At the launch event for the ‘Evolution of Struggle: Legacies of the British Anti-Apartheid Movement’, panellists reflected on building a successful boycott, and how this strategy can be updated for the 21st century. The discussion was incredibly rich, with each panellist bringing a new perspective on the role boycotts played in the struggle for justice in South Africa, and their continued relevance as a tactic for struggle.
One of the most interesting points of discussion centred on the difference between institutional and consumer boycotts, and the wider implications this has for social movement tactics and strategies. Institutional boycotts are aimed at organisations associated with the targeted state: such as universities, trade unions and government-linked associations. Consumer boycotts focus in on products made by the targeted state.
During the era of the British Anti-Apartheid Movement, there were disagreements and tensions over what a boycott campaign should look like, and what it should focus on. Simon Stevens, a lecturer in International History at the University of Sheffield, noted that in 1960, when boycotting South Africa first became a major issue in Britain, the TUC was steadfast in stressing that it only supported individual consumer boycotts, rather than institutional boycotts. This was a position which the TUC held for some time, most likely due to its relationship with the Afrikaner dominated Trade Union Council of South Africa. The TUC changed this policy in 1981.
Whilst this tactic was designed to, in some ways, redirect the boycott movement, Chitra Karve, former Anti-Apartheid Movement (AAM) staff member and current chair of Action for South Africa (ACTSA), reflected that the consumer boycott was a transformative experience for her. The realisation that it was possible to create material change and have an impact on an individual level gave impetus to her deeper involvement in the AAM. This personal reflection was deeply valuable, shedding light on how the consumer boycott campaign built momentum and fostered a sense of solidarity.
What can we learn about tactics and strategy from these reflections?
Perhaps it is that we should think about how we measure the effectiveness of our tactics. Sometimes the most ‘hard-hitting’ tactic is not the one that will pull in, or inspire, the most people. Whilst it’s common to shun ‘softer’ tactics, they can be used to reach out to people, to empower them and allow us to build strong, powerful movements.
Personal empowerment and transformative experiences are integral to bringing people into social movements, and to keeping them involved on a long-term basis. We need these to ensure that movements survive, and flourish.