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Analysis file

, Grenoble, December 2010

‘Amandla Ngwethu’, Working towards a transfer of ‘power to the people’

An example of three actors for social transformation in Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe (1)

Keywords: | Respect of human rights | | | | | | | South Africa | Zimbabwe | |

When Mandela left for 27 years in prison he demonstrated a fist and shouted “Amandla” meaning power. Citizens that had come by hundreds answered “Ngawethu”, “to the people”. The day he left prison to lead the country in negotiations with the apartheid regime he addressed the audience that had come by ten thousands with the same credo. The three people whose organisation’s experience this article seeks to share are still working towards this transfer of power from a narrow elite to the wider population, to obtain ownership over their future. The elite has changed in color but wealth, political power or simply the capacity to have control over one’s life are still very unequally distributed. The analysis in this article draws on interviews with civil society leaders and political activists in South Africa, Zimbabwe and Namibia in the period from 2005 to 2010.

Lasting change requires social transformation, rethinking power relations

In order to obtain a transfer of power so that it is vested in the people, social relations need to be transformed. Political transition has proved to be insufficient to reach this goal. The African Centre for the Constructive Resolution of Conflicts defines transition as the shift from one governance system to the other, while transformation refers to qualitative internal change in governance systems (2). The difference between the two lies in the structural alteration of power relations. Most peace agreements foresee a certain degree of power transfer. The question is who benefits from it? How widely distributed are these gains? Might the agreement be a smokescreen behind which the old elite continues to pull the strings, or which new elites emerge? As a white Afrikaner poet and reporter covering the Truth and reconciliation commission for the radio, Antjie Krog is well placed to speak about transformation. She goes beyond the institutional sense to a more personal level. In her literary work she explains transformation as a result of South Africa’s shift from apartheid to multi-party politics and their objective to fundamentally alter social relations. She comes to the conclusion that one can only transform an institution or a country by changing its core. That fundamental change takes place at different levels and in different phases. While institutions can be transformed, people can not. They can however change by integrating different social identities (3). Social transformation therefore entails working on power relations and on identities.

In the context of Southern Africa, it means for the white community to accept loosing a privileged position in society, for the black community, to learn assuming a position of equality. There is a need for people to open up their idea of who they are by opening up to other truths that exist simultaneously to their own. Social transformation is both about structural and personal change, about claiming the power and space each human deserves, to speak to our needs, to speak out. It requires the realisation that power comes from inside, from what is true. It should not be confused with grabbing power, accumulating power and holding on to power.

Risk of post-conflict transformation in Southern Africa

South Africa, Namibia and Zimbabwe constitute an interesting area for research on social transformation. From the 1950’s onwards they have experimented with different means to end white minority rule. All three have attained this goal through both military and political means. Their experiences raise awareness about challenges for post-liberation regimes to make true people’s aspirations for social justice and economic redistribution. Five risks are associated with social transformation. Before discussing these, the personal experience of Munjodzi Mutandiri, a young social activist and regional coordinator for the National Constitutional Assembly explains why the ideals of the liberation struggle still remain relevant.

“The Zimbabwe we want”, Munjodzi Mutandiri

At the end of the 90’s, when Munjodzi was still a school kid, people become increasingly dissatisfied with the capacity of the ruling party to respond to people’s needs. The signature of the economic structural adjustment program was an important trigger in this discontent. Under the banner of the National Constitutional Assembly “workers, students, and others civic groups decided to assign a committee to go around the country and ask people of Zimbabwe what they thought about the progress made to achieve the ideals of the liberation struggle”. Their conclusions, presented in September 1999, were that the majority of the people were disgruntled. They felt that Zanu-PF was no longer a vehicle for delivering the promises it had fought for. Over the period of a couple of weeks three major conventions were organised (4) coming up with resolutions that spelled out which Zimbabwe the people wanted. These formed the foundation of a new opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) as a vehicle to deliver on the promise to bring power to the people. It committed itself “to fight for a Zimbabwe where human rights are respected”. Access to land was another key issue that MDC wanted to address. This scared Zanu-PF, which leashed the farming invasions etc. The people that placed their hopes in the MDC have been disappointed with its capacity to change the situation since, especially after it accepted to jointly govern the country with Zanu-PF.

