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Publication Details

Reference
Sogge, David (2004) Why Social Movements Now?. Centre for Civil Society : -.

Summary
Where would South Africa be today without the United Democratic Front or the Mass Democratic Movement? Where would many societies be without the movement for women's rights? Or, to go way back to the dawn of Western democratic systems, where would we be without the movement for citizen's rights and equality during the English Revolution some 350 years ago? The point is inescapable. Without these and other emancipatory movements, many lands would be a lot less free, less fair, less democratic.

But if social movements have been such positive movers and shakers for humanity, why aren't they stronger and more numerous now? Some reasons are obvious. Apathy and the sheer practical difficulties of stepping off the treadmill of daily life help explain the absence of social movements. And backers of the status quo, often powerful people, oppose them.

Yet social movements may be unwelcome for other reasons -- often good ones. Consider another counter-factual question: Where would we be without the ethnic supremacists and chauvinists in southern Africa? The butchers in Bosnia, Rwanda and Algeria? The ultra-nationalist brownshirts in Russia? The love-your-gun, hate-your-government movement in the USA? Here too a conclusion is inescapable: Without these kinds of movements, things would be a lot less terrifying, less hate-ridden, less violent. Some social movements are downright abominable.

However, many may be located in that crowded terrain somewhere between the poles of emancipation and abomination. Take for example movements of religious revival down through the centuries. Evangelical and messianic Protestantism stands out in our day. This movement has swept Latin America in recent decades with the force of a tidal wave and it continues to spread forcefully in southern Africa. In short, social movements may have ugly; anti-emancipatory aims, or may pursue otherworldly visions.

Why they emerge and what drives them forward are complex matters. This brief article can discuss them only superficially. Broadly speaking, however, their presence usually indicates deep-running social stress. Novelists often detect their significance before anybody else; in late 19th century Russia, several novels by Turgenev and Dostoyevsky pivot on social movements of their day. In our times, The Handmaids Tale, a novel by the Canadian Margaret Atwood, offers a chilling vision of life under one of North America's ugliest social movements.

This article necessarily confines itself to that special, even threatened species, the emancipatory social movement addressing exclusion and poverty.

Of all countries in Africa, South Africa has the longest and deepest running tradition of resistance and protest. Its social movements account for many of its current freedoms, and should be a source of pride. The foremost example is organized labour, arguably the strongest emancipatory social movement on the African continent.

Others are emerging today among shackdwellers, rural women, labour tenants, gays and the disabled. Beyond these member- and beneficiary-based groupings, community-of-interest networks are developing in the direction of social movements, initially under the wings of NGOs [1]. Examples in South Africa include networks of organisations concerned to fight child labour, to combat violence against women, to promote stokvels and to press for environmental sanity.

How do they come about and keep going?
Consider two among dozens of examples in modern African history.


>> The maji-maji (water-water) movement in colonial Tanganyika was a response by people threatened by the colonial advance, made desperate by loss of assets and sovereignty. Many perished in the belief that their magic - supposed to turn bullets into water -was stronger than imperial ballistics. In short, a movement unable to fit the circumstances and gain leverage.

>> The African mineworkers movement in the 1940s and 1950s in the copperbelt of Northern Rhodesia was broadly about basic rights and respect, and narrowly about better pay. It challenged the status quo but still played by certain rules (a parallel union, the strike Weapon and industry-wide bargaining). It turned the tables on mine bosses and settler authorities by appealing to their hallowed (if hollow) principles of fair play and Western precedents in legitimizing the right of wage earners to organise. While not ,immediately successful, this movement had, over ten years, paved the way for a nationalist political movement to assume power in a new nation, Zambia.

Two stories, two outcomes. Both saw Africans challenging powerful outsiders who would deny them resources and respect. Yet there were great differences:

a.. the historical moment (the beginning versus the end of the colonial epoch);
b.. aims (total and uncompromising rejection versus a challenge to some ground rules);
c.. choice of weapons (bullets versus non-violent pressure); and
d.. modes of livelihood as a basis of consciousness (semi- pastoralists versus wage earners).
These social movements had few contemporary well-wishers or allies -- or rivals. They pursued their struggles largely alone. Today the field is more crowded, competitive. and complex. However, some conceptual tools are on offer to help cut through the underbrush.

