The Power of Nonviolent Action: South Africa & Poland

In this time of war, a rich set of readings and activities on the history and power of peaceful resistance.


To the Teacher:

Violence erupts regularly on our TV screens whether it be in newscasts, commercials or regular programming. Violent acts scream from newspaper headlines. Our students may be witnesses to or participants in violent events. All the more reason for them to enter the world of nonviolent action. Nonviolent resistance to repression has played a major role in the events of our time and deserves close student study for what it teaches about the possibilities of a form of behavior unknown to far too many. Mao Zedong and many others have believed that "power grows out of the barrel of a gun," but nonviolent resistance movements have demonstrated repeatedly that power grows out of the consent of a people.

The following readings and activities examine the question of nonviolence using case studies of late 20th century events in South Africa and Poland. The first three sections stand on their own and can be introduced independently of one another. The last set of readings and activities are intended for students who have completed readings on both South Africa and Poland.

I. An Introduction to Nonviolence

II. Case Study: The Power of Nonviolence in SOUTH AFRICA

III. Case Study: The Power of Nonviolence in POLAND

IV. The Power of Nonviolence: Additional Readings & Activities


I. An Introduction to Nonviolence

Opening Activity:
Violence vs. Nonviolence Roleplay

Before you begin a study of nonviolent action, try the follownig roleplay, which may give you insights into what students think and feel about this issue. Do students choose violence? nonviolence? both? What is their reasoning?

The situation: In a lightning, surprise invasion, unknown humans from another planet, Titania, capture or kill all members of the U.S. government; seize telecommunications facilities, the top personnel and headquarters of major corporations, the military and security agencies (police, FBI, CIA, etc.) as well as economic centers like the New York Stock Exchange. Within 24 hours, Titania has complete control of the United States.

Americans quickly learn that Titanian rule means the end of their customary freedoms—speech, press, assembly, religion— the end of the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government, the end of democracy. In short, Titanian rule of the U.S. will be by Titanians for the benefit of Titania and will be enforced by superior military power.

The roleplay: Divide the class into groups of four to six students. They are now Americans under Titanian rule. What are they going to do about it? Each group is to come up with:

  • a resistance strategy that includes three to five specific tactics
  • a list of reactions it thinks are likely from Titanian authorities and how it would respond to them.

A reporter from each group is to summarize its proposals for class discussion.


  • First consider group proposals that call for violence. Under the circumstances, how realistic—that is, how doable and effective—are the tactics proposed likely to be? How are the Titanians likely to react? What will then happen to the group strategy?
  • Consider next nonviolent action proposals. How realistic and effective might they be? How are the Titanians likely to react? What will then happen to the group strategy?

It seems likely that the discussion will provide some openings for consideration of the nature and merits of nonviolent action, whatever the overall student reaction to Titanian control of the U.S. At an appropriate point, students might then read and discuss the following. Further classroom suggestions for discussion and other activities follow the readings.

Student Reading 1:

Understanding nonviolent action

Win-win solutions or compromise can solve many conflicts but not all. People in conflict may be able to work out an agreement that is completely satisfactory to everyone. Or only partly satisfactory. Even that is often good enough to end the conflict. But sometimes only a struggle seems necessary to resolve a conflict and people may settle it with their fists or worse.

Leaders of nations as well as opposition groups often behave much the same. And when they decide on violence the result may be military action of the usual kind or it may be guerrilla warfare, rioting, civil war, terrorism, even nuclear attack. The result usually produces a winner. But the violence of nations and terrorists produces many dead people. And it always leaves behind on both sides people whose lives have been devastated because they have been maimed, lost friends and loved ones or had their property destroyed. Those who wield the violence also tend to brutalize themselves.

However, it is not true that violence is the only way to solve a conflict even when win-win or compromise seems impossible. History tells us that people all over the world have waged conflict and won victories with a method of struggle that does not brutalize, maim or kill.

"That technique," writes Gene Sharp, a close student of it, "is nonviolent action." Its basis is always the same whatever it may be called: "the belief that the exercise of power depends on the consent of the ruled who, by withdrawing that consent, can control and even destroy the power of their opponent. In other words, nonviolent action is a technique used to control, combat and destroy the opponent's power by nonviolent means of wielding power."

John Adams wrote that the American Revolution was over before it began. "The revolution was in the minds of the people, and in the union of the colonies, both of which were accomplished before hostilities commenced." In the years before April 19, 1775 at Lexington and Concord, where British troops and American colonists exchanged musket fire, colonists had refused to pay taxes, dumped tea in Boston harbor, refused to serve as jurors under British-controlled judges, formed Committees of Correspondence to coordinate their activities, organized alternative governments through committees and conventions. "The war that followed was the military defense of these already-existing governments against an attack by what was now a foreign power seeking to force the new country back into its empire." (Jonathan Schell, The Unconquerable World )

The Russian Revolution was also over almost before it began. Years of nonviolent strikes, refusal to obey government regulations, the establishment of groups like the Soviets that formed "parallel" agencies of government were vital in forcing the 1917 collapse of the tsarist regime with hardly any violence. Only later did violence erupt.

In 1930-1931 Gandhi led a march of Indians to the sea to make salt, a simple, nonviolent action, to break the British monopoly on salt-making. He was jailed and his followers were beaten. But British rule in India was shaken and, after years of marches, strikes, demonstrations, and refusals to obey, finally broken and Indian independence won.

Occupied by German troops during World War II, the people of Denmark demonstrated the power of nonviolent resistance against the overwhelming military power of Nazi Germany in 1944 by saving its Jews, forcing an end to curfews and blockades and disrupting the German war effort.

