Global Majority maps a hopeful future.
Thursday, April 13, 2006
Boatamo Mosupyoe, a black South African and a member of the Monterey-based peace group Global Majority, lost her husband and a child during the struggle to end apartheid. Now a professor at Cal State Sacramento, she is a powerful speaker and a passionate activist—clearly not a starry-eyed dreamer. And yet she joined Global Majority’s international advisory board last week in a move that could seem overly idealistic—a call on the governments of the United States and Iran to put down their weapons.
The group, headquartered at the Monterey Institute for International Studies, issued a statement last Friday that read in part: “We, the global majority who aspire to live in peace and free of war and violence, invoke the power of civil society to call for Iran and the United States to pursue dialogue and negotiation on all issues creating friction and division between the two nations.”
The call was a response to a report detailing Bush administration war plans, published in this week’s New Yorker magazine. So the timing was good. But still, where does a small, far-flung international citizens group get off making demands on national governments?
The answer is found in the words “the power of civil society,” which also happened to be the theme of this year’s Global Majority gathering. Mosupyoe, in a keynote address, told a story that explains this idea. Speaking from personal experience, she described how “civil society demilitarized South Africa.”
“Young white people, who I prefer to call Euro-Africans, were sent to the townships with their guns to maintain the system of apartheid,” she recalled. “They were there day after day, and they would say to us that they were tired, and we should stop protesting, so they could go home. And that was the beginning of the dialogue between black South Africans and people in the military.”
Eventually, the white soldiers formed their own anti-conscription campaign—“they said they did not want to kill fellow South Africans.” Such a modest story. But for Mosupyoe, who lived it, this is the correct version of history.
“The apartheid government gets the credit,” she says. “But it was the white South African soldiers and the black South Africans.”
This idea of something called civil society dates back to Aristotle, who talked and wrote of active citizens participating in self-government in a meaningful way. Today civil society is taken to mean “collective action around shared interests, purposes and values,” according to a widely circulated definition put forward by the London School of Economics. That definition continues: “Civil societies are often populated by organizations such as registered charities, community groups, women’s organizations, faith-based organizations, professional associations, trade unions, social movements, business associations and advocacy groups.”
Global Majority is one such group, made up of a few hundred individuals from around the world—many in some way affiliated with the Monterey Institute. Most of them are in turn members of other organizations—for instance, Isatou Touray, from the Gambia, who delivered the statement about Iran, heads a coalition that includes dozens of groups in her home country. Together, the members of Global Majority represent a large constituency.
Throughout the three-day gathering last weekend, the members of the international advisory board told inspiring stories about how civil society intervened in violent conflicts to help negotiate peaceful settlements.
Paul Arthur of the University of Ulster described how diplomacy between individuals committed to peace in Northern Ireland overcame the bombastic rhetoric of the politicians on both sides of the conflict. “Civil society was well ahead of the political class,” he said, “and that was demonstrated when the Good Friday agreement was signed.”
Sanho Tree, a Chinese American who recently visited South Korea, told stories about the ways citizens in that country are building institutions there. And Touray described an emerging culture of activism in the Gambia. “Citizens have a greater role to play than casting a vote,” she said.
At a forum on Friday night, Hillel Schenker, co-editor of the Palestine-Israel Journal, demonstrated how civil society can profoundly influence global politics. He was answering a hard question from an audience member about the sticky problem of Palestinians’ right to return to what is now Israel—a problem that lies at the heart of an apparently intractable situation. Schenker pointed to a solution found in the Geneva Accords, a peace plan hatched in 2003 by an international citizens group. The agreement he referred to is no more or less bold than the idea put forward by Global Majority here last weekend—a blueprint for a better world.