  • The first risk is that people are unable to deal with the shifting identities and power relations and withdraw to their own communities.

  • The second risk is the call for violence as a necessary means to transform power relations. The cause of social justice through social transformation is undermined when a movement employs violence as its means. It is a tool of coercion rather than of conviction, it concentrates power in the hands of a few, it organises power relations hierarchically and breeds hatred and new violence as a result of caused grief and humiliation.

  • The third risk is the militarisation of the society, whereby civic forces become subordinate to military forces. In order to make sure that the exercise of power does not become a natural extension of the command structures during the armed struggle, there is a need for transformation. Andrew Moyse, director of the Media Monitoring Project in Zimbabwe, for example comments that: “the tactics of Zanu-PF leaders have not become brutal, they always have been brutal. Force has been their most persuasive instrument. (5)” Limitations of armed resistance became evident in the South African struggle. Its Mass Democratic Movement developed varying alternative strategies like mass strike, stay aways, school boycotts and other non-violent tactics. The international peace scholar Horace Campbell compares the post-liberation period in Zimbabwe with the one in South Africa and claims that a combination of mass action, armed struggle, sanctions and international diplomacy downplayed the role of armed struggle as the sole means of acquiring power. The level of militarisation of the struggle turns out to be a good prediction for the level of authoritarian rule in the period following the peace agreement, with Zimbabwe as an example of the most militarised struggle and South Africa the least. Above statement is supported by recent statistic research (6).

  • The fourth risk is that the party becomes synonymous to the society. In the countries under study, control over government and the public sphere has until present been executed by one party only, which could also claim to have led the countries to sovereignty as liberation movements (7). Their version of the truth becomes the official truth. Many people however do not recognise themselves in this truth.

  • The fifth risk is the tendency to dominate or to replicate the system of authority inherited from previous masters. Horace Campbell comments that in “most post-liberation societies where an anti-colonial struggle was not predicated on transforming the political world view of progress, patriarchy, rugged individualism, domination over nature and the warrior traditions in politics, the deformities of the colonial world view came to the fore when the mass of the people were excluded from the political process” (8). These observations invite us to revisit the means employed to attain social transformation.

Ingredients of social transformation

As a result of the analysis of the stories of social and political activists in Southern Africa, I have analysed references to the concepts of power and transformation in social and political activism, I have come up with five ingredients for social transformation. These are: the belief to be entitled to a better life and the dream of a new future; making conflict visible through the use of non-violent means; claiming power; the realisation that there are several truths and lastly economic enablement.

Belief to be entitled to a better life

One of the first conditions for social transformation is the idea that change is possible and that one is entitled to a better life. The idea that, for social change, one needs to work on self-conciousness to overcome the internalised idea of inferiority is central to the work of Steven Biko and the Black Conscious movement (BCM) of which he is the most vocal spokesperson in the 1970’s. In May 1976 he stands for trial for his political activism. In his defense he explains the need for BCM: “I think the black man is subjected to two forces in this country. He is first of all oppressed by an external world through instiutionalised machinery, through laws that restrict him from doing certain things [..] and secondly, and this we regard as the most important, the black man himself has developed a state of alienation, he rejects himself, precisely because he attaches the meaning white to all that is good [..] (9).” Biko’s observations are oriented towards the relationship between black and white people in South Africa. They hold a wider truth though for other systems of oppression such as patriarchy. A female peace activist in the DRC described how she felt about speaking out: “We are our own prisons. Before, I couldn’t speak in public. I first had to convince myself that I had something to say that was more important than my fear and only when I set a political goal, I achieved at addressing an audience” (10).

Making conflict visible

The history of the liberation struggles that have been fought all over Southern Africa further teach us that creating conflict can be a step in attaining peace. The idea of civic disobedience as a tactic in the struggle - inspired by Gandhi’s salt march - is to make oppression visible, to invite a violent reaction by the system in place in order to show its violent nature. As long as people comply with those implementing structural violence - which can take the form of oppression, dictatorship, exclusion and economic injustice- it will remain hidden and difficult to address. Simon, a youth organiser from South Africa, explains his idea of a peace-builder as the one who makes oppressive structures apparent. “When you try to address injustice, you try to address the pillars that support an unjust system. When you try to negotiate, sometimes nonviolence is not working and dialogue is not heard. Other methods are required, like growing conflict so it becomes visible. In this case the role of a peacebuilder is to instigate conflict” (11). This can provoke powerful reactions from those who want to protect their hold on to power by denying others their share of public space.

