Small Actions, Big Movements conference report

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War Resisters' International held its first quadrennial International Conference in Africa 4-8 July 2014, in Cape Town's City Hall. The conference we co-hosted by the Ceasefire Campaign.

The meeting brought together 220 activists, researchers, and campaigners doing peace and nonviolence work from around the world for five days. Of the 220 participants, over half were African. The public conference followed meetings of the Pan-African Nonviolence and Peacebuilding Network and the Women Peacemakers Program. Before and afterwards WRI's Council and Assembly meetings took place. The meeting will have impacts on WRI as a network for years to come.

4-8 July: Small Actions, Big Movements: The Continuum of Nonviolence International Conference

The conference opened with a joyous public event, a celebration of different forms of resistance. Young actors wrapped in bandages walked around the conference venue, making us mindful of the traumatic impacts of war. Burundian drummers and dancers led us into the auditorium of Cape Town City Hall, a building famous for hosting Nelson Mandela, as he made his first speech after being freed from gaol. An epically talented choir led us in songs in Zulu, Xhosa and English. Desmond Tutu joined us as a surprise. The hip hop band Dreamwolf offered lyricism (with cello accompaniment) that had the whole room buzzing. 

Omar Barghouti (Co-founder of the Palestinian Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement against Israel), Sahar Vardi (of American Friends Service Committee, a woman conscientious objector and member of feminist group New Profile in Israel) and Jenni Williams (of Women of Zimbabwe Arise) gave inspirational and insightful speeches, and focused also on the lessons we can learn from the legacy of South African organising and international solidarity.

The main conference began on Saturday 5th July. Each of the following days begun with planaries: the first featured two South African indigenous speakers, Bernedette Muthien and Zenzile Khoisan, who reflected on the forms of violence and indigenous people's reactions to it. The second day topic was on the issue of the continuum of nonviolence – beyond regime change. The dialogue was led by South African activist and academic, Janet Cherry and Ugandan scholar Yash Tandon. This day addressed the issue of the power but also limitation of civil resistance movements who focused primarily on regime change, and the need for long lasting change. The common message in this plenary was that a transformative society has to come from inside a society through a strong civil society. The third day was on nonviolence defence of livelihood and corporate militarism, with Lexys Rendón from Venezuela and Anand Mazgaonkar from India. Both focused on how corporations extracting natural resources go hand in hand with militarisation of local communities, and shared experience of nonviolence resistance from affected groups.

On the final day of the conference, the plenary session was on peacebuilding. Speakers were Moses Monday of the South Sudanese Organization for Nonviolence and Development and Kesia Onam Akpene Yawo Birch of the West African Network for Peacebuilding (WANEP). They asked: what do we mean when we say African solutions to African problems? And looked at the different elements for successful peace-building work.

Morning plenaries were also the time for more general reflections. This was carried out by a pair of different people each day reflecting on the outcomes of the previous days. It helped to recap what had happened so far as well as to stimulate critical thinking. We asked reflectors to have a special gender eye when sharing their thoughts. Each morning we also had 'Here is the news', where someone would share news stories from outside and inside the conference.

Developing ideas

Following the morning plenaries, theme groups worked each day of the conference with the same people working together to build on the previous days' learning. Thirteen theme groups started on day one of the conference, with six of them merging as the days went on.

The theme groups included: Military alliances and military intervention; Daily violence (domestic violence, hate crimes, urban insecurity, etc...); Economic crises and militarism (including Campaigning against war profiteering); Countering the militarisation of youth; Dealing with the past; Nonviolent community struggles, which later merged with Resisting the War on Mother Earth, Reclaiming Our Home; Civil resistance and 'people power' movements: beyond regime change, which merged with Transnational Solidarity; Peacebuilding; Formal and non-formal education and nonviolence and Nonviolence Training. You can find reports from these theme groups here.

The topics of these groups were picked to represent the spectrum of the continuum of violence, and resistance to it: ranging from the everyday (Daily violence) to the international (Military alliances).

Theme groups were the inspiration behind a number of suggestions for follow-up projects. For example, the Nonviolence Training theme group - as a direct response to outcomes to their sessions together - suggested that WRI should take on organising a nonviolence trainers' gathering focusing on how to integrate gender into nonviolence training. The civil resistance theme group was also a place were ideas for future plans emerged. This theme group had a diverse and rich participation, addressing some recent successes of civil resistance movements, why they were successful, but also on the need of these movements to work towards a deeper change, addressing issues of structural violence and social justice. The issue of how to work for regime and social change whilst living in exile was explored. This was brought up especially by activists in exile from Eritrea and Rwanda. From this came the idea of holding trainings with Eritrean and Rwandan activists on diaspora organising. WRI's network is well-placed to support this, as we can bring experiences of those who have worked in exile in the past – for example from South Africa.