Theory
Students of social movements have long struggled over concepts to explain them. In re-interpreting movements in the past, they have had to cast off or transform old received ideas. With his now classic book, The Making of the English Working Class, the English historian E.P. Thompson helped dethrone doctrinaire theories that only a factory-based proletariat can lead a progressive social movement. He showed that the early working class movement had a broad social base, embracing artisans and small traders as well as wage earners. AII faced severe social stress. They sought dignity and respect for their rights. They drew up no strategic plans and submitted no budgets to funders, but created their own means of mutual aid and their own cultural vehicles, such as the many revival sects of early Methodism. The relevance of such interpretations for the study of social movements in Africa has not gone unnoticed [2].


Today, numbers and types of social movements have grown, and intellectual tastes are diversifying. Thus academic kitchens have produced more elaborate menus of theories and foci of fact-gathering.

In respect to what drives and keeps movements going, two approaches stand out.

One concentrates on the mobilisation and use of resources. It explains movement processes through their (political) economy. Their direction and pace depends on recruitment of movement foot soldiers, and on raising profile and funds. Ideology and social psychology don't count that much, as what really set things in motion are imperatives from deep within social structures -- poverty, denial of respect and rights -- or the opportunism of political Ieaders. For some critics, however, this approach offers little more than a firm grasp of the obvious: all movements need money and members.

In the 1980s a new theoretical school eclipsed the resource mobilisation approach. It embraced social psychology and the power of symbolic interaction. its perspectives emerged as counter-cultural youth, environmental and disarmament movements demonstrated staying power. This 'action mobilisation' school puts human agency -- the participants and leaders -- at center stage. Ideology, values and a struggle to define cultural meanings and even identities become central, even motive forces. Collective action makes its points through symbols (unusual clothing, ritual , processions) and public gestures (entering a nuclear testing zone, issuing a timely press release). It also builds a sense of autonomy, identity and solidarity among participants.

In contrast to the 'resource mobilisation' perspective, by which movements are viewed as socio-political phenomena, this approach portrays social movements as socio-cultural actors. Sometimes borrowing from the arcane modern disciplines of sign- and discourse-analysis, this way of looking at social movements sees them engaged not so much in the sweaty, deal-making business of really existing political institutions, as in posing extended, radical challenges to prevailing norms and institutions. Movements thus carry 'prophetic functions', drawing the attention of media and politicians to the existence of social problems [3].

Today there are calls for a synthesis of the two approaches [4]. Capturing and structuring attention of publics and decision-makers through symbolic action is vital to movement success. Nevertheless, money and material resources, and how they are steered and struggled over, still explain a lot about movements' careers and effectiveness. Resources continue to loom large in much empirical research, particularly into social movement organisations, the formal vehicles of social movements. Research has focused on 'classic' movements for economic and civil rights in industrialized countries.

One such study (Minkoff, 1994) uses US data from 1955 to 1985 on organisations in the women's and black/Chicano voluntary and activist sector, and their funding and political environments. At issue is the rise and fall of organisations according to their chosen strategies or "repertoires of collective action". The three most common strategies are held to be:

a.. service provision to a constituency, without pressing for change in policy;
b.. protest -- challenging elites through non-routine means; and,
c.. advocacy -- challenging elites through routine means.
Authorities, funders and members tend to prefer and thus legitimize certain strategies.

Enforcement of these preferences can sometimes benefit other organisations pursuing other options, for example by legitimizing more vigorous action. But often they don't. For example, new organisations pursuing the 'preferred' strategy will compete resources away from those organisations committed to less-favoured strategies. Thus some organisations flourish while others wither away.

Around 1970, following what were sometimes hard-edged public actions by (and often hard-handed repression of) many protest groups, the voluntary/activist sector saw dramatic shifts of actors and their strategies. Protest-centred groups got sidelined, and advocacy organisations multiplied and came to the fore, where they remain today. Both the 'protest' and the 'advocacy' organisations could build on the legitimacy of causes espoused by the preceding generation of minority and women's rights movements, which had confined action to service provision and had avoided confrontation. But given the preferences of funding and other authorities, the advocacy organisations gained legitimacy through the presence of a 'radical flank' of protest groups, since elites needed alternatives to defuse challenges and re-channel discontent.

