South Africa


Suffering under the system of apartheid for almost 40 years, black South Africans -who have erupted in protest several times over the years - take to the streets of townships across South Africa in 1984. But the revolt is chaotic, unorganized and violent, and many blacks die as the regime responds with violence.

In Port Elizabeth a charismatic and shrewd young activist, Mkhuseli Jack, skillfully redirects the people's energy into strategic nonviolent action. Mounting an economic boycott of downtown businesses, all of which are owned by whites, blacks gain more attention for their demands than ever before.

Coupled with rent boycotts, labor strikes and international sanctions, the new wave of non-violent direct action separates the government from its means of support. It also helps push a new prime minister into negotiations for national elections in which blacks participate for the first time in South Africa's history and elect Nelson Mandela as president.

South Africa Overview

In 1985, a wave of unrest against apartheid begins to sweep across the black townships in South Africa. Security forces try to control the unrest via a provocative containment policy that incites dangerous confrontations. Impatient youths and others initiate sporadic violence. Black leaders are routinely harassed and imprisoned.

In the city of Port Elizabeth, Mkhuseli Jack, a charismatic 27-year-old youth leader, understands that violence is no match for the state's awesome arsenal. Jack stresses the primacy of cohesion and coordination, forming street committees and recruiting neighborhood leaders to represent their interests and settle disputes. Nationally, a fledgling umbrella party, the United Democratic Front (UDF), asserts itself through a series of low-key acts of defiance, such as rent boycotts, labor strikes, and school stayaways.

Advocating nonviolent action appeals to black parents who are tired of chaos in their neighborhoods. The blacks of Port Elizabeth agree to launch an economic boycott of the city's white-owned businesses. Extending the struggle to the white community is a calculated maneuver designed to sensitize white citizens to the blacks' suffering. Beneath their appeal to conscience, the blacks' underlying message is that businesses cannot operate against a backdrop of societal chaos and instability.

Confronted by this and other resistance in the country, the government declares a state of emergency, the intent of which is to splinter black leadership through arbitrary arrests and curfews. Jack and his compatriots, however, receive an entirely different message: the country is fast becoming ungovernable. Apartheid has been cracked.

Undaunted by government reprisals, the UDF continues to press its demands, particularly for the removal of security forces and the release of jailed African National Congress leader Nelson Mandela. White retailers, whose business districts have become moribund, demand an end to the stalemate. The movement also succeeds in turning world opinion against apartheid, and more sanctions are imposed on South Africa as foreign corporations begin to pull out many investments. In June 1986, the South African government declares a second state of emergency to repress the mass action that has paralyzed the regime.

By 1989, the stand-off between the black majority and the government impels the new prime minister, F.W. de Klerk, to lift the ban on illegal political organizations and free Mandela. In 1994, South Africa's first truly democratic national election elects Mandela to the nation's presidency.

South Africa Timeline

June 1976
The township of Soweto riots; mass opposition to apartheid begins.

August 20, 1983
The United Democratic Front – a coalition of trade unions, women's groups, and youth organizations – is established.

September 1984
Riots in Vaal Triangle; beginning of township rebellion.

July 21, 1985
The first state of emergency is imposed.

June 12, 1986
The second state of emergency is imposed; thousands are arrested.

October 1989
The government begins releasing imprisoned leaders of the African National Congress (ANC).

February 11, 1990
After 27 years in prison, black leader Nelson Mandela is released.

August 26-29, 1994
South Africans vote in fair and free elections; the ANC government is voted into power.

South Africa People

MKHUSELI JACK was raised on the farmlands of South Africa’s Eastern Cape and knew nothing of anti-apartheid politics, the imprisonment of Nelson Mandela, or the efforts for freedom launched by the African National Congress when he moved to the industrial city of Port Elizabeth in search of a high school education. He was radicalized by the apartheid laws that kept him from enrolling in a city school. With the support of local organizations, he gained admission and developed as a natural leader of his peers. He founded and headed the Port Elizabeth Youth Congress and became deeply involved in the emerging civic movement that led to his subsequent formation of the United Democratic Front. He became a key leader of strikes, boycotts, and other grassroots efforts, which, during the 1980s, reverberated throughout the country and were instrumental in creating the national and international climate that defeated apartheid. Jack’s willingness to subject himself to repeated imprisonment and the rigors of extended hunger strikes earned him the loyalty of South African blacks and the respect of the white community, which eventually included him in key negotiations. In the early 1990s, Jack earned an honors degree in economics and development studies at Sussex University in Britain and is now a successful businessman in Port Elizabeth.

JANET CHERRY was born and raised in Cape Town, South Africa and became politically active while studying at the University of Cape Town in 1980. She was involved in the Wages Commission, doing support work for independent black trade unions, and in worker education and adult literacy programs in Crossroads and Nyanga townships. While in college, she ran the student printing press as a member of the Student Representative Council. In 1982, she was recruited into the African National Congress (ANC) underground. A year later, Cherry was elected General Secretary of the National Union of South African Students. At that time, she was involved in discussions around the formation of the United Democratic Front (UDF).

