Defend Truth


A peaceful mass revolution will be best for South Africa, and all it needs is for 3.5% of us to be galvanised into action


Ntombenhle Khathwane is an activist, a writer, a speaker and a social entrepreneur.

There has been greater success in bringing about change in societies in the world by nonviolent civil resistance than by violence. While we need a better electoral system, we also need corporate South Africa, as the shaper of our economy and therefore our democracy, to take the lead as part of the 3.5% that brings nonviolent change in our country.

Like many, I bought into the idea that the only way to bring about change is through some kind of revolution. This idea definitely has become embedded in my consciousness since the KwaZulu-Natal riots in 2021. I had been quietly holding my breath for the time when most South Africans would decide that they do deserve better and hit the streets to make the country ungovernable, to end the cycle of poor governance and service delivery we have been trapped in for decades.  

My longing for such action has increased as we approach the 2024 elections, because it is very possible that we will have another five years of this frustration. In recent weeks, though, I have been exposed to the idea that peaceful revolution is possible, and it is more sustainable for a country like South Africa to have a peaceful mass revolution. South Africans actually do still want to achieve that dream of democracy that thus far has remained an unfulfilled promise.

The thought has been brewing in my head for a while. I have been reading and listening widely, trying to understand what would bring South Africans to take action. I thought for sure that the increased rolling blackouts would jumpstart us into action. I have participated in the exercises of the chattering class, examining why this has not happened. Why have the “masses” not hit the streets, protesting against the rolling blackouts?  

Nothing new for the working class

My answer came when a temporary home assistant came to work in my home. She was genuinely shocked to learn that the suburbs are also experiencing rolling blackouts. 

The masses, whom the middle class is hoping will save us, at least from load shedding, are not coming to our rescue. They are not going to hit the streets and make South Africa ungovernable to get the government to act faster on fixing the electricity problem. They won’t, because they have been living with and experiencing constant power blackouts for a long time. Being without electricity for days and sometimes weeks is normal for them.  

In my search, and in my everyday living, I was exposed to the concept of 3.5% required to bring about revolutionary change. It was presented in a TEDx Talk by Erica Chenoweth in 2013

The idea is that there has been greater success in bringing about change in societies in the world by nonviolent civil resistance than instances that used violence. Chenoweth did a study that shows that it requires just 3.5% of the population to engage in some form of nonviolent civil action to bring about change, and describes the different forms that nonviolent civil action or disobedience take. This excited me and gave me hope for South Africa.

If there is one thing that is uniting us as South Africans, it is increasing frustration with our government, from its failure to deliver on service delivery to its inability to take leadership in transforming the economy to make it inclusive and see more people active in the economy, from its failure to cut the ridiculously high unemployment rate to being a corrupt government that presides over increasing inflation and inequality. 

Our frustration is our unifying factor. However, how we want to see this resolved is where we will differ – and that’s okay. Let’s focus on what unifies us in order to spark the widespread recollection of the fact that we do deserve better, and that we can get and do better.

Protest fatigue

I used to attend protests, but like many, it will take a lot to get me on the streets right now. 

I probably sign a petition a week, and follow sites like Dear South Africa, and even Sakeliga, to see what South Africans are doing to mobilise in peaceful ways. Such organisations have made a difference in defending our rights and freedoms, and most of us don’t even know it. I definitely would support and be active in some form of nonviolent civil action and disobedience – and I imagine many South Africans would too.

I felt for a while that corporate South Africa is detached from the realities of everyday South Africans. However, I now have a growing belief and understanding that the organisations that can bring change the fastest are corporates, because they are the economy. The economy is what has been determining the lived experiences of South Africans since democracy. 

Our politics and governance are patriarchal and paternalistic, and that is why we all feel disempowered, even though we can claim that we live in a democracy.

The quality of our democracy is reflected in our economy. The resistance to transformation in the economy is what has kept the unemployment rates so high. Of course the government and its ineffectual black economic and broad-based black economic empowerment policies have contributed immensely to this.  

But we cannot overlook the ways in which the leaders 0f the economy have let us down. They too are corporate citizens, whom we should hold accountable and expect better from with regard to how they shape our economy and therefore our experience of democracy.

The biggest failure of our polity is the failure to build, in the minds of all South Africans, the idea of what a united, equal and prosperous South Africa would look like, how we can get there, why we must get there, and why this will be to the benefit of all South Africans, including the big corporates focused on profits. It makes business and economic sense for corporate South Africa to invest in and be invested in seeing and creating an economy that has full employment, and supporting people to live purposeful, meaningful lives, earning decent wages and salaries.

