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Symbols, ideas and acts: lessons from the anti-apartheid struggle


Victory in the long campaign against the crime of apartheid is one of the late twentieth century's success stories. The international Anti-apartheid Movement played an important role of solidarity and of political pressure, demonizing the apartheid state, contributing to its isolation and eventual untenability. The archives of the British Anti-apartheid Movement [1] are a rich and inspiring testimony to the importance of persistence, resilience, ambition and tactical innovation.


There is much to learn from the international Anti-apartheid Movement. Less commonly explored are the lessons from the anti-apartheid struggle within South Africa itself. There the liberation movement formed itself, by necessity as much as design, around three strands, each with different strengths and sources of legitimacy, each representing a different approach to how to bring about change.


The Martyrs

Imprisoned by the apartheid regime, the movement’s leaders – Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu et al. – became its martyrs. Their legitimacy deriving from the suffering and injustice they endured, their role that of moral compass, the release of the members of this branch of the movement was the rallying call of both domestic activism and international campaigning.


The exemplar of this group is Mandela himself, inspiration for songs and films, an icon of reconciliation, the man widely, if misleadingly [2], credited with preventing a civil war. Mandela led the process of negotiating with the apartheid regime and became South Africa’s first democratic President in 1994.


The Martyrs demonstrate the importance of symbols. Campaigns need to form themselves around myths and images if they are to succeed in generating traction in public and political discourse – just as the anti-apartheid struggle benefited from being reduced to the simple slogan 'Free Mandela'.


The Exiles

Faced with the decapitation of the movement following the imprisonment of many of its leaders, many activists fled into exile in Zambia, Mozambique, the UK and beyond. Typically a generation younger than those in jail, the legitimacy of the Exiles derived from ideology and their control of theory relating to both how the struggle should be run and how a free South Africa would be built.


The Exiles demonstrate the importance of ideas. Campaigns need a strong analytical foundation, clear thinking on what the problem is, who is responsible and what solution is needed. Those responsible for a campaign's policy lines must be given space to thoroughly interrogate the issues and to harvest intelligence relating to the interests of those with influence over them. Campaigns should not copy Exiles' tendency to descend into acrimonious debate over ideology, but they should retain a certain obsession with ideas, a permanent self-scrutiny about policy, levels of ambition and the quality of intelligence on which campaign positions are based.


The leading figure among South African Exiles was Thabo Mbeki, anointed Mandela’s successor long before taking over as President following elections in 1999. The handover of power from the Martyr Mandela to the Exile Mbeki seemed like a natural transition: the heavy responsibility of raising living standards among South Africa’s black majority needed a man with a tight grip on policy. The unifying rhetoric of Mandela gave way to the Mbeki technocracy.


In a twist which reflected disgruntlement at the pace at which living standards for the black majority were rising, the ruling African National Congress (ANC) denied Mbeki a third term as President and elected Jacob Zuma as its leader – and hence as the country's President – in 2009. With Zuma having served a ten-year term in jail under apartheid, his election marked a return to leadership-by-martyr, his time in prison earning him untouchability in the face of rape and corruption allegations. For the ANC’s rank-and-file – and behind them, the majority of South African voters – the message seemed to be ‘If ideas (Mbeki) let us down, at least we still have symbols (Zuma)’.


The Activists

With the ANC banned from 1960, a new organization emerged to occupy its space, albeit with a less overt political function. The United Democratic Front (UDF) acted as a social safety net, providing health and education services, filling the gap in social structures created by the apartheid regime’s lack of interest in black welfare and by the tactic of ‘ungovernability’ under which black townships became no-go areas for the state.


Not formally part of the ANC, but aligned to the Freedom Charter which guided ANC policy and practice, the UDF represents the branch of grassroots activism, its legitimacy based in the tangible improvements it made to the daily lives of black South Africans.


The Activists demonstrate the importance of acts and of being beneficiary-centred. Even if their aims relate to policy change which may take years to translate into beneficiary impact, campaigns need to feel real and their component parts must be empowering and inspiring.



Campaigns needs symbols, ideas and acts. If any one element predominates, a campaign is unbalanced. Symbols without ideas and acts are trickery or PR fluff which deceive activists into joining a paper-thin campaign and deceive beneficiaries by promising much and delivering little. Ideas without symbols are hard to communicate and without acts can be abstract or intangible. Acts without ideas are unfocused and without symbols may fail to inspire and generate little attention beyond those immediately assisted. Thinking in terms of symbols, ideas and acts can provide a useful framework for campaign design. The anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa is an example increasingly distant in time and space, but its evolution shows the importance of founding campaigns on strong, well-evidenced ideas, potent symbols and direct action.



[2] The notion that Mandela helped to prevent a civil war between black and white diverts attention from the civil war which he could not prevent, that fought between black and black in KwaZulu Natal in the period between his release from jail in February 1990 and the first free elections in April 1994. Tens of thousands died in this civil war.

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