In 1984, Janet Cherry relocated to Port Elizabeth, where she established the Eastern Cape Adult Learning Project and served as the chairperson of the area UDF committee. The South African government declared a State of Emergency in 1985, which included a ban on all UDF meetings. Cherry’s adult literacy program was also no longer permitted to operate, so she turned her focus on creating a crisis information center which could support people who disappeared or been detained during the uprising. Cherry herself was detained in 1985, in 1986 1987, and again in 1988 before being put under house arrest in 1989.

In recognition of her work as a young activist, Janet Cherry was one of the first recipients of the Reebok Human Rights Awards in 1988. In the early 1990s Janet Cherry worked for human rights and democracy organizations before moving to Grahamstown to lecture in Political Studies at Rhodes University. In 1996 and 1997 she worked as a researcher for the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Since 1998 Cherry has been lecturing on Development Studies at the University of Port Elizabeth. Cherry continues to be involved in human rights work, and holds a PhD in Politics from Rhodes University.

South Africa Analysis

The political rapprochement that brought genuine democracy to South Africa was not the fruit of a unilateral victory by the black opposition. It sprang from the understanding by both opposition and government leaders that victory through belligerent force was not possible. The opposition came to realize it could not smash the regime, certainly not with any violence at its disposal, and the regime knew it could not annihilate the opposition, not after years of contending with protestors, civic organizers, and committees on every other street corner of the townships.

Nonviolent sanctions were an indispensable link in the chain of events that ended the old order. Stay-aways, strikes and boycotts put pressure on white business owners and employers, and they undermined white attachment to the status quo. Rent boycotts defunded local councils, and street committees usurped their functions. Faced with this variegated challenge, the regime reacted with open force. Repression subdued the civics and committees, but it also cost the regime any chance of avoiding economic punishment by the international community. Nonviolent power did not by itself bring down the curtain on white rule, but it discredited the regime's authority and compromised its strategy for shielding apartheid from the many forces arrayed against it.

In his trial in April 1964, before he was imprisoned by the apartheid regime, Nelson Mandela argued that fifty years of nonviolent action by black South Africans until that time had not secured their rights but had only, it seemed, worsened the repression. He said that his followers were losing confidence in the policy of nonviolence and turning, disturbingly, to terrorism. Since the government was not flinching from brutality, he concluded that "as violence in this country was inevitable, it would be unrealistic and wrong for African leaders to continue preaching peace and nonviolence at a time when the Government met our peaceful demands with force." [1]

Mandela was right: Preaching peace is never a strategy for winning a conflict. But if Mandela believed that nonviolent action is the opposite of force, he was not right – it is in fact another form of force. Principled preference for nonviolent methods does not, by itself, give them force, and taking nonviolent action in order to avoid using violence does not make it successful. What does work, and what worked in South Africa twenty years after Nelson Mandela delivered his valedictory on the first half century of the struggle, is mobilizing a movement that makes it impossible for arbitrary rulers to control life in the communities where people live and alienating those rulers from the support they need at home and abroad. "Despite all of the rhetoric of the ANC about the armed struggle," explained Janet Cherry, herself an underground member of the ANC, "it was, in fact, the activities of the UDF, in mass organization, which brought about the change in South Africa." [2]

The nonviolent legacy of the twentieth century is embedded in the histories of many nations, but many of the ideas and strategies that were its substance first germinated in South Africa, in the thoughts and actions of an Indian lawyer who felt the strop of bigotry laid on his own back, as the century was dawning. So it is altogether fitting that before the century ended, the conflict that Gandhi began to fight in South Africa before he rallied to his own country's cause was finally won for all people of color in that land - and was won in part through strikes, boycotts, and other methods of resistance that he had pioneered.

"I suppose that human beings looking at it would say that arms are the most dangerous things that a dictator, a tyrant needs to fear," concluded Desmond Tutu. "But in fact, no - it is when people decide they want to be free. Once they have made up their minds to that, there is nothing that will stop them."[3]

1 From Protest to Challenge: A Documentary History of African Politics in South Africa, 1882-1964, vol. 3, ed. Thomas Karis and Gwendolyn M. Carter (Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution Press, 1977), pp. pp. 776-777.

2 Cherry, York interview.

3 Desmond Tutu, videotaped interview by Steve York for the documentary television series A Force More Powerful, Atlanta, Georgia, August 27, 1999.

from "A Force More Powerful," by Peter Ackerman and Jack DuVall, published by St. Martin's Press, 2000.

South Africa Resources

Lodge, Tom, et al. All, Here, and Now: Black Politics in South Africa in the 1980s. New York: Ford Foundation, 1991.

Mandela, Nelson. Long Walk to Freedom. London: Abacus, 1994.

Marx, Anthony. Lessons of Struggle: South African Internal Opposition, 1960-1990. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Mayekiso, Mzwanele. Township Politics: Civic Struggles in the New South Africa. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1996.

Mufson, Steven. Fighting Years: Black Resistance and the Struggle for a New South Africa. Boston: Beacon Press, 1990.

Thompson, Leonard. A History of South Africa. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995.

Tutu, Desmond. The Rainbow People of God. New York: Doubleday, 1994.

Web Sites

African National Congress: archive of historical documents

International electronic discussion group dedicated to the promotion of all aspects of South and Southern Africa history and culture, and Southern African studies in general.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission