6 min read
29 Jun

In violence, we forget who we are.

Mary McCarthy 

Fear leads, then, to aggressive “othering” strategies rather than to useful analysis. 

Martha Nussbaum 

The challenge of our time is to mobilize great masses of people to make change without dehumanizing one another. Not just because it is morally right but because it works. Lasting change, the kind that seeps into people’s hearts, has only ever come about through a combination of pressure and good conflict. Both matter. That’s why, over the course of history, nonviolent movements have been more than twice as likely to succeed as violent ones.

Amanda Ripley  

The nonviolent person does not seek an impossible compromise with the times, nor a prior, intemperate synthesis for the times. The nonviolent person sees life in terms of a choice toward change, involving a re-ordering of life.

Daniel Berrigan


South Africa’s protracted inability to effectively deal with the causes and triggers of its many internal conflicts is continuing to push it ever closer to a political, social and economic precipice, a dark place of despair and frustration, a place where populist and fascist ideas harmful to the long term benefit of the country can easily be made to sound attractive, reasonable, necessary. 

In this wasteland of ever diminishing options, the option of violence appears to have many benefits. Violence, in its many shapes and guises, as a political solution can, as we read in our media with increasing frequency, be offered as nationalism, as our duty to our country and our families, as a necessary measure to correct historical and current injustices, as a required and limited solution indispensable to our political survival. As we see in examples such as the SA July riots of last year, the sporadic violent events involving migrants and many instances of the crimes that are committed by and against South Africans, violence remains an acceptable and increasingly viable option in dealing with these conflicts for a meaningful number of South Africans. 

Violence is persuasive on many levels. It often speaks to our sense of justice, it deals with frustration and gives us something to do that feels like actively striking back at the system, it promises limited duration and advantages that outweigh the moral objections to violence that may be raised at the superficial level. In our patriarchal society violence is often glorified as the duty of a man, as standing up for yourself. Our history is drenched with the blood of the victims of violence, and this often sets up a cyclical and generational history of conflict that can always be taken one step back starting with some creative whataboutist excuse. In the minds of a brutalized nation violence seems a natural progression, an inevitable necessity following on the eloquent efforts at othering so popular amongst some of our politicians and dissent influencers. 

Of course, the high stakes involved here means that no amount of sermonizing or empty rhetoric will convince those seeking for urgent solutions. If there is an alternative to violence as a political outcome in South Africa, it will need to be real, it will need to deliver urgent and measurable tools in the fight for improvement, for equality and dignity that outweighs the perceived benefits of violence. In my view, the best candidate for this crucial job is non-violence. 


Non-violence is not the simple negation of the concept of violence. It is a rich philosophy full of history, techniques, colourful figures and actual positive results. It has a track record of success adapted to local difficulties and expectations, and best of all for our purposes, it already has deep South African roots. 

While there are many valid ways of understanding the term, one of the best working definitions of nonviolence is simply this one from Rose Marie Berger 

“Nonviolence is a way of life, a spirituality, and a method for preventing or stopping violence without using violence, while also fostering just and peaceful alternatives. It is broader than pacifism or only the refusal to do harm.” 

A method – that leads to just and peaceful alternatives. Mathatma Gandhi’s “obstructive nonviolent practices” directly led to the freedom of his people, international figures like Dorothy Day, Daniel Berrigan, John Dear, Oscar Romero, the current Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh all used nonviolence to great effect in their various causes. To this day the concept is being developed, and it is used to great effect globally. As we shall see, non-violence is not pacifism, it is not a soft option at all. It requires bravery, skill and creativity. It is a more active strategy than passive resistance or civil disobedience, although these strategies may form part of a larger nonviolent strategy.   


Gandhi developed most of his nonviolent principles right here in South Africa in 1913. Our history of nonviolence, especially in the forty or fifty years prior to democracy certainly shows an understanding and appreciation of the concept, and violent campaigns or events were always seen as necessary deviations from a general approach of nonviolence. During these decades the concept of nonviolence itself underwent internal changes and improvements as a result of global frontline application and experimentation. This makes any discussion about nonviolence in the South African pre-1994 history a complex discussion which would extend beyond the scope of this article. That we however have a rich and nuanced experience of the concept, adapted throughout the years of the fight against apartheid is clear. 


Nonviolence as a system of political activism, as a tool of political, social and economic improvement is an active response to conflict and its result, in our case the conflicts of our racially divided past, structural and systemic dysfunction, corruption and factionalism leading to inequality, poverty, unemployment of obscene levels. Nonviolence campaigns can be as local as a street or as national as a countrywide campaign. It can be focused on one specific topic, such as service delivery, or as general as the eradication of inequality. It can involve one single small group or consist of a network of like-minded but not similar individuals and groups. 

