Nonviolent Community Struggles

Theme group conveners Swati Desai and Lerato Maragele write on nonviolent community struggles. Swati Desai on Violence and Nonviolence in community struggles and Lerato Maragele gives a case study on the COP17 Global Day of Action.

Violence and Nonviolence in community struggles

The vast majority of people today are reduced to being small cogs in a mega machine, where the established system wants consumers but not free citizens. Consequently common citizens, whether they live in authoritarian States or democracies, are subject to injustice and violence especially where there is a push for 'modern development'.

Various Communities, and the forms of violence they face

  • From a week-long march to oppose the interlinking of rivers in South Gujarat, India. If this project is implemented then 75 viilages will be affected, some of them will be totally submerged.

    From a week-long march to oppose the interlinking of rivers in South Gujarat, India. If this project is implemented then 75 viilages will be affected, some of them will be totally submerged.

    Communities subject to State violence, organised violence, vigilante violence, usually without “due process of law”,

  • Communities subject to 'development violence' after “due process” of law; e.g., State-corporate nexus trying to appropriate natural, national, mineral resources

  • Violence in the name of religion, ethnicity, beliefs, ideology

  • Communities subject to subtle violence – the oppressed often being so conditioned as to be unaware that they are victims of violence.

Clearly, most people are peace loving and would like to avoid struggle and would resort to resistance only when left with no option. It must also be appreciated that communities, before they face some form of violence and fall into the definition of “affected communities”

  • are usually engaged in a daily struggle for mere survival

  • are not trained in the philosophy, science or art of nonviolence

  • live peacefully until some form of State or corporate aggression hits them out of the blue

  • their response is reflexive rather than strategically planned

  • they are up against the resources and might of the State-corporate nexus

Communities across the world are currently engaged in struggles for the right to life, livelihood, justice and peace. More often than not they are up against very powerful forces such State military or paramilitary forces, corporations, organised militant groups, existing law, established media, technocrats, vested interests, a vocal group that benefits from the status quo etc. It is therefore a very unequal battle. Those fighting with their backs to the wall, because they challenge the status quo, their every thought and action is subject to the most intense scrutiny and are likely to be labelled 'anti development', 'anti-national', 'retrogressive', etc.

These communities, for an effective and durable struggle, must use nonviolent resistance to fight violence and oppression.


From a week-long march to oppose the interlinking of rivers in South Gujarat, India. If this project is implemented then 75 viilages will be affected, some of them will be totally submerged.

From a week-long march to oppose the interlinking of rivers in South Gujarat, India. If this project is implemented then 75 viilages will be affected, some of them will be totally submerged.

The expression 'nonviolence' would seem to imply just 'absence of violence'. Both theoreticians and practitioners of nonviolence would vouch that it is actually a proactive, positive, forward-looking, potentially uplifting process for participants. It can be an evolutionary journey if pursued as a means to an end without compromising on values.

There is often a tendency among those fighting injustice to attempt militant (often violent) quick-fix solutions to State violence against unarmed people, or violence resulting from the State-corporate nexus against traditional communities or even deep-rooted systemic problems. The means resorted to in such struggles may not be paid much attention to as it is often a life and death struggle for the affected people. It would be easy for puritans and theoreticians to find fault with such struggles. They often do not have a conception of the gravity of the life and death struggle some threatened communities are engaged in, hence they enjoy the luxury of sitting in judgement over a struggle as being 'not up to the mark' in terms purity of nonviolence. At the other extreme activists who 'represent' the oppressed often do not themselves engage in actual violent action but do encourage or incite the oppressed 'others' to offer violent resistance. They too enjoy the luxury of holding radical positions without having to put themselves on the line. There is an obvious fundamental problem with both positions.

It would be a travesty of sit in judgement over the reflex actions of such affected communities. The starting point for them would most likely be a mere 'absence of violence'. As they start coming to grips with the problem they are up against, as they get conceptual, technical, training and material support from conscientious non-affected sympathisers their struggle may evolve to a well strategic programme of nonviolent resistance. That process can assume the form of an evolutionary journey. That journey could further take the affected communities from dealing with their immediate, local problem to becoming aware, concerned and proactive on macro, long term issues.

Whatever the outcome of a struggle, it is absolutely important that nonviolent struggles are waged because they do not only contribute to a more just order, they deepen democracy and sow the seed for a continuing revolution.

Swati Desai


Nonviolent community stuggles: COP17 South Africa case study

In 2011 South Africa hosted the 17th United Nations Conference of the Parties on Climate Change (COP 17) in Durban. The COPs are high-level governmental negotiation spaces where governments come together to assess progress in dealing with climate change; there is limited room for engagement from civil society. While many civil society bodies met and strategised within the COP space in Durban, many more held meetings outside. From the time of the announcement in Copenhagen that South Africa would host the conference, civil society came together to plan for a space to caucus, meet, strategise and socialise.

Civil Society committee for COP17

The C17, (Civil Society Committee for COP 17) was given a mandate from a broader South African civil society grouping to host the international civil society community at an open and inclusive venue. C17 was also charged with the mobilisation and communication at and in the lead-up to COP17, and the coordinaion of the Global Day of Action on December 3rd 2011.

Global Day Of Action

On December 3rd 2011, mid-way through the COP17 negotiations, about 12,000 people from around the world gathered in Durban for the Global Day of Action. The Global Day of Action resulted in a mass march of local and international community, labour, women, youth, academic, religious and environmental organisations. While the negotiations continued inside the conference venue, these groups took to the streets in an effort to demonstrate civil society’s common determination to tackle climate change.

The Global Day of Action (GDA) is a traditional and important event at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) COP meetings; however, the march through Durban was unique in that it enabled activists from across sub-Saharan Africa the opportunity to show that addressing climate change is as important for the people of Africa as for those of the North.

A lot of preparation went into the event beforehand; such as nonviolent tactics, strategies and training in different communities. The methods of nonviolent protest and persuasion were taught and applied; as well as examples from previous Global Days of Action, the challenges and the victories for organising such a big event. The march culminated in the handing over a memorandum of concerns to negotiators in the UN process.

Lerato Maragele

Add new comment

Enter the characters shown in the image.
This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

We have had a kind offer from an individual donor, who will match up to £5,000 of donations from others - so by supporting War Resisters' International today your donation is worth double!