The documentary A Force More Powerful: A Century of Nonviolent Conflict, directed by Steve York, presents a series of vignettes focusing on specific struggles across the world that have employed nonviolent methods to fighting oppression and brutality. The third vignette concentrating on apartheid in South Africa particularly struck me as a strong example of the power behind active nonviolent peacemaking. People often mistakenly conflate nonviolence with non-action, but this film emphasizes the idea that fighting violence with violence achieves nothing, and there are more beneficial methods of taking a stand for one’s rights that do not involve taking up arms.
Under apartheid, black citizens were forced to live in poor neighborhoods, were not given equal rights, and were treated brutally by police forces for not complying with them. The struggle against this oppression lasted for decades. As the documentary demonstrates, many of the black South African citizens were inspired by the teachings of Gandhi and began to organize a resistance to the apartheid regime using nonviolent methods. The black leaders in Port Elizabeth organized a boycott of the stores in the white townships in order to put pressure on the white community. Without black citizens purchasing products from these stores, the Port Elizabeth retailers became desperate. The boycotts received widespread attention and created a stir throughout the entire nation. What really shocks and inspires me is that, according to the documentary, even though resistance to apartheid had been occurring for decades, this boycott became the most successful and effective technique up to that point in only five days’ time, because it posed a genuine threat to the apartheid ruling party. The black South Africans participating in this boycott were not doing anything illegal (even though many of the leaders and participants were arrested), and they were not using any type of violence, yet their actions catalyzed the movement to end racial segregation in their country more than previous methods had. Their ability to organize the masses to take collective action and to resist their oppressors through Gandhi’s ideas of civil disobedience are what led them to be successful in effecting social change in ways that violence could never have achieved.
Although these boycotts cannot claim sole credit for overthrowing the apartheid regime, they did pave the way for de-legitimizing the apartheid government and for empowering black South African citizens to realize that they had the power to pressure the state into hearing their demands and making changes to accommodate them. Most importantly, using the boycott approach to mobilize the masses is one prime example demonstrating the crucial role nonviolence plays in affording effective results. In 1993, a new constitution was written that guarantees equal rights for all South Africans, and in 1994, national democratic elections were held. It is inspiring to know that the nonviolent actions of the people were responsible for making these positive changes possible.
The South African vignette closed with an idea that I found to be truly moving: Tyrants often believe that arms are the most dangerous threat that they should fear, but really, what tyrants should fear most are the people they rule. As Desmond Tutu said, “When people decide they want to be free, there is nothing that can stop them” from overcoming oppression. There is no weapon more powerful than the human will, and the best results are achieved when people work together in positive and peaceful ways to create change rather than violent and destructive ones. The movement to end apartheid in South Africa is just one of many stories proving that, contrary to popular belief, peace really is a force more powerful than violence.
-Alison Zacharias, MPT Intern
A Force More Powerful: A Century of Nonviolent Conflict. Dir. Steve York. York Zimmerman Inc., 2000. DVD.
A Force More Powerful. Digital image. Google Images. Social Uplift Foundation. Web. 22 May 2013. <<http://images.google.com>>