Let’s get properly acquainted with our Constitution

The response by many will be that the means to all this is contained in our powerful Constitution. But how many of us know the Constitution in this way, and are able to act to demand and defend deepened democracy? It is not even taught in schools in an adequate manner. Most of our unemployed population (consisting of 30% to 60% of South Africans) surely do not know this. Those of us earning some form of income, even the university-educated, clearly do not know this well enough either. That is why South Africans have tolerated bad governance and poor leadership in government and the economy for so long.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Op-Ed: Non-violence – the foundation for dialogue and peace between those who live in South Africa

As much as we need to turn up the heat on the government and demand a better electoral system for starters, I believe we need corporate South Africa to participate in taking the lead by being part of the 3.5% that could be involved in bringing nonviolent change in South Africa. If the money people would align their values and beliefs with an inclusive South Africa they could easily start the change that we need to see. 

I am also not wishing for a replacement of one paternal system with another. Our politics and governance are patriarchal and paternalistic, and that is why we all feel disempowered, even though we can claim that we live in a democracy. 

Likewise our economy is paternalistic and patriarchal. Such values disempower people, encouraging us to believe that having minimal rights is normal when it is not. This is a phenomenon evident throughout democracies across the globe, not just South Africa. We see governments and leaders of our economies as father figures who must give us direction and meaning. We still pine for this, even though these big daddies have long abandoned us.

The unfamiliarity of democracy 

The point is, we do not live and breathe democracy – we hardly understand it. But we feel the frustrations of not living in a fully functioning democracy where we all matter as individuals and feel we can contribute. 

South Africa urgently needs to see the electoral system changed, before the next election. Moreover, we need an extensive education drive on what democracy is and what the roles and responsibilities of each person are in a democracy. We cannot participate in and build something we do not fully understand.  

Can we use the court system to force this? Would petitioning our highly biased and ineffective Parliament work? Can we, especially the corporates, withhold taxes until this is done? Can the people take part in mass stayaways and bring the economy to a halt until we start fixing the foundations of our democracy?  

Read more in Daily Maverick: Op-Ed: All you need is love – SA protests and the quest for nonviolent politics

I do not know what would get things moving. If I had the means I would probably take this matter to the courts. I just know and feel the growing frustration of watching this great South African dream fall to its knees. I want to do something about it and I know I am not the only one.  

I do believe that 3.5% of us can change South Africa. A smaller percentage than that is running the government and the economy, and ruining our lives in the process. South Africans are known to have taken action against injustice. Now we can take action against this mass injustice in a peaceful way. Goodness knows we live in a highly traumatic country. We all experience trauma every day, and we can change this – and in a manner that brings less trauma than violent protests, which could lead to many deaths. DM/MC


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Change is good sa says:

    There seems to be a bias against Corporate SA in this article, rather than the theft and corruption that has taken hold of our government on all levels. Corporate Business’s, whilst not perfect, do create opportunities for people to prosper should they choose to work hard and think smart. This in turn creates more offshoots of income generation, be it small, medium or large. Business provides the income that the author lives on every month. I myself cannot donate to Daily Maverick every month, to keep democracy alive through journalism, had I not a job in business SA. Withholding tax and bringing the economy to a halt in protest would be the biggest disaster to befall us. We need to harass and make the top 7 very uncomfortable physically and mentally for them to change our current scenario. What do their families and children think of them, are they proud or appalled by the top 7’s actions, or lack thereof.
    Next year will be the catalyst for change, when the ANC exits from total power, so let’s build towards that moment.

  • Dou Pienaar says:

    I suspect that there are more than 3,5% of the population that feels exactly like you do and are also wondering what we can do?

    • Rona van Niekerk says:

      Hear, Hear. Especially the second to last paragraph.
      If you do the maths:
      Only 2/3 of the South African population eligible to vote are actually registered as voters. (In other words, 33% of the population aren’t registered so cannot vote);
      Let’s say that 2/3 of registered voters actually vote (probably less as so many people don’t see the point any more). So only 2/3 x 2/3 (4/9 or 44.4%) of South Africans eligible to vote actually do so.
      How many vote for the ANC? Estimates are suggesting this could be 50% in 2024. In other words, only 22.2% of all eligible voters support the current government.
      What about the majority (5/9 or 55%) of the population who don’t vote? Have they just given up? Or are they part of the 33% of South Africans who aren’t registered to vote? But why isn’t everyone registered? Don’t they have an id (Home Affairs doesn’t make it easy to get one)? Or is the cost (time and money) of travelling to an IEC office beyond them?
      Why doesn’t the IEC have an all out drive to get everyone registered and co-opt Home Affairs to sort out ids?
      Maybe we should adopt the Australian model where it is compulsory to register and vote in all elections.

