Originally posted to the Guardian
Civil disobedience is a way of expressing political opposition that pushes beyond what the law allows you to do, in terms of resistance. It is an act that says “we are deliberately breaking an unjust law.” We often talk about it as a problem. In fact, I would argue that our problem is civil obedience. People too readily accept governments that do not hold to their promises.
My first brush with civil disobedience was when I was 15 and in the years since, I’ve learned a few things about its power, and its limitations. Here’s a few of my lessons:
1. Nothing important comes without sacrifice
Protesters in Fordsburg, South Africa. Photograph: Getty Images
I was one of thousands of young people in South Africa that joined the national student protests against inequality in apartheid education. At that age, you don’t always understand the wider context of your actions. The slogan at the front of the march was “we want equality”, and at the back it was “ we want a colour TV”.
Despite this, what we were doing was important: we were resisting by refusing to go to classes and challenging the law that legally prohibited more than four people to march in the streets together. It was only here that I discovered that Nelson Mandela actually existed, and learned about the bigger picture of apartheid in South Africa. The media were restricted in how much they could report on him and so I had never seen his picture.
Following this I led a protest in my community with between 3,000-4,000 people, where the police charged at us with tear gas. The experience of participating in these acts early on affected me in a very direct sense. They taught me the important lesson that nothing important will come without sacrifice, commitment and courage.
2. Stay positive: first they will fight you, but then you will win
Mahatma Gandhi leading the Salt March in protest against the government monopoly on salt production. Photograph: Central Press/Getty Images
South Africa has a strong connection to Gandhi. It was during his time there that he learned his politics, and honed his Satyagraha, which means passive resistance or civil disobedience as we now tend to call it.
There was always a photo of Gandhi in my family home and he was an influential figure for me as I was growing up. I developed a strong adherence to his notion of “soul force”. For me, this translated as the importance of being willing to take the violence of the state. The moral authority to take this stance means that ultimately you will succeed in your mission.
My favourite quote is from Gandhi and it is one that is so relevant to civil disobedience today: “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, and then you win”. If you look at the situation Greenpeace is in, they are fighting us really hard in the courts, they are invading our privacy and preventing our actions. But Gandhi’s philosophy makes me optimistic that this is a positive indication that we are closing in on the changes we are campaigning for.
3. When governments respond with force, they help to grow the movement