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Nonviolent History: South Africa’s Port Elizabeth Boycott

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On July 15, 1985, South Africans in the Port Elizabeth Township began a boycott of white-owned businesses to undermine the legitimacy of apartheid. A group of women suggested the idea of the consumer boycott, which was met with a 100 percent compliance rate.  Within five days of the boycott, a Member of Parliament noted that the economic boycott was the most effective weapon used-to-date in the South African anti-apartheid struggle. The movement demanded the integration of public institutions, the removal of troops from black townships, and the end of workplace discrimination.

In response to the boycott, which was rapidly causing white-owned businesses to close up, the government declared a state of emergency, imposing curfews, arresting thousands, restricting the movement of individuals, and sending the South African army to occupy the townships.

By November, white business owners were desperate and called upon the government to meet the demands. The movement negotiated. They would call the boycott off until March if their leaders were released from prison. The movement knew that Christmas was coming up, and it would have been hard to maintain the boycott through the season. Both sides agreed, leaders were released, and the boycott lifted for a few months.

In 1986, the movement informed the South African whites that the boycott would resume if the initial demands were not met by March 31. This warning was ignored by the authorities, and on April 1, the boycott resumed. Mkuseli Jack, a young South African leader, re-energized the boycott by proclaiming that, “our buying power is going to be the key that is going to decide the future, that is going to decide our destiny in this country.”  After nine weeks of boycotting, the government again imposed a state of emergency on June 12, 1986. Offices were raided, South Africans imprisoned, and the army occupied the townships again. Repression became harsher and used with increasing frequency. Anti-apartheid organizations were driven underground, ending the consumer boycott.

The next decade saw an escalation of community organizing, constructive programs, noncooperation tactics, repression from authorities, and an overall intensification of the struggle as international boycotts were launched in conjunction with local efforts.  The movement used numerous nonviolent actions, including sit-ins, marches, funeral processions, rallies, civil disobedience, social boycotts, strikes and stay-aways, rent strikes, renaming of public spaces, and the building of parallel and alternative institutions.  In 1989, the resistance culminated with the Defiance Campaign’s multiracial peace marches in Cape Town, Johannesburg, Durban, and throughout the country.  The struggle moved to the negotiating table, creating a democratic resolution that set the stage for the truth and reconciliation process and the end of apartheid.

The Port Elizabeth boycott was a powerful moment of consolidating and demonstrating the power of nonviolent action to place economic sanctions on white South Africans. This piece of the long South African anti-apartheid struggle helps us remember the scope, arc, and duration of working for change. It’s a marathon, not a sprint, and every step counts.

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Rivera Sun is the author of The Dandelion Insurrection and other books, and the cofounder of the Love-In-Action Network.

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