GUEST POST from Greg Satell
With the political season heating up, an increasingly frequent topic of discussion is how radical candidates should be. Some say that the optimal strategy is to be mainstream and court the middle. Others argue that it is better to more extreme and rile up the passions of your most active supporters.
Yet as I explain in Cascades that’s a false choice. The truth is that once seemingly radical positions, such as voting rights for women, civil rights for disenfranchised racial groups and same-sex marriage are now considered mainstream. To win those battles, however, activists needed to appeal to shared values.
What’s key isn’t any particular policy, but whether you can appeal to common values and mobilize supporters to influence institutions that will determine whether you can bring change about. You don’t do that through enforcing ideological purity or demonizing your opposition, but by putting forward an affirmative vision for a better future.
Change Starts With Passionate Grievance
As a young man, Nelson Mandela was angry. “I was sympathetic to the ultra-revolutionary stream of African nationalism,” he would later write. “I was angry at the white man, not at racism. While I was not prepared to hurl the white man into the sea, I would have been perfectly happy if he climbed aboard his steamships and left the continent of his own volition.”
After the National Party won elections in 1948 on a white supremacist platform, things got worse for native blacks , Indians and coloureds (mixed race). Mixed marriages were outlawed and it was mandated that races would live in segregated areas. This policy of Apartheid would only become more extreme over the next half century.
Mandela and his comrades stepped up their efforts as well. Rather than just merely protesting, the African National Congress (ANC) adopted a program of direct action, including boycotts, stay-at-homes, strikes and other tactics designed to undermine the Apartheid regime. Whatever hopes for working within the system that had remained were now gone for good.
Yet while Mandela’s actions intensified, his views tempered somewhat. Originally skeptical of building links with other racial groups, he began to see the value of collaboration. That’s what set the stage dealing the first blow to Apartheid, The Freedom Charter.
Searching Out Common Values
In June 1955, the Congress of The People, a gathering that included blacks, Coloureds, Indians and liberal whites convened to draft and adopt the Freedom Charter, much like the Continental Congress gathered to produce the Declaration of Independence in America. The idea was to come up with a common and inclusive vision.
However, the Freedom Charter was anything but moderate. It was a “revolutionary document precisely because the changes it envisioned could not be achieved without radically altering the economic and political structure of South Africa… In South Africa, to merely achieve fairness, one had to destroy apartheid itself, for it was the very embodiment of injustice.”
Yet despite its radical aims, the Freedom Charter spoke to common values, such as equal rights and equal protection under the law—not just among the signatories, but for anyone living in a free society. It didn’t seem so at the time—and the struggle would go on for decades—but the Freedom Charter ended up being the first major blow to Apartheid.
In later years, when Mandela was accused of being a communist, an anarchist and worse, he would point out that nobody had to guess what he believed, because it had been written down in the Freedom Charter in 1955. Of course, it would have been conceived differently if it had been an ANC-only document-—and some within the ANC bitterly protested—but it was the common ground that document created that brought about the end of Apartheid.
All too often, those who seek to bring about change, whether that change be in an organization, an industry, a community or throughout society as a whole, seek only to mobilize support among interest groups. That’s necessary, but far from sufficient. The truth is that only institutions can bring about real change.
In South Africa, Mandela and his comrades suffered under an all-powerful regime. Yet what they understood was that the government relied on many institutions outside the country for its survival. That was a significant vulnerability that could be exploited by mobilizing interest groups to influence key institutions.
One key campaign was taken against Barclays Bank in British university towns. For example, in 1984, Anti-Apartheid activists spray-painted “WHITES ONLY” and “BLACKS” above pairs of Barclays ATMs in British university town to draw attention to the bank’s investments in South Africa.
This of course, had little to no effect on public opinion in South Africa, but it meant a lot to the English university students that the bank wanted to attract. Barclays share of student accounts quickly plummeted from 27% to 15% and two years later Barclays pulled out all of its investments from the country.
It was a major blow that helped lead to other corporate divestments, sanctions from western governments and, eventually, the downfall of the regime. Apartheid had simply become economically untenable.
Mandela’s ascension to the Presidency of South Africa in 1994 was a historic triumph, but if it had stopped there the victory would have been limited. As we have seen more recently in places ranging from Ukraine to Egypt, even great, hard-fought victories can quickly be reversed. Every revolution inspires a counter-revolution.
To achieve lasting change, you need to plan to survive victory and you do that by reaffirming your commitment to common values. In the case of South Africa, that meant adhering to the principles of the Freedom Charter, which called for equal rights for all citizens, even for the white oppressors. That’s why today Mandela is remembered as a hero and not some tin-pot dictator.
In researching Cascades, I found that these principles held true not only in political and social contexts, but even in the corporate world. Radical change was achieved in firms ranging from IBM, Alcoa and Experian to fields like healthcare and education. In many cases, the degree of change surpassed anything anyone thought possible.
The truth is that success doesn’t depend on how radical or how moderate the vision, but how well you can appeal to shared values. Or, as Mandela himself put it, “to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”
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