On the final day, time was given over for the theme groups to talk together and learn about their respective discussions. This took the form of a 'market place', as participants moved around the room and engaged in conversation with theme groups. Inventive ways of giving feedback were encouraged: the Countering the Militarisation of Youth theme group used theatre.

Workshop space

Workshops – planned and spontaneous - followed in the afternoon. Workshops included a session on fear led by Eritrean Diaspora activists, several sessions on conscientious objection, and a hiphop workshop led by conference participants for young people in the nearby Manenberg township. That evening they came to share the results of their work in a concert.

Highlights of these workshops included a workshop on how to deal with fear in activism, lead by a representative of the Eritrean Antimilitarist Initiative and the Campaign to End the Indefinite National Service Slavery in Eritrea alongside a Chilean human rights defender, a 'taster' session to the Alternative to Violence Project, led by local South African trainers. Important workshops were also the ones looking at current conflicts such as Syria, the Ukraine and DRC with a nonviolence lens. Gender was a topic widely present at workshops, some looking at gender violence but also at the issue of gender dynamics inside our own groups. There was also an interactive workshop that was led by conference participant Jendog Lonewolf, leading 20 conference participants, but also 20 members of a local community group. It was entitled Hip Hop from Brooklyn to Cape Town. This workshop took place in the township of Mannenberg, and was run together with the local hip hop group Sounds of the South. The workshop produced some songs, which were performed that evening to the whole conference.

On one afternoon we also said our own goodbye to our chair Howard Clark, who passed away suddenly last November. Howard was central to the planning of this conference, and its success is a testament to him: his contacts, his ideas and his determination - which also kept us going even after he was gone. After memorials in Madrid and London, this occasion was more informal, with WRI members sharing their memories of Howard spontaneously. His presence was felt all throughout the conference, through his partner Yolanda Juarros Barcenilla, children Ismael and Violeta, his countless friends, networks he created, and themes he worked on.

The second edition of The Handbook for Nonviolent Campaigns was launched during the conference, with speakers from Zimbabwe, USA, Nepal and Britain, all of whom contributed to this, the second edition of a handbook designed to help nonviolent campaigns with their strategy, training and group building. The London launch will take place in Housmans on 25 October 2014, from 6.30pm.

More than just workshops!

Conferences like this need to be more than just workshops and theme groups. Social and cultural events bring people together on another level, and are vital for that networking and relationship-building that international networks thrive on. Such meetings provide the enthusiasm needed to keep you going in email and conference call contact for years to come. So often new cooperation, new initiatives and new alliances start from conversations in corridors and outside of the organised programme.

The conference was a place for different forms of expression of nonviolence movements including the creative and theatrical. Throughout the conference, seven exhibitions ran:

  • The Human Cost of India's Development:photography by Priyanka Borpujari
  • SMALL Actions BIG Movements: the Continuum of Nonviolence – an arpillera (Chilean textiles) and other textile exhibition curated by Roberta Bacic

  • The ECC25 Virtual Exhibition: To commemorate the 25th anniversary of the launch of the End Conscription Campaign (ECC) in South Africa
  • INNATE poster: series from Northern Ireland

  • The Objectors: a photographic exhibition based on South African objectors to apartheid
  • Embrace Dignity photovoice exhibition

  • Ghosts, Ralph Ziman

The arpilleras exhibition held an ongoing 'drop in' workshop daily.

The arpillera exhibition in particular was extremely powerful. As well as displaying arpilleras, three Zimbabwean women created a Zimbabwean textile. In the afternoons, Roberta Bacic, the exhibition curator lead workshops on arpilleras as a form of resistance. This mindful creation is used by the women to creatively express their struggles – especially against forced displacement.

Four evenings during the conference were an opportunity for different kinds of learning and interaction. In addition to the opening night (see above), the second night (5 July) also took place in the City Hall's concert hall, and was open to the public. The event included jazz from The Bongani Boz and Sotshononda Jazz Quintet, poetry from Tanzanian poet Mama Charlotte O'Neal and testimony from the son of Dennis Brutus, a South African campaigner and environmentalist.

Day three saw the showing of a film – Miners Shot Down – about the Marikana massacre. It was followed by a Q&A with film-makers. This was a key moment for participants understanding the contemporary situation in South Africa.

On the final evening we held a concert of American and South African hip-hop artists, including the results of a workshop in Mannenberg township that afternoon.