The empire of the Soviet Union, the successor to Russia's, and its rule over such Eastern European satellite states as Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Poland collapsed nonviolently and suddenly. And then, within a couple of years, the Soviet Union itself collapsed nonviolently, for its rulers too depended upon the consent of the ruled. And they did not consent.

In South Africa the apartheid rule of a white government over a vast majority of Africans of color seemed impregnable. But that African majority would not accept separate and unequal treatment. There was African violence. And there were, in time, serious foreign governmental sanctions against the white government. But nonviolent direct action played the major role in forcing the surrender of the white government, which led to the creation of the democratic, pluralistic government South Africa has today.

On a December day in 1955 Rosa Parks, an African-American woman riding in a full bus refused to give up her seat to a white and stand, as was then the custom in Montgomery, Alabama and elsewhere in the South. This simple action launched a bus boycott by African-Americans in Montgomery that lasted a year and produced a Supreme Court decision in their favor. Whites responded with beatings, burning crosses and bombings. But a huge civil rights movement of nonviolent action was born that gained many more rights than a secure bus seat.

"All types of struggle, and all means to control governments or to defend them against attack, are based upon certain basic assumptions about the nature of power," Gene Sharp writes. "One can see people as dependent upon the good will, the decisions and the support of their government....Or, conversely, one can see that government or system dependent on the people's good will, decisions and support....

"Nonviolent action is based on the second of these views: that governments depend on people, that power is pluralistic, and that political power is fragile because it depends on many groups for reinforcement of its power sources."

Why, after all do people obey their rulers and governments? Habit, fear of punishment, a feeling of moral obligation and self-interest are among the reasons. But obedience is not inevitable and it is essentially voluntary. "Therefore, all government is based upon consent." And at some point, as we have seen from the examples above, people may withdraw that consent.

As Gandhi powerfully declared: "The causes that gave them [the English] India enable them to retain it. Some Englishmen state that they took and they hold India by the sword. Both these statements are wrong. The sword is entirely useless for holding India. We alone keep them." (Gandhi, Moral and Political Writings ) When Indians demonstrated repeatedly that they had decided to "keep them" no longer, the English had to leave.

The readings that follow will provide a closer look at the specifics of the impact of nonviolent action in the stories of two very different peoples—people of color in South Africa and white people in Poland—who struggled to free themselves from oppressive governments.

Note: Except where indicated, the quotes in this overview of nonviolent direct action and portions of the summary are drawn from the first chapter of Gene Sharp, The Politics of Nonviolent Action: Part One: Power and Struggle.


For each reading the teacher might begin with a listing of student questions on the chalkboard. Is the question clear? Does it require the definition of certain words? Does in contain an unwarranted assumption? Is it answerable? With facts? From where? Opinions? Whose? Why?

Divide the class into small groups for a discussion of Sharp's definition of nonviolent action and the following questions:

  • What do students understand by "the consent of the ruled"?
  • In what specific ways does the government of the U.S. depend upon that consent? Suppose, for example, that a large number of Americans refused to pay their taxes. What effects would that have on the government?
  • What could the government do about this refusal? With what possible consequences?

Have a reporter from each group summarize its conclusions for consideration by the entire class.

  • John Adams said that the most important aspect of the American revolution "was in the minds of the people." What do you think he meant? Why?
  • Other than the examples given in the reading, can you think of any moments in history when nonviolent direct action was a crucial ingredient in a successful effort to win certain rights or to resist certain wrongs? Why was it successful? e.g., the women's struggle to gain the right to vote in the U.S.; Danish resistance to the Nazis.
  • In what ways might the use of violence "brutalize" those who wield it?

II. The Power of Nonviolent Action in South Africa

Student Reading 2:

The meaning of apartheid

May 1948 is a key date in the history of South Africa. The National Party under the leadership of Dr. Daniel Malan won control of the government, moved immediately to establish apartheid, or "apartness," as the official policy of the country and held political power for the next 46 years. A professor of sociology at the University of Pretoria, Dr. Geoff Cronje, explained the benefits of apartheid for the white people of the country:

"The more consistently the policy of apartheid could be applied, the greater would be the security for the purity of our blood and the surer our unadulterated European racial survival....Total racial the most consistent application of the Afrikaner idea of racial apartheid." (Martin Meredith, In the Name of Apartheid ) ("Afrikaner" is a term used to describe white South Africans of Dutch or German descent.)

A prime minister who gained office in 1958, Hendrik Verwoerd, declared, "Our motto is to maintain white supremacy for all time to come over our own people and our own country, by force if necessary." He also said he never had "the nagging doubt of ever wondering whether perhaps I am wrong." (Peter Ackerman and Jack Duvall, A Force More Powerful: A Century of Nonviolent Conflict )

What did the official policy of apartheid mean? A few samples:

  • The Mixed Marriage Act forbade marriages between whites and any non-European.
  • The Immorality Act forbade sexual relations across "race" lines.
  • The Population Registration Act required the classification of every person as White, Native (later called Bantu) or African, Asian and Indian, or Colored (people of mixed background), required also that every person carry an identity card showing their "race"; required in later associated "pass" laws that every African 16 years or older carry with them always a reference book containing personal information, including identity number, employment status and fingerprints and made them liable to immediate arrest if they did not have the book in their possession.
  • The Group Areas Act extended an earlier act dividing South Africa into separate areas for whites, Africans, Asians and Indians and Coloreds and gave the government the power to remove forcibly, if necessary, people from areas not designated for their group.