How then does nonviolence look in practice, specifically for our purposes, as a viable and superior alternative to the lure of violence as a political solution? We need to remind ourselves that nonviolence is primarily a tool, not an ideology in itself. It is a means to an end, and the specifics of a nonviolent campaign will be in the hands of the activists and groups that form part of that movement. Nonviolence can inform and guide a single project, or it can be used to guide a transformational movement, it can be used against government policies, poor service delivery at any level, it can be used against corporate abuse or exploitation, and it has all the flexibility and dynamic energy that a modern conflict tool demands. Nonviolent action scholar Gene Sharp, for instance, has identified 198 such nonviolent techniques, including consumer boycotts, peaceful marches and sit-ins, stay-aways, street theatre, the creation of parallel structures, and strike action.  

A few successfully applied nonviolence techniques would include the following examples: 

  1. Nonviolence as a guiding system is primarily a reaction against the abuse of power in its many forms, it is an active revolt against systemic inequality and unfair treatment. It is not pacifism, and it requires immediate, sustained action. This energy needs direction, and modern nonviolence is driven by effective networking and skilled leadership. In this regard it uses the energies and even frustrations that may lead to political and community violence, simply channelling it into the more productive goals of a nonviolent campaign. If a community is, for example, unhappy with its school infrastructure, don’t burn down the school, picket the school and the education department, use sit-in nonviolent protests to disrupt the efforts of the decision makers, gain attention the right way, get into good trouble, as John Lewis used to call it.
  2. Build collective power. Not everyone wishes to, or are able, to join a street march protesting a cause, but they may be able to donate some money, or a relevant skill. Use that focus and collective power to build a constructive story around that community, one of real hope, of positive results, one where everyone matters, a collective where violence is simply not necessary, without the need for sermonizing. Violence, as conflict case studies and research show, is often a result of helplessness, of despondency. Nonviolence, properly applied, brings real alternatives to communities, and it adds the gifts of dignity to the process. People can still be offended by injustice and inequality, they can and should still rise up to improve their position, but with nonviolence they do so in an effective, legally and morally justifiable manner.
  3.    Nonviolence is an effective countermeasure, even against institutional violence. Past and recent history gives us many examples of people who have used nonviolent campaigns with great effect against violence, from Bishop Tutu to Martin Luther King.
  4. Modern social media delivers unprecedented power of information, reach and mobilization. These new abilities expand the power and potential of nonviolent efforts at effective campaigning.

NONVIOLENCE vs VIOLENCE – an empirical comparison 

As we realized earlier, for nonviolence to be the political solution of choice, it needs to be a clear and unambiguous winning option. Moralizing and a strategy of arguing in good vs bad people clichés will simply lead to further polarization, as we can see in the current South African migration debate. So how does nonviolence as a solution compare to the more violent options in the real world? 

Recent years have shown great objective results and potential. A number of social and political scientists have recognized how nonviolence as a strategy has been able to bring meaningful change, often bringing down some established dictatorships. Research conducted by Maria J. Stephan and Erica Chenoweth (see their 2011 book “Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict”) clearly shows that nonviolence can be twice as successful as violence or armed resistance. They studied 323 violent and nonviolent campaigns during the period 1900-2006, measuring results against stated political objectives, and found nonviolent campaigns being successful 54% of the time, compared to the 27% of violent campaigns. Importantly, their study also shows that armed resistance campaigns that are successful in the short term almost never produce democratic societies, and worse, that they often relapse into civil war. This study shows that actual inclusion and participation by the involved group increases during nonviolent campaigns by up to 11 times the level of such participation during violent campaigns.             


This leads us to the interesting conclusion that nonviolence is simply a better strategy for political change than any violent campaign may dream of. To put this in cynical terms, a group can and should adopt a strategy of nonviolence regardless of whether or not they subscribe to the moral underpinning of the philosophy. Effectively conducted and implemented, using the crystalized and developing best practices of the field, nonviolence is a superior conflict strategy for political change. While nonviolence as a philosophy certainly encourages the values that one would like to see in a democratic society, it stands on its own feet as a political change management tool, regardless of such values. 

If we use, for example, the July 2021 violence in South Africa as a lens through which to test our comparison, we find that such a campaign (to the extent that it can be seen as a campaign) was destructive, costly and that it delivered very little of value to the South African people. All of those complaints could have been addressed by way of an organized and properly managed nonviolent campaign. Results can be achieved without much risk, without unlawful and dangerous conduct, and without real harm to infrastructure. Conducted properly such a nonviolent campaign is furthermore much less polarizing and the benefits of networking can be used in a sustainable and inspirational manner. South Africa is, in many important respects, a broken society. 

The tools that we use to repair the sustained damage of the last number of decades will be crucially important in where we end up as a nation. Creative, strategic nonviolence has the pedigree and the potential to lift us out of our current situation in a way that preserves that which is still important to us.                        

(Andre Vlok can be contacted on andre@conflictresolutioncentre.co.za for a sources index, further reading, conflict mandates and coaching, comment or any further information

June 2022

* The email will not be published on the website.