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Moving from protest to resistance: a case for non-violent civil disobedience in South Africa’s climate movements

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It is incredibly difficult to make people take meaningful action on climate change and biodiversity loss, as has been made clear over the past 30 years.

There are arguably two reasons for this: firstly, people often have a natural reluctance to engage with the implications of climate and ecological breakdown. In other words, very few people can ‘get in the zone’ to acknowledge the danger that faces humanity. Secondly, very few people, when confronted with what’s necessary to avoid this breakdown, are willing to do it.

Environmental collapse

To set the scene for how to get in the zone, you can read this article by Professors James Dyke, Robert Watson and Wolfgang Knorr who at one point in the article state, “We have since been told by some scientists that the Paris Agreement was “of course important for climate justice but unworkable” and “a complete shock, no one thought limiting to 1.5°C was possible”. Rather than being able to limit warming to 1.5°C, a senior academic involved in the IPCC concluded we were heading beyond 3°C by the end of this century.”

What this means is that for the past 6 years, we have been systematically lied to about governments’ and businesses’ commitments to remain under 1.5°C, when it is largely regarded as impossible. The obvious question is why the world’s experts and governments would not come out and say this. The simple answer is that established institutions are reluctant to ‘rock the boat’.

From the 1st to the 12th of November, the world will convene in Glasgow for the 26th and the most important Conference of the Parties (COP) yet.

Another recent paper, published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS) states that the mean human-experienced temperature rise by 2070 will amount to 7.5°C, about 2.3 times the mean global temperature rise.

This is largely due to the fact that land warms much faster than the oceans but also because population growth is expected to be predominantly in hotter places. What that means is essentially one billion people being displaced. To understand the implications of this displacement, you need only look at the historical example of Syria where about 10% of those affected died. The collapse of governance and desperation created by these conditions results in starvation, failure to provide basic services, and often violence.

There are many papers that could be cited to describe these conditions but what these two examples illustrate is that firstly, we have been lied to about how bad things are. The second is that the possibility of how bad things could be is beyond appalling – social collapse within the next 10 to 20 years.

The urgency of doing something now

The reality of what needs to be done to avoid this is summed up in this quote by Sir David King, former Chief Scientific Advisor to the UK Government, “We have to move quickly. What we do, I believe, in the next three to four years will determine the future of humanity”.

The reason why the timeframes are so much smaller than landmarks such as 2050 is because feedback loops are continually proving how quickly the global climate and ecological systems are collapsing. The Greenland ice sheets, the destruction of Amazon rainforests, the warming of permafrost across Siberia, the bleaching of coral reefs and many others are speeding us towards the tipping point.

The other problem we have is that we have no precedent for what we have to do to address this crisis. Take the example of apartheid. The majority of people in this country and abroad agreed that apartheid was appalling and had to end immediately. The difference between apartheid and climate change is that apartheid does not get exponentially worse for every year we delayed action.

That’s the challenge we have with climate change, we either do what is needed now or lose the opportunity to deal with it at all.

My parents fought the apartheid regime and they knew that once we got rid of the National Party, things broadly get better. That’s not a luxury we have with the climate crisis; if we don’t do what is necessary in the next three or four years, things become unimaginably bad for the next ten thousand.

Examples we can pull from the past: doing what’s necessary

This highlights the second issue that prevents people from acting, getting a coalition of the willing to do what’s necessary. The good news is that it is entirely possible to do what is necessary. Because when societies have been faced with systemic injustices and possible annihilation in the past, people have taken necessary actions to veer trajectories and save themselves.

There are many examples that could be cited here to highlight what was done and what was needed but this article will just focus on a few to draw some important characteristics.

The Freedom Riders

The first example is of the Freedom Riders in the USA, a group of about 13 black and white people who decided to come together and ride a bus into the most racist state in the USA, which was Alabama at the time. They were subsequently beaten, the bus was set on fire and they were arrested. But three days later, 24 students decided to replicate that demonstration. This created a cascade of actions because people risked their lives and their freedom.

There are three important points that this example highlights. The first is that you have to be prepared to do whatever it takes, provided that your actions are non-violent. The second is that when you decide to take action, you motivate it by reminding yourself that we cannot afford to lose. The last is that you only need a small group of highly committed people to make a significant change.

The Sharpeville Massacre

The second example is the Sharpeville Massacre in South Africa, where about 3000 black people decided to destroy their pass books to protest against the policing of their movements under the apartheid regime. Their goal was to be arrested en masse. 69 people were murdered that day and there was a global outcry from the international community. This event is regarded by some historians as the turning point of the anti-apartheid struggle.