Apartheid also meant segregation in all public facilities—schools, churches, taxis, movie theaters. It meant voting was for whites only. It meant police could arrest and jail people in solitary confinement for an indefinite period. It meant that judges could ban any gathering of two or more people if they suspected any danger to public peace. It meant that certain occupations could be reserved for whites only. It meant no guarantee of a minimum wage for Africans. The list of the apartheid regulations and prohibitions went on and on.

Police, courts, the entire system of white-ruled South African government enforced apartheid laws both rigorously and vigorously. But the system had two weaknesses:
1) The prosperity of white South Africa depended upon the labor of black Africans and, to a lesser extent, Indians, other Asians and Coloreds. They served as soldiers, worked in subordinate jobs for the police and the government, did the hard manual work on farms and in factories and mines, were the submissive leaders in areas designated for them.
2) The system also depended upon their cooperation with the system in a country whose population in 1951 included:

  • 8,560,003 African
  • 1,103,016 Colored
  • 366,664 Asian and Indian
  • 2,641,689 White
    (Rodney Davenport and Christopher Saunders, South Africa: A Modern History )

In 1951, South Africa's 472,359 square miles of territory were reserved as follows:

  • 87% White
  • 13% African, most of them scattered in homelands or "Bantustans" with a limited degree of independence on lands that whites did not want.
    (Bill Bigelow, Strangers in Their Own Land )

This apartheid system did not spring into existence at one bound in 1948. It had been developing ever since the first white settlers, the Dutch, established a permanent colony at the Cape of Good Hope in 1652 in an area already occupied by Africans. Wars, white enslavement of Africans, and smallpox epidemics devastated the blacks. White French Huguenot refugees and Germans joined the Dutch and collectively became known as Afrikaners. But Britain seized control of the Cape area in 1795 and in 1814 the Dutch officially ceded it to them. These acts began a long conflict between the Afrikaners and the British.

The British abolished slavery in 1834, angering the Afrikaners, who were dependent upon it. In what they call the Great Trek, 10,000 Afrikaners migrated northward to escape British rule, established the Boer ("farmer") states of Transvaal and the Orange Free State, seized Zulu land and founded the state of Natal as well.

During the second half of the 19th century, large deposits of diamonds and then of gold spurred European (mostly British) immigration. Many blacks moved to the mining regions for work. Mine owners built hostels to house them and established patterns of control that became part of the later, official apartheid system.

In the Boer War of 1899-1902, the British defeated the Afrikaners, many of whom then migrated to the growing cities. In 1910 the Union of South Africa was established as a dominion of the British Empire with a constitution guaranteeing white political control.

In 1912 the African National Congress (ANC) was founded and became a leading African group in the struggle for the elimination of restrictions based on color and the right to vote and to parliamentary representation. But the government continued to strengthen laws like the Natives Land Act of 1913 that denied these freedoms and rights. This act provided rural reserves covering 7.5% of the country for Africans, who made up 68% of the population.

In 1934 the South African parliament claimed full sovereignty and in 1961 quit the British Commonwealth and became completely independent. In 1964, leaders of the ANC were arrested and charged with treason. Nelson Mandela, the best known among them, concluded a speech to the court with these words:

"Africans want to be paid a living wage. Africans want to perform work which they are capable of doing, and not work which the government declares them capable of. Africans want to be allowed to live where they obtain work and not be thrown out of an area because they were not born there. Africans want to be allowed to own land in places where they work....Africans want to be part of the general population, and not confined to living in their own ghettoes....Africans want to be allowed to travel in their own country....Africans want a fair share in the whole of South Africa....

"Above all, we want equal political rights, because without them, our horrible conditions will be permanent. I know this sounds revolutionary to the whites in this country, because the majority of voters will be Africans. This makes white men fear democracy. But it is not true that the vote for all will result in black domination....The ANC has spent half a century fighting against racism. When we win, we will not change that policy...."

Mandela and the others were sentenced to life imprisonment.



  • How did Afrikaners come to control South Africa?
  • Define apartheid with specific examples.
  • What do you think Dr. Cronje meant by "purity of our blood" and "unadulterated European racial survival"? What do you think a hematologist would have to say about the former? An anthropologist about the latter?
  • Why did the apartheid system work despite the fact that people of color vastly outnumbered their white rulers? What were weaknesses in the apartheid system?
  • According to Mandela, what rights did Africans want and why were whites unwilling to agree to them?


Student Reading 3:

The struggle against apartheid

By the mid-1980s, apartheid began to crumble. In 1986 the government repealed the hated "pass" laws requiring every person to carry a reference book containing personal information. Within a few years the Mixed Marriage and Immorality acts were gone; the legislative authority for the Group Areas Act that segregated people by race was gone; the Population Registration Act requiring a racial classification for every individual was gone.

What had happened to make such events possible? First, a flashback to the 1890s when Mohandas K. Gandhi, a young Indian lawyer, arrived in South Africa to practice his profession. He soon learned that his fellow Indians, who had begun arriving in South Africa in the late 19th century as indentured workers, were treated as inferiors. They could live only in certain areas; could not use public facilities; were taxed unfairly; could not vote; were tied up with restrictions to hamper their business lives; were required to carry passes bearing their fingerprints.

Gandhi experienced South African bigotry as he traveled in a first-class compartment on a train from Durban to Pretoria. A white man had him thrown out of the compartment. When Gandhi complained, the conductor forced him out of the train and onto a station platform. Such experiences in South Africa led Gandhi to re-evaluate his life, to become interested in nonviolence and to become a leader in the Indian community. He gradually developed a philosophy he called satyagraha,"truth force" or "soul force." "The philosophy of satyagraha prescribes nonviolent action in which the actors refuse to cooperate with laws that they regard as unjust or otherwise offensive to their consciences, accompanied by a willingness to suffer the consequences." ( The Unconquerable World )

Satyagraha's first practical test came during a 1906-1908 campaign under the leadership of Gandhi that led to a number of nonviolent protests, among them Indians publicly burning their passes. Gandhi and others were arrested. Though he reached a temporary compromise with the South African president, the agreement fell apart. But Gandhi learned from his experiences. He returned to India and became the leader of massive nonviolent protests against British rule that played a major role in achieving India's freedom.

