Five Successful Campaigners Share their Secrets

Activist Ben Phillips interviews the leaders of five successful but quite different nonviolent movements, including the campaigns to end South African Apartheid, save Kenya’s forests and end the debt crisis in developing countries. He learns much that is not taught in social science classrooms.


 When I was young I got involved in campaigns because I was passionate about them. But when I became an NGO professional I was taught to be much more focused on realism, cool-headed analysis, and the careful assessment of strategies. What matters, I was told, is what works.

So in that spirit, I’ve been talking to five leaders whose campaigns have definitely succeeded in order to find out what it was that really made the difference. Jay Naidoo led the South African trade union movement’s struggle against Apartheid; Ann Pettifor headed the Jubilee 2000 campaign to cancel third world debt; Lilian Njehu worked alongside the Nobel Prize winning environmentalist Wangari Maathai in the campaign to save Kenya’s forests; Kumuti Majhi is a tribal leader form Niyamgiri in India who defeated the Vedanta corporation’s plans to mine his people’s land; and Peter Tatchell has helped to bring LGBTQ rights to centre stage and secure a series of victories for equality.

As each of these campaigners were at pains to point out, all successes are partial and impermanent, and no victory is won by one person alone, but nevertheless these are winners. They are all different, but they do have lots of things in common. It’s just that they’re not the things that I’d been taught.

First of all, I asked them if they knew that they would win when they began their campaigns. I thought they might set out the practical reasons behind their confidence, the power mapping they had done and the assessments they had made. But none of them described anything like that at all. Pettifor told me “No, I was sure at the beginning that we could not win,” and shared how there had been an internal argument over the branding of the campaign as Jubilee 2000 because she and others “could not see how we could make debt a big issue with that identity in just five years…but I was wrong. Our identity, and its deep symbolism embedded in Islam, Judaism and Christianity, was vital to our success.”

Others said that they did know they would win, but not because they’d conducted any formal planning or analysis. Instead, it was a matter of heartfelt conviction. “This was the land that our forefathers died for” as Njehu put it. “Because we have faith in our people and ‘Niyam Raja’” was Majhi’s response, “We worship Niyamgiri as our living God and under no circumstances will we leave our God. Our struggle has gone through many ups and downs but we never stopped—even during the worst time of our life.”

Naidoo described how he got involved in the struggle against Apartheid because of Steve Biko. “Steve didn’t give us a project plan or a log frame or a budget,” he told me, “he gave us a direction to follow, and pride. He taught us to love ourselves, and that we had nothing to lose but our chains.” Tatchell emphasized that the struggle for LGBTQ rights “far from being an easy, smooth transition, has been a long, hard struggle, with many setbacks along the way.”

That’s a clue to the second lesson of their experience: all successful campaigns move backwards as well as forwards, and when times were tough these five leaders drew strength not from a plan but from a deeper moral force. “The motive of my campaigning is love,” said Tatchell, “I love other people. I love justice. I don’t like seeing other people suffer. I think to myself: that could be me, my sister or my neighbour. We are all part of the same human family, with a duty of care towards each other, no matter what our nationality, race, belief or sexuality. It cannot be right to do nothing while other human beings are denied equality.”

Mahji shared that what drove his community was the “determination to protect our ‘motherland’ for generations to come.” Pettifor said something similar: “as someone born and raised in Africa, I was deeply invested in the campaign, believing it to be one of moral, economic and social injustice. That conviction drove me on. Although I am not religious, I had deep faith that with commitment, and in community with others, righteousness and justice would prevail.” Njehu described how her group’s “faith meant we could not fear death.” These are phrases that are hardly ever used in standard training for campaigners or reports about what works.

