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Achieving Mass Action: some background information
Extracted from Unarmed Insurrections: People Power Movements in Nondemocracies by Kurt Schock
May 28, 2006

Earlier this year, leader of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, Morgan Tsvangirai, said that "a broad-based alliance of democratic forces" was "putting the final touches to a comprehensive programme of rolling mass action designed to push the regime to the long awaited negotiated settlement." To help you determine how realistic Tsvangirai's calls for mass action are, our electronic activism campaign discusses lessons from Unarmed Insurrections: People Power Movements in Nondemocracies by Kurt Schock.

Using the struggle to end Apartheid in South Africa as an example we observe that social and political transformation occurs only after a sustained period of challenge in which multiple forms of resistance are engaged.

Between 1983 and 1990 activists in South Africa used at least twelve different tactics within major campaigns aimed at challenging the entrenched power of the white regime.

Major Nonviolent Action Campaigns and Events in South Africa, 1983 - 1990

Action Date Location Method
Rally to launch the UDF Aug. 1983 Cape Town Protest/Persuasion
Protest demonstrations and rallies in opposition of the Whites-only referendum on political reform Oct. 1983 Nationwide Protest/Persuasion
Million Signatures Campaign Jan 84/July 84 Nationwide Protest/Persuasion
Rallies in support of election boycott Aug. 1984 Nationwide Protest/Persuasion
Boycott of Tricameral Parliament Elections Aug. 1984 Nationwide Noncooperation
Occupation of British consulate Sept. 1984 Durban Disruptive violent intervention
Stayaway Nov. 1984 Soweto Noncooperation
Rally in support of occupiers of British consulate Dec. 1984 Durban Protest/Persuasion
Political funeral July 1985 Cradock Protest/Persuasion
Consumer boycotts From July 85 Nationwide Noncooperation
Implementing structures of people power From Aug. 85 Townships Creative Nonviolent Intervention
Stayaway May 1986 Nationwide Noncooperation
Stayaway June 1986 Nationwide Noncooperation
Rent boycotts June 1986 Townships Noncooperation
Vigils Dec. 1986 Nationwide Protest/Persuasion
Stayaway May 1987 Nationwide Noncooperation
Stayaway June 1988 Nationwide Noncooperation
Occupation of American consulate June 1988 Johannesburg Disruptive Nonviolent Intervention
Boycott of local elections Oct. 1988 Townships Noncooperation
Mass hunger strikes Jan. 1989 Nationwide Disruptive Nonviolent Intervention
Civil disobedience of segregation laws Aug. 1989 Nationwide Noncooperation
Stayaway Sept. 1989 Nationwide Noncooperation
Protest demonstrations Sept. 1989 Nationwide Protest/Persuasion
UDF's "unbanning" of itself Jan. 1990 Nationwide Noncooperation

Two basic conditions must be met for a challenge to contribute to political transformations: (1) the challenge must be able to withstand repression, and (2) the challenge must undermine state power.

Generally, when the interests of political authorities are threatened, repression is used as a means to control or eliminate the challenge. Unlike democracies, where dissent is expected and tolerated, nondemocratic regimes cannot simply ignore protest, as its mere existence represents a threat to the regime. If protest is ignored, the regime will appear helpless in the face of defiance, and resistance will spread. Thus, those engaging in overt challenges to nondemocratic regimes should expect a violent response by the government.

The organizational template most useful for challenging the state through nonviolent action in repressive contexts is network-oriented rather than hierarchical. Compared to hierarchical organized challenges, network-organized challenges are more flexible, are more adept at expanding horizontal channels of communication, are more likely to increase the participation and commitment of members and the accountability of leaders, are more likely to innovate tactically, and are more likely to weather repression.

The more diverse the tactics and methods implemented, the more diffuse the state's repressive operations become, thus potentially lessening their effectiveness. Protest and persuasion help overcome apathy, acquiescence, and fear. Noncooperation undermines the legitimacy, resources and power of the state, and the collective withdrawal of cooperation from the state promotes cooperation and empowerment among the oppressed.

Methods of protest and persuasion are largely symbolic expressions, with communicative content intended to persuade the opponent, or to produce an awareness of the existence of injustices and the extent of dissent. Examples include protest demonstrations, marches, political funerals, rallies, symbolic public acts, and protest meetings. Protest and persuasion are important in that they may help aggrieved populations overcome acquiescence and the fear of repression, and provide them with social visibility while alerting third parties to an unjust situation. However in some contexts, some methods of protest and persuasion have become more or less institutionalised and therefore they may not necessarily provide a direct and immediate challenge to the power of the state.

Methods of noncooperation involve the deliberate withdrawal, restriction, or defiance of expected participation or cooperation. These methods, which may be social, economic, or political, are intended to undermine the power, resources, and legitimacy of the government. Social noncooperation involves refusal to carry out normal social relations through means such as social boycotts, social ostracism, student strikes, stayaways, and offering sanctuary to dissidents.

