04/04/2012 01:38 pm ET Updated Jun 04, 2012

A Success Worse Than Failure? Lessons From Activist Campaigns in South Africa and Sudan

The Blessings of Obscurity

For activist movements seeking positive change, there is only one thing worse than obscurity: the infliction of unintended negative consequences on those you are trying to help. The recent Kony 2012 campaign has been criticized for promoting just such a problematic theory of change for Uganda.

But in comparison to what? U.S.-based youth activist movements have been influencing events in Africa long before viral videos. A deeper examination reveals that two of history's more prominent and similar activist movements -- those against South Africa's apartheid regime and Sudan's NCP government -- may have have produced just such contradictory campaigns.

This doesn't mean that movements should refrain from advocating against apartheid, genocide, and war criminals. But it does mean that they have the responsibility to learn from one another about what does and doesn't work.

Ending Apartheid in South Africa and Stopping Genocide in Sudan

The anti-Apartheid movement in the U.S. took off in the 1970s when churches pressured U.S. companies in South Africa to improve working conditions for black workers. As the circumstances in South Africa failed to improve, the U.S. passed the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act (CAAA), which restricted all new exports and loans to the pariah state. Eventually, most U.S. and U.K corporations entirely divested from South Africa by withdrawing capital and cutting off all operations in the country.

Though it may appear that U.S. and Western financial pressure was responsible for driving the Apartheid regime to negotiations, there were other exogenous factors at play such as a prolonged drought, civil unrest, a plummeting gold price and the rise in value of the U.S. dollar. With this in mind, domestic economic pressures were potentially more responsible for galvanizing change than the actions of U.S. and European firms, thus displaying the problematic causal connection between outside economic pressure and the end of apartheid.

Additionally, although activists achieved their immediate goals (pressuring U.S. companies, universities, and the government to take action), their actions had unintended consequences. When American and European companies pulled out of the country, their operations were taken over by white South African-owned businesses. Thus activist actions actually made the upper class wealthier and more powerful and served to undermine economic and racial reconciliation in the "new" South Africa.

Likewise in Sudan, activists accused Talisman Energy, a Canadian-based company with shares in Sudanese oil, of being complicit in genocide. (Oil revenues were going directly to support the Sudanese military, and NCP helicopters allegedly used Talisman property to launch village raids). The resulting uproar caused Talisman's shares to plummet. Two years later, a steady campaign of negative publicity had forced Talisman to divest from Sudan and completely re-write its code of conduct.

When the crisis in Darfur broke out, activists across America were able to persuade universities such as Harvard, companies such as Berkshire Hathaway, and even the State of California to divest in PetroChina -- whose parent company, the China National Petroleum Corporation, owned 40 percent of the two largest oil consortiums in Sudan. In 2009, at least 60 American universities, 23 states, and 18 countries had divested from Sudan due to public pressure. But while activists achieved their immediate goal (American companies divested), these actions did not significantly impact the situation as China continued to supply the government of Sudan with oil revenue subsequently used to bolster its military and slaughter civilians.

In each case, the actions undertaken by the advocacy campaigns achieved their short term goals of removing financial support from the regimes in question. However, the ultimate goal of ending oppression and delivering justice fell short.


The good news is that if the goal of activists in these two cases was to exert influence and change behavior, they clearly succeeded. Passionate groups of individuals coupled with shareholder pressure influenced company behavior, university board decision-making, and even legislation. The bad news is that if their goal was to improve the lives of those most vulnerable in South Africa and Sudan, they surely failed.

Activism as we know it is hard enough without misrepresenting the past. These examples show that advocacy has the capacity to cause more harm than good -- regardless of intentions and in even in the absence of viral videos.

Sarah Jackson is a Conflict and Humanitarian Affairs Analyst.

Christopher Neu and Kevin Malone are facilitators TechChange for the online course: Global Innovations for Digital Organizing. They're happy to continue the discussion @TechChange.

The views expressed in this post do not represent those of the United States Government.