Key events in the anti-apartheid campaign:


Influenced by Gandhi's nonviolent campaign earlier in the century, ANC leaders Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, and Oliver Tambo organized a Defiance Campaign against the new apartheid laws. Other organizations joined them and participated in demonstrations and strikes. The climax came in 1952 when nonviolent protestors entered forbidden areas without permits, violated "Europeans only" regulations at railway stations, burned passes and broke curfew laws. More than 8,000 were arrested. After riots broke out early in 1953, the ANC called off the campaign but its membership quadrupled.


ANC activists who disapproved of the organization's alliances with white sympathizers formed the Pan-Africanist Congress (PAC). The new organization called on Africans to go to police stations without their passes. On March 21, 1960, 5,000 showed up at the Sharpeville police station expecting to be arrested. Instead the police fired on the noisy crowd, killing 69 and injuring 180. Later the same day, near Cape Town, the police fired on a crowd of 6,000, killing three and injuring 47, leading to a riot during which municipal offices were burned. Weeks of protests and riots followed across the country. Another 10,000, mostly Africans, were arrested. Mandela and other leaders publicly burned their passes and were arrested. The ANC and the PAC were banned.

These nonviolent protests, the arrests, the killings and the riots echoed around the world as no previous protests had. Though President Eisenhower said he couldn't judge "a difficult social and political problem six thousand miles away," the U.S. State Department for the first time criticized the South African government and said it hoped black South Africans would be able to "obtain redress for legitimate grievances by peaceful means." The Security Council of the United Nations blamed the government for the shootings.

Forced to work underground and confronted with a government that fired bullets at nonviolent people, Mandela argued for armed action. The ANC formed Umkhonto we Sizwe, "Spear of the Nation." Ordered not to injure anyone, it sabotaged and bombed railway lines, government buildings and power stations. Inevitably, though, people were wounded and killed. A number of African leaders went into exile. Others were arrested, among them Mandela, who soon went to prison for 27 years. The violent campaign was on and off for years, but said Lourence Du Plessis, chief of police intelligence in the Eastern Cape, "The armed struggle was never really a threat to us." ( A Force More Powerful )


One morning in 1955 armed white men arrived on the streets of Sophiatown, a black neighborhood a few miles from Johannesburg. The men ordered people to load their belongings on trucks and drove them to a new township eight miles away. The same thing happened in other nearby black areas that whites regarded as desirable and wanted for a suburb they called Triomf, "Triumph." Most of the blacks ended up in a less desirable southwestern area that became the black ghetto of Soweto. A thousand blacks were left homeless.

Years later, residents of Soweto had many grievances—an education system that South Africa's leader Dr. Verwoerd had publicly stated was intended to produce menial workers; rising unemployment; a deliberately planned housing shortage intended to force blacks into "Homelands," from which they would have to commute to work. A final straw for seething Soweto was the government's decision to require all school instruction in Afrikaans, the language of the oppressors. A "Black Consciousness" movement had been developing whose purpose was to build a united front and a common identity as blacks among Africans, Coloreds and Indians. An arm of this movement organized a protest against the language requirement on a June morning. Singing songs and carrying signs with messages like "To Hell with Africaans," students marched into the center of town. Police fired tear gas. Students threw stones. The police shot dead one of the students. Bands of students broke windows and started fires in schools and government buildings. Havoc reigned for three days. At the end of them, two whites and more than 60 Africans were dead. The Soweto uprising, with students at their core, spread across the country. When violence ended 10 months later, five whites and 1,149 blacks were dead.


With the goal of political stability, the government decided to improve the miserable conditions in the black townships for which it was responsible. But it would also make the blacks pay for them. This policy became the target of black opposition and local civic associations. Leaders like Popo Molefe in Soweto decided that focusing on "essential, real and vital" issues would give people "the confidence that through their united mass action they can intervene and change their lives on no matter how small a scale."

To pay for new sewer lines in Duduza, residents learned that their rent and services charges would double. Women carried buckets of "night waste" to township offices so that bosses "would feel the smell." In Lamontville people revolted against a bus fare increase by launching an 18-month boycott that forced a return to the old fares. The Port Elizabeth civic association prevented rent hikes and stopped metered water charges. But black activists like Pope Molefe and Wilfred Rhodes in Cape Town had bigger aims. "We must see the increasing rents, bus fares and electricity charges as being only the smoke. Our work must be geared to extinguishing the fire which causes the smoke." Apartheid was the fire. (A Force More Powerful )

In 1983 Africans, Coloreds, Indians and whites organized an inter-racial organization, the United Democratic Front (UDF). Black and white ministers played leading roles, among them Desmond Tutu, a black Anglican who spoke out again and again against apartheid but also for blacks and whites to work together. "I pray that one day we will understand fully that we are God's children, all of us," he said, "that we belong to him as one family, God's family." ( The Rainbow People of God: The Making of a Peaceful Revolution ) Archbishop Tutu won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984, which made him an international figure.

An important test for the UDF was the government's decision to create a new parliament with separate chambers for whites, Coloreds and Indians. Africans were not to be represented but would be given greater independence in their towns. Prime Minister P.W. Botha's motives were to present a better international image and to weaken resistance to apartheid in the country. The UDF called for a boycott of the elections. In municipal elections the turnout was down a third from the previous election. In elections for Colored and Indian representatives to the racially segregated parliament, less than 20% of those eligible voted.


