South African non-violent protests against Apartheid


The impact of peaceful demonstrations against repressive authorities has proved that the democratic tool is significant tool that can be used to change the society in favor of majority rule. The mainstream South Africans employed this tool after being forced to bear the brunt of four-decade repression under the apartheid government. Strategic acts of peaceful civil disobedience saved several lives in mid 1980s, but drove home the message of popular disapproval of the political establishment. Peaceful strikes such as refusal to purchase goods from white men shops; failure to remit monthly rental fee, and job boycotts forced the repressive regime into submission, after its revenue dwindled. The paper explores various peaceful activities that forced the white ruling elite of South Africa to embrace negotiations that would open more room for African-led democracy. Additionally, Thoreau argument that democracy is not analogous to justice is also analyzed in regard to the fight against Apartheid in South Africa.

South Africa Overview

Painter and Blanche (521-525) indicate that widespread unrest rocked major South African towns in 1980s, protests which the locals churned against the colonialists.

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In spite of the largely peaceful demonstrations, which the locals believed would limit casualties and bring the change they yearned for; security forces were deployed by the government to contain the protests. The government applied a confrontational containment strategy that led to altercations between the law enforcers and the protesters. Isolated cases of violence were reported as youths and the police came face to face during protest and containment of the situation. Hapless activists of African descent were routinely manhandled and incarcerated by the government agents. Protesters, who were aware of the ruthless government machinery against them, began to convince the ordinary man to refrain from violent confrontations with security forces and adopt peaceful modes of expressing their dissatisfaction with the political elite. According to Davis (369-372), the protesters learnt of the insignificance of their disparate actions and thought of adopting a united front that would coordinate their efforts to ease their cause.

People’s committees were established at the grassroots level. New leaders also were enlisted from the neighborhoods to help champion the freedom agenda at their localities, which involved taking care of the interests of the people and promotion of peace in the society. On the national arena, the United Democratic Front (UDF) was gaining popularity. Painter and Blanche (520-539) believed the outfit promoted a string of benign boycotts, such as refusals to pay rent, failure to report on duty, learning centers. These efforts were intended to force the minority government into submission, which was in line with Thoreau’s argument.

Thoreau Argument as applied in South Africa case

Thoreau (6-11), suggests that because any polity typically harbors more harm than good, actions of such organizations is generally acceptable by the society. Thoreau (6-7) suggests that this is what led the mainstream South Africans to rise against the minority government during apartheid rule in the country. The philosopher, however, refuses democratic leadership, arguing that the system is not sober enough to guarantee the whole society fairness and wise judgment. Further, he indicates that an individual’s opinion based on his or her conscience may be superior to the general resolutions reached by a political organization in form of policies or the general mass in the streets. In view of this, Thoreau (8-9) indicates that a culture of total respect for the rule of law is undesirable. According to the philosopher, the suitable thing that an individual should engage in is to act decisively at the right time: that total respect for the rule of law, in one way or another may turn the true advocates of law into victims of the same law. For instance, by “Placing the sabotage campaign in historical context … it resembled ‘the earlier tradition of armed resistance to the entrenchment of the foreigner,” (Davis 359), he implies that black agents of justice in South Africa such as Nelson Mandela, clamored for fair application of the law by the government. However, such activism led them into snares, resulting to their apprehending during mass protests.

Eventually, they were charged under the same law they were pushing its implementation. This turn of events, according to Thoreau (7-8), is akin to deep corruption, which he suggests exists in any government. Thoreau indicates that the high level of dishonesty in government circles hampers wisdom and rational argument of cases that involve the governed. Due to this insensitivity of the ruling class, disenfranchised persons tend to rebel and forcibly attempt to change the administration.

Revolutions are however, undesirable, according to him, because they are linked to profound damages and suffering of the people (Lusted 40). By suggesting that “We have to agree on a certain set of rules, called etiquette and politeness, to make this frequent meeting tolerable, and that we need not come to open war,” (Thoreau (10), he implies that South Lusted (41) believes that Africans might have weighed the damages that may have impacted from revolutionary actions, against the gains of the same. Eventually, they shunned revolution because the suffering would be unbearable. Thoreau indicates that revolution should not be contemplated when the ruling elite and its agents are actively hell bent on implementing injustices such as brute force against unarmed protesters. Such public ‘immorality’ calls for the implementation of any necessary means by the government, to quell the unrest, the repercussions on the common man notwithstanding.

Significance of peaceful protests in South Africa

According to Sweet (404) suggest that “Thoreau thus functions as a marker both for key episodes in environmental history,” which implies that nonviolent mode of expression was better, as it reduced government brutality and damage to economic and social infrastructure. Economic strikes against the apartheid government forced the whites to incur losses on their goods.

Beneath their clamor for conscience, the aboriginals’ underlying point was that the corporate world is directly connected to social stability; hence could not function against a background of social instability and injustice. Though, excessive use of force was used by the government, the country went beyond the control of the apartheid government, eventually earning blacks their freedom.


Generally, peaceful protests led to the defeat of the apartheid government of South Africa. Although, the people were frightened by brute force, which was the government’s response to the situation, boycotts minimized casualties and sent a clear message of the urgent need for independence of the blacks. White business owners, who were feeling the pinch of economic boycotts, demanded the termination of the impasse. In 1989, peaceful mass protests and strong advocacy groups negotiated the release of Nelson Mandela.

Political outfits in the country were also declared legitimate. In 1994, South Africa popularly elected her first black president, Nelson Mandela, even though Thoreau argued that democracy is not justice for the minority.

Works Cited

Davis, R. Stephen.

The African National Congress, its Radio, its Allies and Exile. Journal of Southern African Studies, 35.2 (2009): 349-373.

Lusted, Marcia Amidon. Peaceful Protest. Cobblestone, 29.4 (2008): 40-41.

Painter, Desmond, and Blanche, Martin Terre. Critical psychology in South Africa: Looking back and looking ahead. South African Journal of Psychology, 34.4 (2004): 520-543. Sweet, Timothy.

Projecting Early American Environmental Writing. Early American Literature, 45.2 (2010): 403-416. Thoreau, Henry David. Henry David Thoreau’s Walden Life in the Woods.

Read, 54.16 (2005): 6-11.


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