Thirdly, what brought victory was not individual smarts but collective strength. As Naidoo explained, the power of mass mobilization and popular organization is also vital. “To bring change, we organized, factory by factory, street by street” he said, to “build around people’s priorities and to find their priorities by asking.” Njehu emphasized how success was rooted in being “a grassroots movement, built up from ordinary women fighting for their families, saving the wood they need for cooking for their children, saving the land on which they depended. It was their felt need.” People power was central to all these victories, and central to people power was unity.

Mahji described a village meeting where company officials “tried to purchase our people by providing meat and liquor, but not a single person spoke in favour of the company.” Likewise, a protest planned by Pettifor and her colleagues outside the G8 meeting in Birmingham in 1998 looked like it might not attract many people after the UK government tried to put them off with the message “that the G8 leaders would instead spend that day in a castle miles away. But suddenly as I stood outside Birmingham Station I saw thousands of supporters pour out. The government tactic had failed, and the Prime Minister was obliged to return to Birmingham to meet with the representatives of the 100,000 Jubilee 2000 supporters.” Lobbying, however smart, is only ever effective when matched by direct action by substantial groups of determined people who stand together, shoulder to shoulder.

Fourth, all five refused to have the campaigns’ agendas shaped by donors even when this meant that they had to work with very meagre resources. As Njehu put it, “when donors came to us to change our plans we said we won’t take your money because we don’t want to follow your plan.” “Money is important,” she added, “but it can’t change your idea. You can campaign without money if people understand it as their campaign. If they don’t see it as their problem you can’t give them money to understand it as their felt need.” Naidoo warned that an increasing focus on donors is already weakening many social justice organizations: “Now is the moment of truth for social movements, trade unions, progressive forces and NGOs. They have to break with the conservatism and bureaucracies that have made them bystanders in this grand clash between overwhelming majority and a tiny, insulated class of super-rich,” he said.

Fifth, I asked each leader what advice they would give to their younger selves. None of them mentioned the advantages of more formal training. Instead they spoke of the determination required to stay engaged for the inevitable long haul of campaigning. “Never give up,” Mahji said, “whatever may be the circumstances, however much they may oppress you. Just continue your journey and keep the community interest on the top of your individual interest. Any struggle to be successful needs sacrifice and there is no short route to that.”  “Don’t accept the world as it is,” Tatchell added, “Dream of what the world could be—and then help make it happen.” Pettifor’s advice to her younger self was particularly touching: “Your single-minded determination was laudable,” she said, “but you would have got further if you had acquired some diplomatic skills.”

Lastly, all five campaigners emphasized that their stories are full of failures and screw ups—and that makes their successes seem less impossible to learn from. My favourite comes from Naidoo: “On the day Nelson Mandela was released,” he confessed to me in a bar in Tunis, “I was supposed to look after him. But it wasn’t planned, it all happened so fast, there was so much going on, and I lost him.” “You lost him?” I asked. “Yeah, we didn’t have phones then so we couldn’t get hold of him. I had no idea where he was.” “You lost Mandela?” “Yeah.” “You led the trade union struggle, you helped topple Apartheid, but you lost Mandela.” “Yeah, I know.”

Overall, if campaigning for justice is a social science, then these lessons suggest that it’s ‘less science’ and ‘more social.’ Each of the successful campaigners’ stories revealed that they had tapped into something deeper, something more profound, and worked to harness it for change because, as Angela Davis once put it, “I am no longer accepting the things I cannot change. I am changing the things I cannot accept.” Through their wisdom they have helped me to rediscover the spirit I had been taught to let go.

Ben Phillips, currently based in Nairobi, is co-founder of the #FightInequality alliance, and Campaigns and Policy Director at ActionAid International. He began his development work at the grassroots, as an activist living in Mamelodi township, South Africa, just after the end of apartheid. All his posts are personal reflections. He tweets at @benphillips76.

This article was originally published on the openDemocracy 50.50 website. You can read it by clicking here. OpenDemocracy is a digital commons committed to promoting human rights, peacebuilding and reconciliation. We encourage you to take a look at this wonderful resource. All articles are published under Creative Commons licensing.               

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