Civic organization had taught black Africans the power of nonviolent action. But their fury could also lead to violence. After a demonstration in Langa that resulted in white police officers firing on the crowd and killing twenty people, blacks turned their anger into attacks on those blacks who were known police informers. One was stabbed and then girdled with tires around his shoulders and head and burned to death. The "necklace" became the fate of informers and black police in townships for months afterward.

Port Elizabeth activists showed the power of a new approach to a more familiar strategy, the boycott. Apartheid depended upon the support of the white population. But white-owned businesses might also depend upon the support of blacks. Several middle-aged women came to their civic committee with the idea of boycotting those businesses in Port Elizabeth. In the summer of 1985 civic leader Mkhuseli Jack spoke to a large crowd at the funeral, which was the only type of public gathering the government now allowed. "We won't buy in town on Monday," he told the crowd. "We won't even buy a box of matches on Monday!" Though Jack and other leaders were thrown in jail, the boycott cost white business owners 30% of their business. Store owners pleaded with government officials to give in to the boycotters. Chief DuPlesssis said, "If they don't want to buy, what sort of crime is it? ....You can't shoot all these people. You can't lock them all up." ( A Force More Powerful)

In Alexandra the Alexandra Action Committee (AAC) also fought apartheid with a consumer boycott targeting black officials who collaborated with the white government. Stores and taxis turned them away. Churchgoers would not listen to their priest. The people of Alexandra demonstrated that if they refused to cooperate with white oppressors or their black helpers the apartheid system could not govern. Under the leadership of the AAC, townspeople proceeded to elect their own town executive and establish their own criminal justice system. As much as possible they would govern themselves.

In township after township, similar events occurred. Zwelakhe Sisulu, son of the jailed ANC leader Walter Sisulu, pointed up what was happening, saying that it was possible to create "people's power now, in the process of struggle, before actual liberation." People were "beginning to exert control over their own lives...beginning to govern themselves, despite being under racist rule." A Port Elizabeth leader said, "We have built our own democratic government." ( A Force More Powerful )

Crumbling from within despite years of repression, police massacres, jailings, and tortures and despite repeated states of emergency, the South African government by the late 1980s had become an international outcast. Worldwide protests, economic sanctions and boycotts of anything having to do with white South Africa took their toll. White South Africans were realizing that repression of blacks was now damaging them, that a political way had to be found to end apartheid. White leaders met outside of South Africa with black leaders living in exile. The government released seven ANC leaders, including Walter Sisulu. And late in 1989, Frederick Wilhelm de Klerk, leader of the National Party and president of South Africa, came to the Robben Island prison to meet and negotiate with Nelson Mandela. In prison for more than two decades, Mandela had become the symbol of resistance to apartheid. But to the surprise of many, "Mandela had become famous above all as the man who forgave the enemies who had jailed him." (Anthony Sampson, Mandela )

Mandela had made it clear as far back as 1964 at his trial that he opposed both white domination and black domination. His final words at that trial were "I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to love for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die."

On February 11, 1990, Mandela, with TV cameras sending pictures around the world of his every step, walked out of prison a free man. Four years later he was elected president of South Africa. De Klerk said he was "surrendering power, not to the majority of the moment, but to the South African people." He became Mandela's vice president.

Seventy years earlier in an interview, Gandhi said, "I believe, and everybody must grant, that no Government can exist for a single moment without the cooperation of the people, willing or forced, and if people suddenly withdraw their cooperation in every detail, the Government will come to a stand-still." (M.K. Gandhi, Non-Violent Resistance ) Janet Cherry, an underground member of the ANC, said, "Despite all the rhetoric of the ANC about the armed struggle, it was, in fact, the activities of the UDF, in mass organization, which brought about the change in South Africa."

One close study of the forces that brought down apartheid concludes: "Nonviolent sanctions were an indispensable link in the chain of events that ended the old order. Stay-aways, strikes, and boycotts put pressure on white business owners and employers, and they undermined white attachment to the status quo. Rent boycotts defunded local councils, and street committees usurped their functions. Faced with this variegated challenge, the regime reacted with open force. Repression subdued the civics and the committees, but it also cost the regime any chance of avoiding economic punishment by the international community. Nonviolent power did not by itself bring down the curtain on white rule, but it discredited the regime's authority and undermined its strategy for shielding apartheid from the many forces arrayed against it."( A Force More Powerful )

What does a tyrant need to fear? Desmond Tutu asked himself, " is when people decide they want to be free. Once they have made up their minds to that, there is nothing that will stop them." ( A Force Mor e Powerful )



  • Why might Gandhi have been an inspiration to Africans opposed to apartheid?
  • What were the different methods Africans used in their opposition. What were the circumstances? How effective was the method in each case? Why do you think so?
  • Consider the Port Elizabeth boycott. What if instead of carrying out a boycott of white businesses, African militants had conducted a policy of sabotage and violence, for example burning down stores and warehouses, dynamiting trucks loaded with merchandise, assassinating business leaders. What do you suppose would have been the reaction of the government? Why? What problem did the government have with the boycott? What could it do about it?
  • Do you agree with Desmond Tutu's remark quoted at the end of the reading? Why or why not?