Claiming power through occupying public space

In many instances, especially when one seeks to address forms of oppression or the violation of rights, public space is not given. Power in general is not donated, but is there to claim. To do so, one has to assume that one is entitled speak. One has to expect though that others will refuse this claim and react either by denying, ignoring or by employing violence. An example of a person who decided to speak out despite the tacit agreement of family, churches, traditional leadership, the government and UN leadership to maintain a “wall of silence” about past atrocities during Namibia’s war of liberation, is Pauline Dempers (12). The Namibian government argued that “a successful transition required cooperation among former enemies” and that “delving into past wrongs would only incite a desire for vengeance and distract the nation from the tasks of reconstruction and development” (13). It found a good reason to brush over the dark sides of its “liberation history” and put forward the official narrative of heroism. The history it seeks to hide are the cases of torture and disappearances within the liberation movement. It was operating under extremely difficult circumstances and was under continuous threat of infiltration. To deal with traitors, each liberation movement in the region took its own measures. In Namibia, torture chambers or “the dungeons” were created for the stated purpose to deal with those who were accused to be “an enemy agent”. There is ample evidence that, rather than being incarcerated for being spies, the majority were simply « people who had the courage to ask [inconvenient] questions. (14)". According to Pauline Dempers, in total around 2000 have been detained, of whom only 153 have come back. She is one of those survivors and ever since she is striving for public recognition of this part of history through organising press conferences, setting up a political party and later the organisation “Breaking the wall of silence” and finally, in 2009, the Namibian Coalition for Transitional Justice. Her work is categorically ignored by those in power for the obvious reason that it undermines the liberation - and heroic discourse on which the only viable political party, SWAPO, bases its legitimacy. When asked how Pauline and others were able to claim this public platform, she answered: “It was difficult for SWAPO to deny us this space. We were the living witnesses of what SWAPO did”. Remembering the past can be seen as a source of power and claiming ownership over it as a tool for social transformation by making sure that one’s past is taken into account.

There is not one truth, there are several truths.

As part of social transformation, we have to learn the truths of others and to shift between different truths and identities. Pauline Dempers’ truth breaks with the black and white truth of heroes and perpetrators. It is no surprise that this is a painful process, “realising that some of the people that went into exile disappeared or were killed was a shock for the nation because no one thought that SWAPO could do that. The trust that people placed in SWAPO was so big.” The euphoria of the independence which was at the doorstep and for which all had sacrificed so much induced people to brush away an uncomfortable truth. The awareness of the positive and negative experiences of armed opposition in neighbouring countries, led the South African ANC to a critical self-examination and finally to open itself to the work of Bishop Tutu’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) (15). Its mandate is one of the rare examples in the region where the idea was conceivable that those oppressed could also be oppressors and that perpetrators could also victims. It dealt with a level of complexity of history that is not present in the neighbouring countries, even though Thabo Mbeki tried at the last moment to block the publication of the TRC reports in a final attempt to control the truth.

Economic enablement

The last ingredient of social transformation ‘economic enablement’. The concept is introduced by the director of Khulumani support group, Marjorie Jobson as key to social transformation because “without economic enablement there is no future”. It is the result of a process through which the capacities of ordinary people can be unlocked to serve to address local problems and to achieve self-reliance. Khulumani Support Group is a membership organisation comprising around 58.000 members who are survivors of apartheid atrocities and severely deprived, often enjoying one meal a day that consists of tea and bread. Economic resources are a crucial component of victim re-empowerment. Jobson places an emphasis on “re” because Khulumani’s members and their families used to be powerful. “They were land-owners and successful agricultural producers. Khulumani members’ struggle for social justice goes beyond the legal struggles common in a human rights approach. Its weakness being, according to Jobson, that it fails “to harness the capacities of organised groups to serve as local focuses of self-organisation for self-reliance”. Concretely, Khulumani’s actions concern international corporate litigation, Human Rights Compliance Assessments on Corporations and surveys to evaluate the state of preparedness of local government employees and offices to deal with natural disasters related to climate change. These are empowering because they give a means to express frustration in a constructive way, insisting on one’s right to be a political actor, also for the most deprived people. “Rather than having people just burn down infrastructure which takes years to put in place, because of local government failure to actually meet local needs, Khulumani is trying to say that there are other ways in which you can be very powerful and in the process members can learn a range of skills that can be used to change the power dynamics with people who are in political positions. (16)” An example of Khulumani’s action can be found below (17).

