Violence, the struggle and the social sector

The Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg is a tough place, filled with fragments that feel all too real in a world that is still in the midst of “the struggle.”

I initially approached the museum with the hope of learning about our collective past, but quickly realized that the learning was more about our present.

What struck me the most was the ANC’s transition from civil disobedience into a more extreme and militant movement — known as the Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation) or MK — and what this might mean for social entrepreneurs.

This might seem like a weird connection, but after 2.5 years of grinding it out at Amal Academy, and about 6 years in the sector, I’ve begun to wonder if we’re doing enough to truly dent the world.

Are we really making massive win/lose it all type of bets? Are we actually putting it all on the line? Are we taking the types of risks that actually have a chance at changing the world?

The answer to an outsider might seem like an obvious yes: who else would move to Pakistan to start a venture that “by statistical measures will likely fail”?

But are we letting ourselves off too easily? Or at the least, are we doing our ventures (and our potential impact on the world) a major injustice? Because aside from the initial risk of setting up shop, are we really consistently making the type of game-changing (albeit strategic) risks that can really disrupt our sectors? And are we really seeing the type of catalytic change that the world needs?

And if not, is that why so many people in the sector burnout? Slowly and painfully grinding away on a venture that doesn’t really have a fighting chance at changing the fundamental problems.

Which brings my mind back to the ANC, who initially took an incredibly bold and game-changing risk of standing up against apartheid through civil disobedience. And yet, that one time risk wasn’t enough. After thirty-seven years of a nonviolent movement, they realized that something more radical was needed. In the words of Mandela, when asked if the ANC would resort to violent measures:

Shortly after, the ANC created MK and resorted to “properly-controlled forms of a violent political struggle,” which eventually lead to Mandela’s imprisonment, international attention and ultimately the fall of apartheid.

Has that time also come for social entrepreneurs, in which we need to ask if our “measures so far have been adequate”? And what is the reason so many of us “in the struggle” are burning out? Is it because we’re not making the type of moves that could fundamentally disrupt the system?

And what would a “violent/radical” strategy look like?

These are hard questions with no black or white answers. But for us at Amal Academy, part of the answer is to start taking bigger risks. To think and act more like MK or Nelson Mandela (or Elon Musk or Travis Kalanick or Steve Jobs, etc), and to (consistently) make moves that others might think are too premature or too idealistic or too aspirational or too unrealistic etc.

We know it won’t be easy, and that it might confuse a lot of outsiders, but in the words of Mandela (as he stood on trial facing the death sentence in 1964):

“it is common to take a dog for a walk, it is less common to take a dream for a walk” || @amalacademy + @understory cofounder | nature novel in progress

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