III. The Power of Nonviolent Action in Poland

Student Reading 4:

Government control and worker discontent

No people suffered more in World War II than the Poles. Their country was invaded by both Hitler's Germany and Stalin's Soviet Union. More than six million of Poland's 35 million citizens died in the war. Most of its three million Jews were slaughtered in Nazi extermination camps. A million and one-half Poles were deported to Siberia. Poland's major cities were heavily bombed and looted; its capital Warsaw became a wasteland. In the countryside, most of the horses, cattle and swine were dead and much farmland in very poor condition. Roads, bridges and railway systems were smashed.

At the end of the war in 1945 Poland not only lay in ruins but also was under Stalin's control. Despite a promise of free elections, the Soviet Union installed a government run by the Polish communist party (known by its Polish initials, PZPR) modeled on its own but with little support in the country. PZPR crushed opposition parties and established controls over every area of public life—business and industry, speech, press, theater, religion. Almost all Poles are Roman Catholics, but not even the Church was immune from PZPR's assault. The new rulers nationalized Church land, arrested priests, closed seminaries and stopped religious instruction in schools.

"Any contact with the outside world was instantly denounced, creating a social atmosphere where political trials looked normal and innocent men and women could be arbitrarily sentenced as foreign spies. People were encouraged to live communally, and to think collectively. They no longer belonged to themselves as individuals, or to their families, but to their work-force, their shock-brigades, or their regiment. Peasants were forced onto collective farms. The Russian system of informers was introduced in factories and schools....Conformism in dress and thought was encouraged." (Norman Davies, Heart of Europe: A Short History of Poland )

At the same time PZPR promised a better life. A rebuilt, new Poland would rise from the ashes with good schools and modern factories and good jobs and benefits for workers. The promise was not kept. By the 1950s, food was scarce and rationed, products were shoddy and most Poles lived in small houses or apartments without running water or telephones. PZPR economic ignorance, mismanagement and wastefulness bore most of the responsibility for these conditions.

The first serious trouble from increasingly dissatisfied Poles came in June 1956. A worker's committee in Poznan called for a mass demonstration and a general strike. About 100,000 gathered in the city center demanding change. Some demonstrators broke into PZPR security headquarters and prisons to free inmates. Troops fired on the protesters, killing 75 and wounding 800. Hundreds were arrested. The PZPR blamed "imperialist agents," but Poles blamed what had called itself a workers' government for killing Polish workers.

A new PZPR leader, Wladslaw Gomulka, took over. He condemned the abuses of the previous government and promised reforms. The Soviet Union allowed one hundred thousand Poles to return from exile in Siberia. The persecution of the Catholic Church ceased and the Church allowed to conduct its normal activities. Most of the collective farms were closed and family farming resumed. A freer press was allowed. Economic change was promised.

But the Gomulka government could not make the economy work, and living conditions for most Poles did not improve. Thousands working in the shipyards of Gdansk, Gdynia and Szczecin, in automobile factories in Warsaw, in the Krakow steel mills, and the coal mines of Silesia were no better off. Government-sponsored unions officially represented these workers but in fact represented the government. By the late 1960s it was clear to everyone that Gomulka's leadership had failed. When his government announced in 1970 that food prices were to rise, wages to be frozen for two years, more work to be required for the same pay and spending on health and housing to be reduced, Poland erupted.

Shipyard workers in Gdansk went on strike, marched to party headquarters and began chanting, "We want bread! Down with Gomulka!" The strikers burned down the party headquarters. After Gomulka sent in troops and tanks, four strikers were shot dead and fifteen wounded, others arrested. The strikers were forced to surrender. Similar actions took place at Gdynia and Szczecin, resulting in the deaths of dozens of workers. The ever-present threat in Poland of Soviet troop intervention loomed. Tensions eased when PZPR officials blamed Gomulka for the country's problems and forced him to resign. Edward Gierik replaced him. But the strikers gained little—the canceling of some food price hikes and compensation for the families of wounded and killed workers. The new government, however, would not grant their chief demand—free trade unions.

By the early 1970s many Poles had given up on their hope that Polish communism would mean freedom and better lives. Intellectuals who had supported the PZPR were now examining the situation of Poland thoughtfully and publishing their ideas in underground Polish newspapers and publications run by emigres abroad. Such intellectuals as Adam Michnik and Jacek Kuron realized that gradual reform of the Gomulka type did not work. They knew that any attempt to overthrow PZPR control of the government would be smashed, if not by Polish troops then by Soviet troops. For the Soviets had sent its army into its satellites in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968, making it clear that it would not permit any serious threat to the communist regime.

What, then, could be done? Change Polish society through people's independent actions, through organizations they created that were not under party control. Such behavior, Kuron wrote, "challenges the monopoly of the state and thereby challenges the basis upon which it exercises power." Michnik declared the immediate task to be building "a real, day-to-day community of free people" and "Our freedom begins with ourselves." Just as Gandhi had said earlier of the British in India, "We alone keep them," so Poles could come to believe that they "kept" the PZPR and the Soviet Union. ( A Force More Powerful )

For such a change in consciousness to occur allies were necessary—in particular, the Catholic Church and the industrial working class of Poland who had already shown that their militance could win some concessions from the authorities and who were feared by them. Solidarity among intellectuals, the Church and workers was essential.


  • After World War II, why was Poland under the control of the Soviet Union? What were some of the effects on Polish life?
  • What were major factors in Polish dissatisfaction with PZPR rule? What forms did resistance to that rule take? What was the regime's reaction to violent protest?
  • What resistance strategy made most sense to Michnik and Kuron? Why?