Again, this example highlights similar points as raised above. People recognized what needed to be done and did not take half-measures to do it. They also recognized that they cannot afford to lose because the young people in that crowd could not bear the thought of living under the apartheid regime for another 40 years.

Creating political will

These two examples identify something that has been absent from the climate movement so far – creating political will. Take this clip with Atlantic staff writer Olga Khazan that highlights the problem with the climate movement. Think back to how many examples we’ve heard of people saying ‘we understand the problem, we have the solutions, and all we need is the political will’.

The problem is that the climate movement has been ineffective in building political will, partly because very few have tried to define it and have the experience to pursue it.

The point I’m making here is that conventional climate campaigning is objectively ineffective.

One type of campaigning, called consciousness raising, is a good example of why the climate movement has been so ineffective. Consciousness raising is about assuming many people don’t know about climate change so movements go into communities, run workshops, and create communication material to inform people about the problem.

There is nothing inherently wrong with this strategy, in fact it is necessary in any movement. The problem is that it’s insufficient despite being necessary. The problem is that people already know the situation is dangerous but what people aren’t given is a strategy that will lead to significant outcomes.

Turning to civil resistance

The strategy is disruption – more specifically, non-violent civil disobedience. Non-violent civil disobedience is effective because, when it comes to climate and ecological collapse, we are dealing with entrenched power. Entrenched power is not changed through persuasion but, as history shows, is changed through direct power conflict.

In other words, you cannot persuade the political and economic elite to move fast enough. It must be forced through civil resistance. It is true that movements must highlight the problem, and identify what needs to be done but unless they engage in non-violent civil disobedience, they are objectively not doing enough.

Civil resistance in South Africa

In South Africa, what is often heard when the idea of non-violent civil disobedience is raised as a strategy is that either people don’t care enough about climate change or that people aren’t interested in getting arrested.

The problem with this assumption is that it does not acknowledge that there is really only one small movement who are offering people an opportunity to engage in non-violent civil disobedience. When there aren’t options for people to partake in, they become despondent and don’t participate.

Extinction Rebellion South Africa, despite its shortcomings, is the only option available to people in South Africa to engage in material action to address the climate and ecological emergency. In other words, everyone hates what is happening but there are no mechanisms for them to support.

The mechanisms that are present are comfortable for people to participate in. For example, Fridays for Future typically organizes marches, pickets, performative demonstrations and attempts to highlight the importance of the climate and ecological crisis. The problem is that comfortable demonstrations don’t force change.

Six elements of a civil resistance movement

The model of civil resistance that needs to be pursued is not guaranteed to work but has a higher probability of forcing change than traditional campaigning in South Africa. This model has six key elements that all have to be part of the movement. In other words, we cannot cherry pick the elements, they all need to be integrated into the movement.

1. A civil resistance episode has to be organized by a small group of people (fewer than 10)

The reason why this is crucial can be pinned down to the expression ‘too many cooks spoil the broth’. When you get more than 10 people involved, you get too many dynamics entering the organizing capacity, which inevitably slow any progress.

Large groups or climate coalitions in South Africa include the Climate Justice Coalition and the Climate Justice Charter Movement. Both of these have organized themselves to be representative of civil society, labour and affected communities. These movements are based on grassroots struggles but because of how many groups are represented, they are unlikely to build effective civil resistance models. It is difficult for these groups to take bigger risks because of their reputations and responsibilities

The reason small groups are more effective at organizing civil resistance models is because they can act fast. They can act fast because a small group of people can easily reach consensus on an action idea, mobilization and framing.

There is nothing wrong with large groups and the two movements I mentioned do an important job of ensuring participation and representation. The point here is that to do what is necessary (material civil resistance) will require significant risk to be taken and that is more likely to come from small groups.

2. Your strategy should be designed when your opposition is weak

The opposition, South Africa’s government and extractive private sector, is weakest in moments when they have to push the systemic lie mentioned at the start of this piece. COP 26 kicks off on November 1 where global leaders gather to speak about how they will address climate change. Ramaphosa will not be part of the contingent but has put out three statements on climate change in the past few months.

South Africa’s private sector will be present at the conference and will highlight their attempts to greenwash their image. It is exactly at moments like these that non-violent civil disobedience should be organized. Call out Ramaphosa for not attending COP 26 and expose the greenwashing of South Africa’s commercial entities because the eyes of the media and the rest of the population are on them.

3. Any actions have to be disruptive

There have been over 30 climate demonstrations in South Africa since 2018, which roughly take the same form. A group of people gather outside a government or business building, say some speeches, hand over a memorandum and then go home.