On the final afternoon, theme groups shared their learning, followed by speakers and acknowledgements. Anti-apartheid campaigner Ahmed Kathrada was scheduled to attend, but in the end was prevented by illness, so his representative Neesham Balton – and Chair of the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation – spoke in his stead. Newly-appointed Chair of WRI Christine Schweitzer then closed, looking at the particular challenges to come in the years ahead, and with a call for connections and networks formed at this conference to continue, in order to address them.

This video is a look back at the arts and cultural programme of the WRI conference, thanks to Muti Films

Working together

The conference was the work of many people and many groups. It was a collaborative gathering, with the The African Nonviolence and Peacebuilding Network and Women Peacemakers Program working with WRI in the planning of a gathering which included the WRI International Conference, as well as their own meetings.

The African Nonviolence and Peacebuilding Network meeting on the 1 July brought the network together, sharing their contexts and stories, and developing understanding of the shared problems they face. Most of the day was spent on learning from each other as to understand more about the people and organisations that form the network. Some initial discussions on network structure and goals and main activities took place.

On 4 July, a second meeting took place, which was facilitated by the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict (ICNC). The day was dedicated to exploring the power and opportunities for civil resistance in Africa. The session enabled participants to learn from activists and scholars with huge experience in civil resistance and nonviolent action in Africa, including: MK Jack, a leader of the opposition to Apartheid; Janet Cherry, a member of the End Conscription Campaign in South Africa and scholar on civil resistance; Jenni Williams of Women of Zimbabwe Arise, as well as staff of ICNC who have a rich knowledge of civil resistance from around the world. Through more participatory activities the day also gave the opportunity for members of the network to look at how civil resistance works and its opportunities in the African continent. 

Over these meetings, the Network appointed two co-Chairs (South African Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge – previously a convener of the network, and South Sudanese activist Moses Monday).

There is also a steering committee, which met several times throughout the International Conference (4-8 July).

At the conference, the African Nonviolence and Peacebuilding Network chose to rename itself the Pan-African Nonviolence and Peacebuilding Network, in order to explicitly be seen as an All-African Network, encompassing diverse language, religious, cultural groups, and giving space for members from sub-Saharan Africa, North Africa, and indeed those islands not technically part of an African state.

2-4 July: Women Peacemakers Program Global Consultation

This meeting took place in the same venue, and was designed to dove-tail with the WRI International Conference and Pan-African Nonviolence and Peacebuilding Network Meetings. Learning from the consultation fed into the International Conference, and over 20 members of the Pan-African Nonviolence and Peacebuilding Network attended.

A statement from the Women Peacemakers Program consultation to the conference was also read at the conference's opening, calling upon the conference to 'look at gender beyond a narrow focus on women and integrate an intersectional approach that gives space for realities of race, class, sexual orientation and gender identity; and masculinities perspectives on the women, peace, and security agenda by exploring links between nationalism and violent masculinities and militarism.'

See the full statement here: /WPPstatement

WRI meetings

WRI appointed a new Chair at the conference. Christine Schweitzer was warmly endorsed by Howard Clark before his death last year, Christine now has the job of overseeing WRI through a transition of gathering in African networks, and being changed by them.

The WRI Assembly that took place after the conference also issued three statements:

Stories from the conference

Many people have written about the conference or shared online presentations that they gave at the conference. These include: Pequeñas Acciones, Grandes Movimientos. La Espiral de la Noviolencia; The Danger to Africa, The Middle East and the World of the US Diego Garcia Military Base on Mauritian, Thus African, Land (by Alain Ah-Vee); SMALL ACTIONS – BIG MOVEMENTS: il resoconto dell’incontro di luglio della WRI (by Franco Perna - English version here); An African gathering of war resisters (by Hannah Brock) and The Silent Power of Boycotts and Blockades (by Find photos of the conference here, and more videos here.

Find pictures, footage, and more reflections about the conference here.

Update: 17 October 2014

Planned for the week of the Small Actions, Big Movements WRI conference, the Resistance installation in the middle of Cape Town's grand parade was delayed due to the inclement weather. Three months on, we're delighted to see it finally take shape!

Description from the artists: "Resistance" is a giant wheat paste public art installation; a world record spanning more than 100 meters. The image is of a broken AK -47. Resistance was born from a conversation between Ralph Ziman and (anti-arms activist) and Terry Crawford-Browne (one of the organisers of the Small Actions, Big Movements WRI conference).

Resistance was inspired by War Resisters' International - an anti-war organization founded in the wake of the First World War. War Resisters has existed for almost a century and has branches all around the world. The logo has always been a rifle, broken in half by a pair of hands.

See more photos here: /resistance-art

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Video of Mama Charlotte, performing in Cape Town City Hall, 5th July, at the Ecosocialist Horizons and War Resisters' International concert: Act Now Against Climate Catastrophe. Watch more videos from evening here.

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