Student Reading 5:


Key events in the solidarity campaign:


Like Gomulka, Gierek accused his predecessor of having "lost touch with the masses." He went to the striking shipyards and factories and promised improved conditions. He rolled back the 1970 price increases. He was more friendly with the Church. He pumped money into the Polish economy with loans from the capitalist West. But once again waste, corruption and what one journalist called "breathtaking incompetence" produced the same result—a failing economy and growing worker discontent. In June 1976 the government once again announced sharp increases in food prices. Across the country the next day 75% of the industrial workers struck. At a tractor plant near Warsaw, they tore up railway tracks and halted train traffic. In Radom they burned down party headquarters.

As in 1970, the government immediately cancelled the food hikes. But it struck hard at the Radom rioters, arresting 2,000 and keeping 300 in prison, sentencing some to up to 10 years. Thousands of others were fired. This time, though, intellectuals formed the Workers' Defense Committee (its Polish acronym is KOR), whose membership included mainly historians but also lawyers, writers, philosophers and priests. KOR's strategy was the one conceived by Michnik, Kuron and others to build a new Poland based on people power. It demanded amnesty for those in prison, the rehiring of those fired and hired lawyers for the defense of the workers. It stimulated a flood of letters and petitions and an international outcry and donations for the workers' cause. KOR's strategy worked. All the imprisoned workers were released and most of those fired were rehired.


Determined that now things would be different in Poland, KOR members created an alliance among intellectuals, workers and priests. The group worked openly, even publishing the names and addresses of members. Most significantly, it was acting on Kuron's advice to angry workers: "Don't burn down Party Headquarters, found your own." And so KOR did not attempt to get its views and reports of its activities into the official media that obediently published the propaganda the regime wanted Poles to believe. KOR began producing its own news reports, declarations and appeals with the help of members who typed and passed them along. It later published with the help of mimeograph machines. In time it started an underground publishing unit with its own print shops, storehouses and distribution network.

As part of its work to establish alternative institutions, KOR joined other groups to provide an alternative to the universities controlled by the PZRP. They called it the Flying University. It offered lectures on history and politics that the regime would never have allowed. Students would announce a time, date and place in university cities, and many students and others would jam a private apartment for a talk. In Krakow, Cardinal Karol Wojtyla, soon to be the first Polish pope, provided assembly halls.

Students formed solidarity groups as alternatives to PZPR-controlled student groups. Workers organized unions to lead organizing drives in factories. KOR launched peasant self-defense committees. The police spied on, arrested and beat people. Students were expelled. Agents disrupted lectures. Many people became fearful and unwilling to participate. But the PZPR limited its repression because it didn't want to stimulate a larger public opposition or to put its foreign economic agreements in jeopardy. So it allowed KOR and other groups some independence.

At about the same time as these events in Poland, Vaclav Havel in Czechoslovakia, struggling against another repressive communist regime, was publishing "Living in Truth." This essay examined the meaning of constructive nonviolent action. He wrote that in conforming to a totalitarian system's demands "individuals confirm the system, fulfill the system, make the system, are the system." Daily, each individual makes little decisions between living in truth and living in the lie. To say what you think needs saying, to act the way you think people need to act is "simply to live in harmony' with your "better self." Instead of defining oneself in negative terms as against something, one defines oneself simply as one who is what one is. ( The Unconquerable World ) Increasing numbers of Poles were learning "to live in truth."

The visit of Pope John Paul II to Poland in June 1979 was an enormous inspiration for Poles "to live in truth." For the Pope expressed, even if indirectly, his opposition to Soviet control of Poland, whose future, he declared, "will depend on how many people are mature enough to be nonconformists."


The Gierek regime fell victim to the same failures of central planning, corruption and incompetence as had previous governments. Given what had happened in the past, it seems incredible that the government would on July 1, 1980 announce hikes in food prices. Workers struck immediately in and around Warsaw and workers elsewhere soon followed suit. The government was unable to stop Kuron and other KOR activists from publicizing around the country and to Western journalists what the workers were doing and why. In August the focus of the country, however, was on Gdansk, where the shipyard workers had received wage increases and not gone on strike.

But the government made the mistake of firing Anna Walentynowicz, a crane operator and activist who was beloved by other workers for her tireless efforts on their behalf and for her ability to create links with workers elsewhere. Several of them wrote and distributed thousands of leaflets. The workers, led by Lech Walesa, a skilled shipyard electrician who had repeatedly been in trouble with the authorities for his union activities, not only went on strike but also published 21 demands. They included the right to strike and the right to form a free trade union independent of PZPR control. Two hundred other factories in the region also went on strike.

The authorities tried to buy off the workers, to make separate deals to divide them, to cut off roads and telephones. But the strike spread from the Baltic region to Silesia. Across Poland, workers stayed united. The government surrendered, granting most of the Gdansk demands, in particular the one permitting workers to form independent trade unions. Walesa and other leaders promptly named their new union Solidarity. All the government could salvage was union recognition of "the leading role of the PZPR in the state." Solidarity had won a nonviolent victory that no other group had attained in the history of communist-ruled states. Gierek had a heart attack and was replaced by Stanislaw Kania.

Solidarity now walked a fine line. Millions of Poles, many not industrial workers, joined the movement, which by September had four million members, by the end of the year ten million. The challenge to PZPR rule was obvious. Yet, Walesa fought off efforts to achieve still more. He opposed, for example, offering to aid workers to form their own version of Solidarity in other communist countries in Eastern Europe. For the threat of Soviet intervention with its powerful armies was always present. But Solidarity leaders also fought off the regime's continuing efforts to divide and conquer, to back out of its agreement, to harass workers all over the country trying to create free trade unions. By 1981 Solidarity unions included not just industrial workers but teachers, farmers, doctors and nurses, policemen. The efforts begun by Kuron, Michnik, KOR and Solidarity to create nonviolently a society and movement outside of the official one had succeeded.

