Ingredients of social transformation

Results based on interviews with social activists

Claske Dijkema, 1 November 2010


  • social transformation
  • political power
  • South Africa


A longer version of this article will be published in « Horizons of Peace »

Through interviews with social and political activists, I have analysed what power means to them and what kind of change they are striving for. So far I have identified four 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 to listen to each other’s truth.

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 it entitled to a better life. It is therefore no surprise that agents of change do not belong to the most disadvantaged within oppressed groups. An example is Nelson Mandela who was born to become the councillor of the Tembu king, and as a result was educated with a sense of destiny and dignity. 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 [..]1.

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”2. Where else to begin social transformation than with the poets, story-tellers, singers, artists, painters, dramatists and essayists. “Their art seeks to reflect as well as to transform their people’s immediate historical experience”, it is a “transformative tool” that allows us to “dream a new future”, to speak with the words of Chenderaj Hove3.

Making conflict visible

I have further learned from the history of the liberation struggles that have been fought all over Southern Africa 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 structural violence - which can take the form of oppression, dictatorship, exclusion and economic injustice- remains invisible, it will be difficult to address. As long as people comply with those implementing this system, it will remain hidden. 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.4

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

When the violence of the apartheid regime became increasingly visible, the ANC president, Oliver Tambo was invited to address the UN General Assembly after the Soweto uprising in 1976. He was given the opportunity to explain the audience that the shooting of innocent people at Soweto was not an aberration, but the concrete expression of the policy of the apartheid State5. In many instances, especially when one seeks to address forms of oppression or the violation of rights, this 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. We have to expect though that others want to “refuse this mirror” as Hove put it and might 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 Dempers6. 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”.7 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 had to take 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.8 ». 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-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)9 . 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 neighboring 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.