Principles, Tactics, and Negotiations with the Oppressor

By Balton, Neeshan | Yale Human Rights and Development Law Journal, Annual 2019 | Go to article overview

Principles, Tactics, and Negotiations with the Oppressor


Balton, Neeshan, Yale Human Rights and Development Law Journal


My approach to this topic is based primarily on the experience of fighting against apartheid in South Africa and in particular negotiations with the oppressor. The context is also one in which the engagement with the oppressor was about national liberation within South Africa. The goal of that liberation struggle was to overthrow white minority rule and to establish a democracy based on one person, one vote. Engaging the oppressor is something that activists did every day through acts of resistance.

In thinking about the oppressor, activists distinguished between goals, strategies, and tactics. The objective of achieving a united, democratic, nonracial South Africa was the broad goal of the liberation movement for decades. Its range of strategies included what it called the four pillars of struggle:

1. The international isolation of South Africa. This included the boycott and sanctions campaigns, which served to isolate South Africa and thereby reduced the apartheid government's legitimacy and support. This also required that the liberation movement itself gain the legitimacy of the people, movements, and governments of the world.

2. The armed struggle. This was embarked upon in 1961 after the liberation organisations, the African National Congress (ANC) and Pan Africanist Congress (PAC), were declared unlawful and could no longer operate legally in South Africa. The armed struggle initially consisted of acts of sabotage but, by 1985, calls were made to render the country ungovernable and armed attacks against government personnel and institutions increased immensely.

3. Building the undergirding structures of the ANC so that the organisation had a presence inside the country and could give leadership and direction to the day-to-day struggles that were being waged internally.

4. Mass mobilisation. This was the key area of emphasis from the mid 1980s. The mobilisation of the mass of the oppressed people into organisations in every area of life was critical for building the capacity for prolonged struggle against the apartheid system. This took the form of establishing or strengthening trade unions, civic, youth, and women's movements. Organisations amongst sports, arts, and cultural workers were established to ensure that these were areas of mobilisation against apartheid as well. Health, faith, and academia were other areas of mobilisation. In short, every area of struggle required mobilisation and organisation.

In the South African struggle, and especially for the ANC and its allies, there was always a political purpose that guided all tactical choices, especially when the ANC opted to add the armed struggle to its basket of tactical choices. Walter Sisulu articulated this succinctly in an article written in prison when he wrote:

   There exists at all times a multiplicity of forms of struggle
   that a movement exploits as part of its arsenal of weapons. Any
   form of struggle, including the armed struggle, can only emerge to
   dominance over time and as a result of consistent effort.
   Nonetheless, even if a given form of struggle emerges as the
   dominant one, this does not mean that other forms do no co-exist.
   What it does mean in such a situation is that the other forms come
   to occupy a subsidiary place and are essentially reinforcing the
   dominant one. (1)

With much of this in place, the struggle in the 1980s rendered much of Black South Africa ungovernable, which resulted in the state having to deploy its troops into the townships to enforce its rule. The government of the day had in effect lost any semblance of legitimacy and control over large parts of South Africa and could only resort to repressive measures which in turn fueled global pressure against it. This ultimately saw the United States passing legislation that supported divestment from South Africa and the withdrawal of major US companies from the country. South Africa's isolation from the world in almost all areas of life that required global connections was almost complete. …

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