Or had it? Once again the Polish economy faltered. Rationing of sugar, flour, and meat began. There were food shortages, long lines at shops. Solidarity considered demanding a share in making economic policy. Soviet pressure to break Solidarity was intense. General Wojciech Jaruzelski became the regime's leader and on the night of December 12 declared martial law. Special paramilitary units sealed off cities, cut telephone lines, seized TV and radio stations, and arrested many Solidarity leaders, including Walesa. The government decreed that Solidarity was "suspended"; strikes were forbidden; telephone calls and mail would be censored; a 10 p.m.-6 a.m. curfew was in effect. When some workers went on strike at the Gdansk shipyard, there were no negotiations as in the past. Instead, troops and tanks stormed in, firing tear gas and arresting leaders, then closed the shipyard. All of Poland was in shock.


The struggle continued. Solidarity leaders who had escaped arrest worked underground. One of them, Zbigniew Bujak, said later, that during these martial law years, to avoid arrest, "I stayed in over 300 flats." But efforts to form secret factory committees and to mount strikes were smashed in new waves of arrests. The spirit of Solidarity remained. Collections were made for jailed workers in factories and by priests. The independent press continued underground, using methods established earlier. The Flying Universities were back in business.

Poles used another weapon—the boycott. Workers refused to join the new government-sponsored unions despite the ban on Solidarity. Actors refused to appear on TV, forcing reruns. Those who did not honor the boycott were themselves boycotted. An unusual boycott developed in Swidnik, where Poles left their homes for a walk when the regime's nightly news program came on. "...we knew how Gandhi operated, what Martin Luther King did," Bujak said, "and we knew that these people, building the theory of nonviolent resistance, they won. They simply won, this is the power. It requires, of course, very good organization, great courage, but this is the road, the path of Gandhi's success." (Bujak quotes can be found at

The government suspended martial law in December 1982, but did not release all political prisoners until several years later.

Gradually, the Jaruzelski government ran out of things to do. Despite further crackdowns and arrests, despite efforts at liberalization like allowing greater freedom of press, the resistance continued. And it continued even when leaders like Walesa, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1983, were released from detention. Once again economic conditions deteriorated. Strikes broke out. Food shortages and shopping lines grew. Mikhail Gorbachev, the new Soviet leader, had begun reform efforts in the Soviet Union and was much less inclined to use force in the Soviet satellite nations of Eastern Europe.

After an internal struggle, the PZPR gave Jaruzelski the authority to meet with the opposition. On February 6, 1989, he and other regime leaders met with the likes of Walesa, Michnik and Kuron. On April 6 the regime surrendered the right to form free trade unions, the right to greater press freedom, the right to have judges independent of the government, and, astoundingly, the right to free parliamentary elections.

On August 24, 1989 a Solidarity-led ticket humiliated the PZPR by defeating almost all of its candidates to win a Solidarity-led parliament. Still concerned about the Soviet Union, Solidarity members in the new parliament supported the presidency of Jaruzelski. That gave the communists continued control of Poland, but in name only, and soon even the name would be gone. For in another year Lech Walesa, the Gdansk shipyard worker would be president. The people of Poland had not planned to overthrow the communist government. But with practically no violence, they had won control of their country and everyone knew it. Solidarity had "turned the history of communism on its head—without having to take the head of a single Polish communist. Had it aimed at heads, its own might never have taken power." (A Force More Powerful)

"Michnik and his colleagues told themselves that they and others had also discovered the political equivalent of the 'atomic bomb,' and they were right—except that their invention in fact accomplished what no actual atomic bomb could accomplish, the defeat of the Soviet Union. When they began their agitation, the iron law of the world dictated that revolution must be violent because violence was the foundation of power, and only power enables you to storm that citadel of violence and power, the state, and so to take power. When they were finished, and state after repressive state had been dissolved with little or no use of violence, a new law of the world had been written, and it read: Nonviolent action can be a source of revolutionary power, which erodes the ancien regime from within (even if its practitioners don't aim at this) and lays the foundation for a new state." ( The Unconquerable World )

Within little more than two years after Solidarity took power, nonviolent methods similar to those used in Poland overturned communist control in every Soviet-controlled state in Eastern Europe and then in the Soviet Union itself.


  • What did Kuron mean by advising angry workers, "Don't burn down Party Headquarters, found your own"? How good was this advice? Why?
  • What did Havel mean by "living in truth"? In practical, everyday terms, what might this mean to a Pole in the 1970s who lived under communist rule with the threat of Soviet intervention always present?
  • How do you account for Solidarity's success? Consider both its actions and what it decided not to do. For example, Solidarity decided to support the election of Jaruzelski to Poland's presidency. But it decided not to give aid to the resistance in other communist bloc states. In each case, why?
  • Do you agree with the quotes with which the reading closes? Why or why not?

Student Reading 6:

A personal account of nonviolent resistance in Poland

When martial law was declared in Poland, Alicja Derkowska and her husband Gabriel, mathematics teachers as well as instructors of other mathematics teachers, were living in Nowy Sacz, a town in the south of Poland. In her recollection of some of their activities during that time, Ms Derkowska begins with Sunday, December 13, the first full day of martial law:

Gabriel and I were supposed to teach a course for math teachers at the Center for Teachers' Professional Development. Many who came were very confused since they didn't have access to radio or TV and didn't know what had happened. We explained the situation to the participants. Then we refused to lecture and encouraged everyone to go home immediately, which they did.

Everything in Nowy Sacz stopped. Buses did not run. Schools were closed and they stayed closed until after the Christmas break. At the beginning of January 1982 things returned to "normal." The director of our Cent