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Hopeful stories of communities organizing

Organizing undid the foundations of South African apartheid

Cameron Conner

by Cameron Conner

For decades, apartheid South Africa seemed unshakable. Trevor Noah, former host of the Daily Show and native South African, described it as "perfect racism"—a system of subjugation based on the color of one's skin that had been scientifically honed over centuries to maintain power over the country's rising, restless black majority.

Against all odds in 1990, however, Nelson Mandela, the face of the anti-apartheid liberation movement, was released from prison and four years later was elected South Africa's first black President. In his inaugural address, he proclaimed, "We enter into a covenant that we shall build a society in which all South Africans, both black and white, will be able to walk tall, without any fear in their hearts, assured of their inalienable right to human dignity."

I am in South Africa because this story of democracy is a compelling parable for the potential and promise of community organizing. South Africans transformed their country not through civil war or a military coup, but by organizing in bold, creative ways that developed popular power to improve the conditions of everyday people. They did not topple a government, they revolutionized it.

This story holds lessons for us. In an apartheid state: What do we do when opposed by an overwhelmingly powerful foe? 

How do we tear down a brick wall? Using our fists or shouting at it doesn't work. Either we increase our strength —by finding a hammer or some friends —or we strategically weaken the structural integrity of the wall by chipping out a few bricks at the bottom. Preferably we do both at the same time. This is what they did in South Africa.

After the announcement of a new draconian apartheid law, on Aug. 20, 1983, 12,000 activists from 400 community organizations across the nation crowded into the Rocklands Civic Centre on the outskirts of Cape Town. They included a black civic organization, a rugby union, student organizations, churches, neighborhood associations and other community groups. 

This mass meeting was to form a new "organization of organizations" that would be powerful enough to draw the apartheid government to the negotiating table.

Many had been on the front lines of fighting the apartheid system for years. Most had first-hand experience picking up the pieces and pushing back when the government failed to provide basic services like water, sanitation, electricity or police protection.

Civic Associations, or "civics," were particularly important. Small, local, democratic organizations, civics were most often built by the residents of black townships as a way to make their voice heard. They were built one street at a time by residents who provided services the government should have. Civics often implemented safety procedures, created sanitation systems or held mass rent strikes.

The 12,000 in Cape Town voted to create a new united front of organizations to bring their collective power to bear against the regime. They formed the United Democratic Front (UDF), with the slogan: "UDF Unites, Apartheid Divides." 

Within months, membership swelled to more than 600 organizations and the UDF began to hold large rent boycotts, school walkouts and worker strikes.

In addition, South Africa's unions and churches united local, isolated groups into strong national federations. Together, the UDF, national unions and the new South African Council of Churches (SACC) led by Archbishop Desmond Tutu drew millions of people into organized struggle.

The success of the UDF, unions and SACC was only possible because they linked the fight for national liberation to bread-and-butter issues. They knew there would be no constituency to fight for national liberation without addressing material conditions. Political freedom is abstract. Starvation is not.

Violence by the state and between everyday people was overwhelming, but labor, faith and civic groups built popular power at such an unprecedented scale that it pushed the apartheid state into a stalemate. Even if people then had strength, they were still far from being able to win. They needed to target the foundations.

Two pillars were used to justify apartheid: It 1) ensured social stability and 2) achieved economic growth.

So, the UDF, SACC and unions—often coordinated through the African National Congress (ANC)—sought to undermine these pillars.

In April 1984, Tutu led the charge by calling on the international community to apply punitive sanctions.

To encourage the U.S., EU and UN to impose sanctions, organizers offered concrete, humanitarian asks: release Mandela and other political prisoners, unban popular organizations, and stop the forced relocation of black families to reservation style "homelands."

As pressure from sanctions mounted, the President of South Africa, F.W. de Klerk, gave in. In 1990, he authorized Mandela's release and legalized the ANC. In 1991, he repealed the Forced Removals Program.

Meanwhile, mass action with protests, strikes, walkouts and marches across the country had a similar impact. 

In 1992, the government called a "whites-only" referendum on dismantling apartheid. The results demonstrated how effective the opposition had been in taking out the foundations so the government could no longer deliver economic growth and social stability. Nearly 69 percent of voters voted to abandon the old system.

De Klerk announced: "Today we have closed the book on apartheid." 

This is a complicated story. Millions of people were involved. Organizations waxed and waned. Leaders came and went. Not all were "good guys."

The point is not good versus evil, but how people overcame remarkable odds to create change. Too many political movements think they will win if they are morally right or think someone will listen if enough people shout in unison.

That is not how to tear down walls.

The lesson from the struggle against apartheid is to bring as much cunning and strategy to the table as the rival. Build strong, federated alliances rooted in the issues of everyday people, not high-minded ideals. Understand where the rival's strength comes from. Most important is to build organizations that will last for years to continue the fight. 

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., taught us the same thing:

"Mass nonviolent demonstrations will not be enough," he argued. The civil rights movement must engage in organizing "people into permanent groups to protect their own interests and produce change on their behalf."

To make some progress on the hard road ahead, we need to resurrect a popular organization in the present.

Cameron Conner's columns for The Fig Tree are from blogs he is writing during his Watkins Fellowship in Spain, the UK, South Africa and Mongolia. His blogs are at

Copyright@ The Fig Tree, May 2024