Economic noncooperation consists of the suspension of existing economic relationships or refusal to initiate new ones through means such as labour strikes or slowdowns; economic boycotts; refusal to pay rent, debts or interest; and the collective withdrawal of bank deposits. Political noncooperation involves refusal to continue usual forms of political participation. A common type of political noncooperation is civil disobedience, that is, the open and deliberate violation of laws or orders for a political purpose such as the publication of banned newspapers or pamphlets and refusal to pay taxes, participate in the military, or obey orders of state agents.

Lessons of struggle
One of the biggest challenges that Zimbabweans face in addressing issues of state injustice is fear.

State violence or the threat of violence makes just about any social movement activity in a nondemocratic context costly and high-risk. It is important that we learn from past liberation struggles. In six cases of unarmed insurrections (South Africa, Burma, China, Nepal, Thailand and the Philippines) people did overcome their fear, break their habitual patterns of obedience, and risk their lives against repressive regimes. To examine what they did or did not do and to attempt to learn from their struggles seems like the most appropriate way to honor their courageousness.

Clear and limited goals
According to Peter Ackerman and Christopher Kruegler, one of the principles of strategic nonviolent conflict is to formulate functional objectives. The goals of movements should be well chosen, clearly defined, and understood by all parties to the conflict. The goals should be compelling and vital to the interests of the challenging group, and they should attract the widest possible support, both within society and externally. As Ackerman and Kruegler state, "The concept of 'freedom' is inspiring to millions. As an ultimate strategic objective, though, it is not highly functional because it lacks specificity. The legalisation of independent trade unions (Poland in 1980), on the other hand, is the very model of a clear and functional objective". Precise goals give direction to the power activated by a movement and inhibit the dispersion of mobilized energies and resources. Moreover, clear goals enable a movement to accurately gauge the extent to which its actions are bringing about the desired change, thus permitting an alteration in its actions if necessary. The more focused the goals of the challenging movement, the greater the likelihood of success.

- A return to multiparty democracy in Nepal and the Philippines
- Abolishing Apartheid in South Africa
- A more liberal constitution and the removal of an unelected general from office in Thailand

Multiple methods of nonviolent action
There are a number of reasons why challengers should attempt to expand their repertoires of nonviolent action. The struggle in China, for example, was almost entirely limited to the occupation of Tiananmen Square, and the outcome of the challenge hinged on whether the occupation and hunger strike persuaded the government to give in to some of the challenger's demands. Struggles for political change should not depend on a single event, however momentous, but rather should focus on the process of shifting the balance of political power through a range of mutually supporting actions over time.

Methods of protest and persuasion or disruptive nonviolent intervention by themselves are rarely sufficient to promote political change. Methods of protest and persuasion may be effective in mobilizing members of the aggrieved population and the support of third parties, but they are less effective in directly undermining state power unless used in tandem with methods of noncooperation. Noncooperation through the use of strikes, stayaways and boycotts in South Africa were crucial in undermining state power.

Multiple spaces and places of resistance
As Peter Ackerman and Christopher Kruegler state, "In almost all cases, wide dispersion of nonviolent actions, both geographically [place] and throughout the social and political environment [space] . . . compromise the opponents' ability to respond and diminish their overall control". The more spaces and places challenged, the greater the likelihood of the struggles remaining resilient and undermining state pressure. Obviously there is a high degree of risk associated with public protests in nondemocracies. On the one hand, protest may be necessary to mobilize a challenge and discredit the regime, yet on the other hand, such behaviour is an easy target for repression and may result in imprisonment or death for the challengers.

Since activists should not expect a government response other than violence, the greater their ability to "stay out of harm's way," the greater their likelihood of sustaining the challenge. In other words, repression is to be expected, but steps may be taken to limit its reach and impact. Considerations of space and place should underlie decisions about whether methods of concentration or dispersion should be implemented. Methods of concentration, in which a large number of people are concentrated in a public space (e.g., protest demonstrations, sit-ins), provide challengers the opportunity to build solidarity, highlight grievances, indicate the extent of dissatisfaction, and, if the state responds with repression, expose the fact that the state is based on violence rather than legitimacy. However, if the political elite is not divided, the military is coherent, and the state prepared to use decisive repression against the movement, methods that minimize the effects of repression must be implemented. Methods of dispersion, in which cooperation is withdrawn, such as strikes and boycotts, do not provide the state with tangible targets for repression and may overextend the state's repressive capacities.

Communication is vital to the success of unarmed struggles; communication among challengers, accurate public knowledge about the movement, and international media coverage all increase the likelihood of success (Martin and Varney 2003). According to Peter Ackerman and Christopher Kruegler, "Swift and accurate communications are also necessary to authenticate instructions, to counter enemy propaganda, and generally to inform and bolster the fighting forces. Communications to the world outside the conflict are no less important, with images carried by print and broadcast media playing a key role in interpreting the conflict for outsiders and in motivating third party involvement". Thus communication is important within the movement for coordinating and aggregating the struggle, and it is important for events, especially acts of state repression, to be accurately reported to a broader audience.

Source: Unarmed Insurrections: People Power Movements in Nondemocracies by Kurt Schock

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