Madiba, Mahatma and the Limits of Nonviolence

by Misha Lepetic

“And if you can't bear the thought of messing up
your nice, clean soul, you'd better give up the
whole idea of life, and become a saint.”

~ John Osborne, “Look Back in Anger”

Boxing2As the paeans for Nelson Mandela rolled in last week, observers might have been forgiven for thinking that it was not a single human being had passed, but rather an astonishing confabulation of Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Mother Teresa. The narrative can be encapsulated thusly: a despicable regime unjustly imprisons a passionate activist for 27 years, who upon his release goes on to lead his nation into peaceful democracy and becomes an avuncular elder statesman, unconditionally loved and respected by all. But this narrative tells us little about who Mandela actually was, and why he acted in the world in the way he did. A brief examination of Mandela's involvement in the ending of non-violence and the initiation of armed struggle in the early 1960s serves to illustrate some of this nuance.

The perpetuation of the saccharine narrative is enabled by, among other things, the cherry-picking of Mandela's own words. One endlessly quoted passage has been the end of Mandela's opening statement at the start of his trial on charges of sabotage, at the Supreme Court of South Africa, on April 20th, 1964:

During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.

This is stirring stuff, and worthy of being engraved into the marble of a monument, but only if you bother to read the preceding 10,000 words. In a far-reaching statement notable for its pellucidity, Mandela lays out the circumstances and philosophy that resulted in armed struggle against the regime.

I have already mentioned that I was one of the persons who helped to form Umkhonto [we Sizwe, the armed wing of the ANC]. I, and the others who started the organisation, did so for two reasons. Firstly, we believed that as a result of Government policy, violence by the African people had become inevitable, and that unless responsible leadership was given to canalise and control the feelings of our people, there would be outbreaks of terrorism which would produce an intensity of bitterness and hostility between the various races of this country which is not produced even by war. Secondly, we felt that without violence there would be no way open to the African people to succeed in their struggle against the principle of white supremacy. All lawful modes of expressing opposition to this principle had been closed by legislation, and we were placed in a position in which we had either to accept a permanent state of inferiority, or to defy the government. We chose to defy the law. We first broke the law in a way which avoided any recourse to violence; when this form was legislated against, and then the government resorted to a show of force to crush opposition to its policies, only then did we decide to answer violence with violence.

Without this context, Mandela's lofty concluding paragraph is as cheap as a Hallmark card. It's now clear to the reader exactly the lengths to which Mandela would be willing to go to die for his beliefs – not as a lamb to slaughter, but as a fiery revolutionary. It is difficult to conceive of Gandhi initiating such actions. But why was Mandela prepared at that point to resort to violence?


I am not gratuitously bringing up Gandhi's name. His example is especially instructive, since he lived in South Africa for 21 years, and it was in the course of resistance to discrimination against the Hindu, Muslim and Chinese minorities in that country that he first formulated the idea of satyagraha and non-violent resistance that would prove to be so effective, decades later, in India. And yet, as an exclusive strategy, non-violence failed in South Africa, or at least was found to be ineffective enough that, 50 years after Gandhi's initial experience, ANC leaders like Mandela were forced to conclude that armed resistance was in fact appropriate and necessary.

So why did Gandhi's strategy of nonviolence succeed in India but not in South Africa? In hindsight, we tend to see effective strategies of resistance as almost inevitable, partly thanks to their ennobling nature, but also as a result of the absence of any historical counterfactual. Hannah Arendt, who knew a thing or two about power, wrote in the New York Review of Books in 1969:

In a head-on clash between violence and power the outcome is hardly in doubt. If Gandhi's enormously powerful and successful strategy of non-violent resistance had met with a different enemy—Stalin's Russia, Hitler's Germany, even pre-war Japan, instead of England—the outcome would not have been decolonization but massacre and submission.

The thought experiment comes across as a bit clumsy – for example, this does not explain why nonviolence was successful in India – but the point is that context matters. In terms of South Africa, we know that the regime had only become more recalcitrant since Gandhi's efforts, which ended with his departure in 1914. There were many differences between it and the Raj, not least of which was the obvious fact that the South African regime was not colonial. South Africa's home population might have felt uneasy about the ongoing tactics, but the consequences of revolution were (at least presented as) nightmarish. Significant profits from resource extraction were also at stake. On the whole, the perception was that, since the whites had nowhere else to go, the screws could only tighten. Throughout the 20th century, virtually until the dissolution of apartheid in the early 1990s, a vast bureaucratic system of control permeated every aspect of South African society and ossified discrimination socially, culturally and spatially, often to absurd effect. (For an excellent perspective on the processes of racial classification, I commend to readers Chapter 6 of Geoffrey Bowker and Susan Star's Sorting Things Out: Classification and Its Consequences, which delves into a system that at one point saw fit to reclassify one man's race no less than five times).