  • David Walker says:

    Yay, lets take to the streets and have a revolution. And demand the right to vote!! Hang on, we already have the vote?!! South Africans have voted for this thieving, incompetent, and corrupt national government. Perhaps we should try voting for someone else? And perhaps commentators should forget about fomenting unrest and campaign for an opposition party.

  • Hansie Louw says:

    I like the idea, in fact I love it!
    We cannot just replace the current ruling party with another ruling party (or coalition of parties for that matter) – the underlying principle must change – you are accountable to the people on the ground and not to a party. For that to happen many things need to change – one of them is that the president will not be allowed to belong to a political party.
    We need strong action to combat crime and security forces numbering 4m will help to achieve that. We will train people in certain skills while they are serving their time and we will pay them.
    We need quick community based justice for smaller crimes – that is not in law at the moment.
    We need quick and slick justice system for bigger crimes
    We need a climate where small business can flourish and bigger businesses can make a good profit while supporting the growth of the country as a whole
    We need jobs and opportunities for our people
    We need to reduce taxes and increase the number of people paying tax.
    We need to become the breadbasket in Africa and assist Africa to become the breadbasket of the world.
    We cannot drive an old car (current system) and just put a new driver in the car (new ruling party). We need to get a new car that is suitable for the time we are living in.

    Let’s do this!

  • christine Macdonald says:

    Brilliant piece! And while questioning your values is very uncomfortable, it’s also far less likely to get you killed. Imagine living in a less unequal country – lower walls, less need for security, and human ingenuity released from the need to beg at traffic lights. Pretty much what the wealthy try to achieve in their enclaves and gated ‘cities’.

  • Bruce Q says:

    Wonderful ideas.
    Alas, we do need exactly what you are suggesting Ntombenhle, however our less educated and less privileged mass populous appear to be steered by their local leaders who are persuaded by our governmental leaders to vote ANC.
    I agree that private businesses could do more to persuade our leaders to do something, anything, to improve the economic climate to allow SA to thrive.
    But let’s be honest here, it’s big business that is being hurt most by load shedding. It’s also big business that is being impacted so badly by the government’s disastrous BEE policy which has done very little for the general populous, and wonderful things for the politically connected elite.
    After all, it was put in place to help the ANC garner votes from the poor. A little something to add to the T-shirts and food parcels.
    How do we now clearly demonstrate to this voting public how little the government has done for them, and how badly we need to make performance driven appointments in both government and the private sector?
    If you can come up with a way to get this 3.5% to mobilise the bamboozled masses to see what the ANC has become, and how they have sucked the lifeblood out of our beautiful country (and their children’s future), you will be heralded as the Saviour of South Africa.
    Good luck to you and to us all.
    The ANC must go!

  • Ina De Vry says:

    I was intrigued by your article. Lots of alignment with Rise Mzansi’s objectives. Also interesting to compare to I think the recent Philippine experiences with young people driving change. Incumbents will plan to resist.

  • Sam van Coller says:

    This is a very insightful article and the thinking needs to be developed. The writer has taken a view that to look for a solution in the political arena is not promising. While governance in South Africa is despicable, it seems most countries today have well equipped public order policing capacity which they have to use regularly. We probably do not have enough fingers and toes to count the number of countries that have had to use this capacity to control massive protests that have occurred in their countries in the last decade. Corporations, for all the criticisms of them, have a better record of achievement. Their problem is not Capitalism but the concentration of power over major institutions – power that has no democratic or legitimate basis and inevitably takes essentially short-term decisions to retain power. Unfortunately trade unions continue to let this happen by treating the corporation as their enemy using rhetoric that is way out of date. Corporations have the capacity to play a much more positive role in society. But to do so they have to become inclusive, more democratic and aware of their longer term impact on social and environmental sustainability. If trade unions would make a paradigm shift in their thinking, they could help corporations to make the change. Maybe we should debate and explore the possibility of a ‘People’s Capitalism’ or ‘Corporate Socialism’ to find a fruitful road to offering a better life to all.

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