Political space and opportunities created by new laws and welfare measures also influenced cascading patterns of change in these social movements. But the flow of foundation grants was even more decisive in steering things toward intermediate methods (advocacy) and setting limits to confrontational ones (protest).

What might stop them?
Where social movements pressing for major changes in the rules of the game or seeking wholesale displacement of ruling blocs, they can sometimes win only in times of acute social crisis, and vulnerability or self-doubt among power-holders. Most of the time, however, such movements get clobbered. In Latin America, southern Africa and places like Indonesia the clobbering has been done by special police units, or, more commonly in today's privatized world, by shadowy hit squads and rent-a-mobs.


Today, emancipatory movements perish not only by direct repression. They also die by 'a thousand cuts'. They get demonized and belittled in the media, denied legitimacy through phony elections, co-opted by politicians and, quite commonly, fatally injured through self-inflicted wounds of factionalism and of compromised leaderships. Splits and schisms continue to cripple or kill social movements. Factionalism within or between organisations often pivots on who controls resources.

Here too the role of funding authorities can be significant. Beyond steering organisations toward certain strategies, noted above, donors show preferences in organisational forms. Umbrella or apex bodies are a favorite, as monies can be granted an accounted for with minimum fuss -- to the donor. But in the movements themselves, this can reinforce unresponsive hierarchies and patron-client systems. If these remain unchecked by members, tensions rise. The resulting schisms will, in the worst cases, shatter the very movement the donors thought they were helping.

Social movements may also lose momentum and stop when victory seems to have been won.

Then leaders are recruited away to government or business -- or is consigned to oblivion. Demobilisation and organisational decay sets in, both through natural release of tension, and deliberate discouragement from on high. In its transition period, South Africa has heard words of discouragement about social movements from both foreign and domestic oracles. They warn against any revival of protest or of initiatives to make claims on profits or public resources, as these only raise 'unrealistic' expectations. More dangerously, such movements could lure decision-makers to pursue 'populist' economic measures. The prevailing wisdom holds that a 'culture of entitlement' must be smothered in its crib and that 'there is no alternative' to austerity measures for the poor.

Why social movements now?
Someone once said that the definition of the alternatives is the supreme instrument of power. In southern Africa, and elsewhere in the world, a broad array of people and organisations is challenging the claim to power represented by the There-Is-No-Alternative bloc comprising Business South Africa, the IMF and key economic advisors to the government. The challengers, comprising trade unions, some church bodies and environmental activists, are opposing business-as-usual indifference to poverty and to gender equity and the denial of rights and self-esteem for young people and ethnic 'others'. Their message is both an alarm signal about prevailing conditions, and an insistence that they be addressed through open processes. They first wish to say, "These are problems"; and second to say, "Don't remove them from the public agenda by defining them as non-negotiable; there are alternatives."


Someone else once defined politics, cynically, as the art of preventing people from taking part in affairs which properly concern them. If exclusion is the name of the game in today's politics -- and, despite enormous democratic advances in places like South Africa and Mozambique, there is much evidence to support the cynic's view -- then means are badly needed for citizens to shape public agendas and to gain the space to participate on terms meaningful to them. Down through the centuries, those insisting on taking part in affairs which properly concern them have found those means, and created that space, through emancipatory social movements.

Points for reflection
Given their importance, social movements merit more attention than they have received up to now from non- profits, applied researchers, funders, and organisational development specialists. (They also merit more nuanced treatment of their complexities and paradoxes than can be given here.)


However, this may now be changing. In South Africa, prior neglect of member- and community-based groups, the building blocks of social movements, is now held up for (self-) criticism among some NGO leaders. A few northern private aid agencies, most of whom claim wholehearted backing for 'civil society' are inserting social movements into their policy discourse, and sometimes even into their grant portfolios.

