failures of various groups that have been tackling it. It’s like the apartheid regime, which was just celebrating the misfortune of the “failures” of those who were talking to it and not correcting the issues they were pointing at.
With every failure in the struggle, the people were, in fact, making progress. The progress was invisible to those who thought they could take the people for granted forever.
Small organisations were mushrooming from a determined band of activists.
Apartheid leaders were merely laughing them off, or deciding either to detain, banish, imprison or kill those people the state believed were irritating voices.
Then, like now, small organisations were working to rouse the people. Patriotic leaders embarked on spontaneous eruptions that were quickly quelled and disappeared with no standing structure to continue and sustain the cause.
Throughout all that period, the government was dealing with the symptoms of the grievances, not resolving the underlying causes of the restlessness of the population.
Similarly, this government of the ANC adopts the same stance as that of the apartheid regime, of hoping that the underlying causes for the unhappiness of the people will ultimately evaporate into thin air.
The current uprising of civic society against state-led corruption and state capture has once more showed the raised ire of ordinary people.
The government is ignoring the masses.
For how long will they ignore the will of the people?
Ackerman highlights his point by making this observation:
The potential victory without violence is found in all these conflicts, and the interplay among each story’s vivid characters determined whether it was realised.
From a German steel baron to a Chilean photographer, from Leo Tolstoy to Desmond Tutu, and from a Danish king to a Tennessee mayor, they and dozens more with whom these stories are studded all played a part.
It is, after all, the words and works of individuals that we recount – the passion of those who sparked or led the campaigns; and the native genius, foolish blunders and stunning sacrifice seen throughout the century’s cavalcade of “people’s power”.