The actions have to be massively disruptive to capture mass attention. A good rule of thumb is if the action will likely result in arrest, it’s significantly disruptive (think blocking of highways, occupying buildings and hunger strikes). Martin Luther King Jr., Mahatma Ghandi, and Nelson Mandela all had that in common. They disrupted, got put into prison and built movements around them.

4. Consider the proximity principle

The idea here is that if you speak to someone about your movement/action and they show interest, you must have an action for them to do. If you don’t contact them for a week after speaking to them, they’ll likely lose interest and not participate. So when you mobilise, ensure that you have actions planned.

There is also important space for non-arrestable roles to be integrated into these movements/actions. After a disruptive action, in many instances, nothing happens because there is no organizational capacity beyond the action itself.

For example, after a disruptive action, there have to be people beyond those who got arrested that organize campaigns, tours and media briefings/interviews to broadcast the action and get others to join in following actions. Organize disruptive actions and organize pathways for people to join future actions.

5. Create a demand for action and follow models used during the anti-apartheid movement

The model was to pamphlet or leaflet and speak to community leaders about organizing community talks/rallies. When the talk/rally is organized, make sure it centers around an action that people can attend. South African climate movements have largely relied on social media campaigns or ‘bussing’ people in from afar.

The problem with both of these is that you rarely get the support that comes from a charged speech. To get people to take risks, you need them to be emotionally invested, something which does not come from social media. South African environmental movements have not successfully identified what people care about.

The importance of a clear objective

South African environmental movements make a fatal mistake of firstly making their demands too broad and trying to cover everything. The topic of climate justice, for example, is not a demand that the majority of South Africans understand or even care about. It’s also vague and is often just the topic of academic discussion. While hugely important as a concept, it is an ineffective mobilizing narrative.

Movements also try to touch on too many issues including energy, poverty, water, food sovereignty, biodiversity and many others. While each is of huge importance, trying to cover them all is an ineffective mobilization strategy because there is no focus.

In other words, when everything is important, nothing is important. The demand has to be clear and material. For example, because employment is such a huge issue, have a demand that says something along the lines of ‘create one million climate jobs’.

6. Start your movement with winnable demands with the resources you have at your disposal

Forcing systemic change is very difficult and in order to do so, movements have to accomplish small wins to show their credibility and get others to join. The Sharpeville Massacre had a demand to remove the pass book, not to upend structural racism across the country (although that was part of the broader goal).

In the recent September actions convened by the Climate Justice Coalition and supported by many other groups, there was a demand to allow communities the right to say no to any fossil fuel development project.

There was a precedent set in our constitution which states that, “Everyone has the right – (a) to an environment that is not harmful to their health or well-being; and (b) to have the environment protected, for the benefit of present and future generations, through reasonable legislative and other measures that – (i) prevent pollution and ecological degradation…”

There is a legal precedent that needs enforcement by the government, which means you don’t have to start from scratch. It also gives power to communities and is specific enough to be implemented. A demand for climate justice, on the other hand, fulfills none of these requirements.

The last and most important point of this element is that if you accomplish it, people take notice and believe that civil disobedience works.

Making a difference

It is notoriously difficult to get people to care about climate change enough to take meaningful action. It’s also becoming more obvious that science talks don’t force action. Movements must speak to issues that people care about to get us to engage in non-violent civil disobedience.

In South Africa, this has to do with poverty alleviation, community rights, employment and corruption. Building environmental campaigns with clear demands around these issues is a way to ensure that the demands can be met and that you build enough of a following to force change.

The climate and ecological crises are creating unlivable conditions in South Africa with no sign of slowing. Drastic action is needed now to ensure South Africa mitigates its contribution to the global emissions profile and creates situations for communities to adapt to the effects of climate change. Neither of these are on the table and radical action is needed to force this change.

Disruptive actions, organized by a small group of people with clear demands that speak to societal issues, are the most effective way to force this change. Extinction Rebellion South Africa is the easiest mechanism through which to push this change. For example, their campaign against Standard Bank’s involvement in the East Africa Crude Oil Pipeline calls for the bank to withdraw from any involvement (funding and advisory) in the project.

In the coming months, the group will dump a liquid that looks like oil in their main building in Rosebank, Johannesburg. The intention is to get arrested or to force the bank to shut down its offices for the day because that’s what gets mass media coverage.

Last thoughts on the climate crisis and civil resistance in SA

The bad news is that the world is on a trajectory for a 5°C global average temperature rise by the end of the century, the effects of which are catastrophic. The good news is that these conditions create the perfect opportunities for the most effective social movements to spring up.

What’s needed is for those in civil society to recognize this as the most important issue ever and for them to see their pathways into taking meaningful action. Movements must break past traditional marches and pickets and move into non-violent civil disobedience.