Sharpeville-massacre-police-01But it was not the passage of some new law that brought matters to a head. The precipitating event that buried the non-violent approach in South Africa was the 1960 Sharpeville massacre, which left 69 dead. It was Sharpeville that catalyzed armed resistance by the ANC, but not in the way that one might think. That is, Sharpeville was not a case of “enough is enough,” but at least partially one of internecine institutional struggle. If we take Mandela's words at face value, armed response was formulated as an ANC policy only after it was felt that all other options were exhausted. Certainly, the post-massacre crackdown by the regime saw the banning of political parties resisting the regime. On the other hand, and I believe much more importantly, Mandela undertook this action because he and others had recognized that events had begun outrunning the ANC.

Prior to Sharpeville, the pot had already come to a near boil. The march on the police station there had not been an ANC action, but rather one initiated by the Pan-African Congress, a splinter group that had recently broken off from the ANC. Both the PAC and the ANC had declared campaigns of resistance against the South African pass laws, which controlled people's movement around the country. (Incidentally, these were the same laws that had been the subject of Gandhi's protests, beginning in 1907, but by now were horrifically onerous and brutally enforced). Sharpeville was an action conducted by PAC supporters, and the police overreaction consequently led to the founding of the PAC's armed wing, which went on to target and murder whites as early as 1962.

Given these facts, it is easy to see that the terms of engagement had decisively changed. The PAC and ANC were driven underground, and the PAC had mobilized an armed response to kill whites. This returns us to the discussion of power and violence. At the end of her essay, Arendt writes:

Violence, being instrumental by nature, is rational to the extent that it is effective in reaching the end which must justify it. And since when we act we never know with any amount of certainty the eventual consequences of what we are doing, violence can remain rational only if it pursues short-term goals.

Mandela recognized this. The ANC could no longer function as an overt political force. However, it also had to present itself as a more desirable alternative than the PAC. But outrage over Sharpeville set up the distinct danger of all-out black uprising. The ANC had to defuse the situation while continuing to move forward on its goals. It had to remain a relevant force in a landscape that had been altered suddenly and irrevocably. As such, it was decided that the ANC's militant actions would be restricted to sabotage, and under no circumstances would it seek to take lives. By the time of Mandela's arrest, Umkhonto we Sizwe had conducted over 300 operations, almost all of which were against infrastructure and energy installations.

ANC0001_110-670x406Note that sabotage is precisely what Mandela was charged with in 1964, and that led to his incarceration on Robben Island for the next 27 years. Mandela may have chosen violence, but, in keeping with Arendt's insight, strictly recognized it for its instrumental value, and chose to engage it in the same way that a smoke jumper sets a smaller fire in order to prevent a larger one from advancing. His actions allowed the ANC to remain credible and relevant in the decades that followed – had the conflict continued to degenerate into bloodshed, a full-blown civil war would have been very difficult to prevent.

Could Mandela have exercised a Gandhi-like sense of restraint? It would seem that entities like the PAC were no longer under his control and that the Rubicon had been crossed with the Sharpeville massacre. Historical forces have a way of becoming too overbearing – even Gandhi was powerless in the face of Partition, which he considered his greatest failure. Thus, one of the things that made Mandela the great leader was his ability to maneuver his organization into continuing relevance.

How successful the new ANC policy was in ultimately ending apartheid is an entirely different question, and one that I will leave to the historians. But it does bear mentioning that even this, fairly humane approach to armed struggle, was enough for the United States to declare the ANC a terrorist organization, and, in a somewhat baffling oversight, Mandela himself was not removed from the US terrorist watchlist until 2008, a full 15 years after winning the Nobel Peace Prize and serving as South Africa's first president. As for Gandhi, it is worth mentioning that his ashes were immersed not in the Ganges, as one might think, but in the ocean off the mouth of the Umgeni river, in his beloved South Africa. J.M. Coetzee, in his typically pithy fashion, may as well have been speaking for either when he recently wrote: “he may well be the last of the great men, as the concept of greatness retires into the historical shadows.”