But those wishing to see emancipatory social movements gain more clout and staying-power, still have a lot to reflect on. Among major points of learning, the following stand out:

Conflict. Non-violent, constructive pressure is what drives social movements forward, making them effective. Obviously, there are risks to movement members, given the hair's breadth often separating violent from non-violent public action, and the hair-trigger responses of he officials tasked with maintaining public order. No wonder then that conflict avoidance, the exit option, is a strategy of choice, especially for vulnerable people. yet it can a1so be a path to irrelevance or even oblivion. There is a need to distinguish the destructive from the creative use of conflict. The art and science of conflict management is thus one key area for learning.

Communication. If the vocation of social movements is to signal problems to the wider public and to decision-makers, to act as prophetic presences, then, in a world where attention is becoming the most sought after resource, learning how to attract and structure attention is an imperative task.

Resources. Dealing openly and honestly about funds and other resources needs special attention. This is especially so where there are risks -- often real risks, as underscored by the research cited above -- that authorities will seek to steer movements away from being .unreasonable', or, as a1so noted, where vibrant organisations risk being turned into opportunistic enterprises or clubby patronage machines, or of being 'snuggled' or 'financed' to death by over-enthusiastic (or manipulative) funders. These issues merit reelection, especially among would-be supporters of social movements. Perhaps a first principle for donors should be Do No Harm.

Ownership. NGOs are not the only ones to have neglected the grassroots. Even leaderships of social movements have sometimes shown themselves unable to resist claims on their attention by political and business elites. South Africa is not alone in having seen the harm done by catapulting social movement leaders, however worthy and well-meaning, into roles where they are expected to represent 'the grassroots'. In South Africa these command performances take place in regional or national forums built along corporatist lines, that is, where deals are routinely made among various social blocs with little public transparency. The lack of anchoring and accountability can quickly turn solid, gutsy social movements into mere hollow shells. Yet, is a return to the time-consuming, even paralyzing practice of 'mandating' grassroots leaders the answer? Here too there is much to reflect on.

As non-profits and funders re-value social movements and therefore revisit these and other issues, students and practitioners of organisational development will have to grapple with them too.

Facing social movements from a distance, however, many of us know them only as outsiders looking in. What if the distances were shorter, and the approach began from within? Where can specialists in organisational development best position themselves, and give further substance to the definition of their profession?

References
Canel, Eduardo, 1997, 'New Social Movement Theory and Resource Mobilisation Theory: the Need for Integration' in M. Kaufman and H.D. Alfonso (eds.) Community, Power and Grassroots Democracy, London: IDRC and Zed Books.


Hammami, Rema, 1995, 'NGOs: the professionalisation of politics' Race & Class, Vol. 37. Nr. 2, pp 51-63.

Melucci, A., 1989, Nomads of the Present: Social Movements and Individual Needs in Contemporary Society, Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Minkoff, Debra C., 1994, 'From Service Provision to Institutional Advocacy: The Shifting Legitimacy of Organizational Forms' Social Forces 72(4) June. pp 943-969.

Thompson, E.P., 1963, The Making of the English Working Class, New York: Vintage.

Uphoff, Norman, 1995, 'Why NGOs are not a Third sector: a sectoral Analysis with some Thoughts on Accountability, Sustainability and Evaluation' in M. Edwards and D. Hulme (eds.) Non-governmental Organisations. Performance and Accountability, London: Earthscan.

von Freyhold, Michaela, 1987, 'Labour Movements or Popular Struggles in Africa' Review of African Political Economy September, pp 23-32.

Notes
[1]NGOs may or may not be part of social movements. Increasingly leaders of member-based organisations and social movements are asserting that many NGOs arenot. For example, Roberto Campos, elected president of a broad association of peasant farmers in Central America, has stated, "We don't need all those NGOs." Elsewhere, activists have decried the exit of NGOs from socio-political movements and their mutation into professional enterprises, as observed among Palestinian NGOs by Hammami, 1995. For an important critique of the tendency to lump NGOs together with member-based groups and movements, see Uphoff 1995.


[2]See von Freyhold 1987.

[3]The writings of the sociologist A. Melucci exemplify this approach.

[4]Canel, 1997, offers an excellent statement.

Originally published in OD Debate (Durban) August 1997

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