Holding government accountable through access to information

One of Khulumani’s most significant examples of developing civic competence is a project in which they educate member groups in the use of the Promotion of Access to Information Act to access information about government plans and budgets for implementation in local areas, so that they can try to hold them accountable for their own plans and actually make them much more collaborative in the way that their programmes operate. Marjorie Jobson notes that this has been incredibly empowering for their membership that has never been accustomed to accessing government information, given South Africa’s history of secrecy by the apartheid government and its failure to involve citizens in programmes and plans. She explains that: “Local governments across this country have never disclosed the budgets they have and what they committed to doing with those budgets. So because there hasn’t been any accountability, there has been a history of funds mismanagement and problematic procurement procedures along with the receipt of payments that have deprived local communities of much-needed budgets and have siphoned off public funds into private pockets.


In what way are the examples cited above relevant for Europe? In face of rising social tensions in Europe between citizens that are being divided based on the origins of their family and their religion, Southern African experiences might be useful. The activists interviewed still seek to engage their government non-violently despite the oppression and violence they have had to bear, not by seeking dialogue, but by claiming public space through the use of alternative media, through creating opposition parties, literature, strikes etc. May these examples inspire the resistance against all counter-democratic tendencies by claiming civic power because it is people’s right. Waiting until somebody gives it to them, is recognising the other’s power to do so.


  • (1) : Des extraits de ce texte sont publiés dans l’article “Dreaming the future” and other ingredients for social transformation in the face of oppression, experiences from Southern Africa”, dans la Revue Horizons de Paix, à apparaître en 2011.

  • (2) : Accord, (2006) Seminar report transitional frameworks (unpublished).

  • (3) : Krog, A. (2005) Een andere tongval (An change of Tongue) Amsterdam: Uitgeverij Contact, p.150

Translation from Dutch by author.

  • (4) : The People’s Convention, the Working People’s Convention and the All Peoples Constitutional Convention, 1999.

  • (5) : Interview with the author, Harare, 27 September 2010.

  • (6) : Johnstad, P.G. (2010) Nonviolent Democratization: A Sensitivity Analysis of How Transition Mode and Violence Impact the Durability of Democracy, Volume 35, Issue 3, p.464–482.

  • (7) : Melber, H. (2007) Governance and State Delivery in Southern Africa, Examples from Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe, Uppsala: Nordiska Afrikainstitutet.

  • (8) : Ibid 9, p. 280.

  • (9) : Biko, S. (2004) I write what I like, Northlands, Picador Africa, p. 110.

  • (10) : Interview with Marie Mwira, Irénées Atelier Artisans de Paix, Johannesburg, May 2007.

  • (11) : Interview with Simon Kobedi, Irénées Atelier Artisans de Paix, Johannesburg, May 2007.

  • (12) : Groth, Siegfried (1995) The Wall of Silence, Claremont : David Philip; A more detailed version of Pauline Dempers’ story can be found on the Modus Operandi website:

  • (13) : Dobell, Lauren (1996) Review: Namibia’s wall of silence, Southern Africa Report Archive, vol. 11 no. 4,, consulted 8/11/2010

  • (14) : Joe Diescho in an interview with The Namibian, quoted in Dobell, Lauren (1996) Review: Namibia’s wall of silence, Southern Africa Report Archive, vol. 11 no. 4.

  • (15) : Campbell, H. (2003) Reclaiming Zimbabwe: the exhaustion of the patriarchal model of liberation. Claremont: David Philip.

  • (16) : Interview Marjorie Jobson, Johannesburg, October 2009.

  • (17) : Addional examples can be found on the Modus Operandi website,