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Mass action

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Last 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.

To check out the major nonviolent action campaigns and events in South Africa, between 1983 – 1990 please click here.

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.

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