Saturday, January 09, 2010

Image, nonviolence, and lifting blocks to progress

In the 1980s there was a generalized conventional wisdom that the end of apartheid would be a bloody, brutal process of slaughtering minority whites by the black majority, who had been brutalized and who were the victims of massively systemic human rights violations. Nightmarish visions of machete or machine-gun wielding blacks, like the Mau-Maus (actually Kikuyu) of a generation earlier, in Kenya, featuring violence against the white occupiers (1952-1960), were the common fear.

Indeed, the change of the African National Congress immediately following that (1961) from nonviolent tactics to the formation of the Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation), the military wing of the ANC, helped solidify those fears and assumptions, which carried for more than 20 years.

But a military uprising would have been enormously costly and the first cost of even some non-lethal acts of sabotage was swift—as soon as the ANC dropped its nonviolence 10 of its leaders were under arrest and convicted in the Rivonia trial of 1961 and the leadership was sent to prison. Mandela was one of them and the image of a violent insurgency served to make that movement more commonplace, not remarkable like the American Civil Rights movement featuring brave and innocent nonviolent resisters, but just another communist-linked decolonization insurgency. It deprived black South Africans of the worldwide status of clearly innocent victim and instead introduced the fear of the bloodbath.

Walter Sisulu, Nelson Mandela and others languished in prison--many forget that they were essentially ignored for 20 years by the world. Violence can serve to justify such long incarceration, even when the violence was begun by the rulers, even when the insurgent violence is directed not at people but at infrastructure (as the Umkhonto we Sizwe sabotage was).

Then came a new generation of young black leaders in the townships who organized mass strategic campaigns, including brilliantly crafted boycotts both nationally and internationally, and apartheid fell. To add to the nonviolent toolkit, Archbishop Desmond Tutu launched a national Truth and Reconciliation Commission from 1996-1998 and the image of nonviolence in South Africa took on an additional layer of evolved practice right where it all began on September 11, 1906, in South Africa, when Gandhi announced his first campaign of mass nonviolent resistance, in this case to the Asiatic Registration Laws.

Like the improvements to nonviolent strategies that the American Civil Rights movement (1955-1965) achieved (such as immediately capitalizing on oppressor violence, as the students did in Nashville in 1960 when whites bombed their lawyer’s home), the South African TRC added a special tool to the box.

Whites were only going to cede power in South Africa if threats were diminished. The first threat was the bloodbath and the new generation opened a window that made the change possible without a slaughter. The second threat was arrest of most white leadership for provable crimes against humanity, and the white leadership demanded amnesty before stepping aside, and so it was written directly into the new Constitution (Vora & Vora 2004, 301).

We see in the South African case that image can retard or accelerate forward motion toward success. ReĆ«valuation and rehabilitation of image is a part of the ongoing work of any struggle. It’s not a question of justice—for those who subscribe to the Just War doctrine, violent revolution in South Africa was absolutely justified—but rather of efficacy. Convincing a dangerous oppressor that you aren’t going to stoop to his tactics once you win will get that victory far faster. Launching that positive feedback loop is made possible by image work.


Vora, Jay A.; Vora, Erika 2004. The effectiveness of South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Journal of Black Studies. 34: 301-322.

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