December 5, the anniversary of Nelson Mandela’s death, is an occasion to reflect on the life of the great anti-apartheid leader. Mandela retrospectives invariably compare him to Gandhi, Martin Luther King or both, placing Mandela not only in the pantheon of immortal fighters against injustice but also within the tradition of nonviolence.
However, doing so is actually a great disservice to Mandela, who rejected nonviolence as an unrealistic strategy in the South African context. There’s a tendency among liberals to equate nonviolence with moral righteousness, but by bowdlerizing Mandela’s story, well-meaning people give short shrift to the political genius he showed in responding to the peculiar brutality of the apartheid system.
Days after Mandela’s death in 2013, Stanford’s Martin Luther King Institute released a statement titled “Remembering Nelson Mandela” that contained surprisingly little about the man’s life. It began with “[W]e mourn the passing of Nelson Mandela, who has, along with Gandhi and King, symbolized the twentieth century freedom struggles that affected the lives of the majority of humanity.”
Gandhi demonstrated that nonviolent strategies could be used effectively to transform the colonial policies of the most powerful empire of his era. He left behind a legacy of innovative, nonviolent resistance methods that King adopted to transform the racial policies of the most powerful nation of the last half of the twentieth century. The Sharpeville massacre in 1960 made Mandela and other leaders of the African National Congress more skeptical about nonviolent strategies …
Rather than “remembering Nelson Mandela,” the King Institute reduces him to one of three interchangeable freedom fighters while flattening out the circumstances in which they struggled. Relative to the Indian anti-colonial movement and the American Civil Rights movement, the stakes in South Africa were much higher.
The British could just pack up and leave India when it was no longer profitable, whereas the white minority in South Africa had deep roots—and a siege mentality. In the United States, the political cost of granting voting rights to blacks in the South was relatively modest, since the rule of America’s white majority could be preserved in a nominally democratic system.
Constituting less than 20 percent of the population, white South Africans were only able to maintain their supremacy through terror and draconian legal repression. Opposition political parties were banned and every black person was required to carry an internal passport at all times.
Given the heavy reliance of the country on black labor, the ANC could effectively organize mass “stay-at-home” work stoppages, but the state used an expansive definition of high treason to threaten organizers with the death penalty or imprisonment.
The King Institute mentions in passing that the Sharpeville massacre made Mandela and others “more skeptical” of nonviolence. In reality, it was merely the last straw.
Mandela had started questioning the efficacy of nonviolent tactics in the early 1950s during the Anti-Removal Campaign. Under the Natives Resettlement Act of 1954, the government demolished the multiracial Johannesburg suburb of Sophiatown. One of the only places blacks could buy land and a major cultural hub, Sophiatown had a powerful symbolic value, and its loss was devastating.
Before the Anti-Removal Campaign, Mandela, Walter Sisulu, and several other prominent ANC activists had been banned from political activity, but the ban expired, allowing him to speak at Freedom Square in Sophiatown.
From his autobiography Long Walk to Freedom:
As I condemned the government for its ruthlessness and lawlessness, I stepped across the line: I said that the time for passive resistance had ended, that nonviolence was a useless strategy and could never overturn a white minority regime bent on retaining its power at any cost. At the end of the day, I said, violence was the only weapon that would destroy apartheid and we must be prepared, in the near future, to use that weapon
Mandela drew a distinction between pacifism and nonviolence. The former was a principle; the latter, a tactic. Nonviolence is a tool, he contended, and as such, it is valuable insofar as it is useful. Still many in the anti-apartheid struggle were committed to nonviolence at all costs, particularly South Africans of Indian origin. Mohandas Ghandi’s son Manilal, an activist in the South African Indian Congress, was a strong proponent of his father’s principle of satyagraha, which means “holding onto the truth,” and entails always keeping the high ground.
Initially, nonviolence made sense, wrote Mandela:
If a particular method or tactic enabled us to defeat the enemy, then it should be used. In this case, the state was far more powerful than we, and any attempts at violence by us would be devastatingly crushed. This made nonviolence a practical necessity rather than an option. This was my view, and I saw nonviolence in the Gandhian model not as an inviolable principle but as a tactic to be used as the situation demanded. The principle was not so important that the strategy should be used even when it was self-defeating, as Gandhi himself believed. I called for nonviolent protest for as long as it was effective.
It’s worth noting that in a 1947 speech given shortly before India’s formal independence, Gandhi himself had similarly argued that Indians also adopted nonviolence out of necessity, calling it the “nonviolence of the weak.”
Had we adopted non-violence as the weapon of the strong, because we realized that it was more effective than any other weapon—in fact the mightiest force in the world—we would have made use of its full potency and not have discarded it as soon as the fight against the British was over or we were in a position to wield conventional weapons. But as I have already said, we adopted it out of our helplessness. If we had the atom bomb, we would have used it against the British.
In the mid-1980s, the Nationalist government under Prime Minister P.W. Botha offered to free the imprisoned leader on the condition that he renounce violence, but Mandela refused, saying that “it is always the oppressor, not the oppressed, who dictates the form of the struggle.”
This was a truth that had become undeniable in March 1960. Responding to a call by the militant Pan-Africanist Congress, tens of thousands showed up at police stations across the country without their mandatory passbooks and dared the police to arrest them. In Sharpeville, police opened fire with live ammunition on a crowd of thousands, killing 69 and seriously injuring nearly 200. Many had been shot in the back while fleeing the lethal barrage.
The following year, Mandela, together with Oliver Tambo, Walter Sisulu and Joe Slovo, formally established the ANC’s military wing Umkhonto weSizwe (MK), or “Spear of the Nation.”
Six months later on Dec. 16, 1961, MK launched its first sabotage campaign targeting infrastructure and offices where passbook records were kept. In keeping with the spirit of the ANC’s policy of nonviolence, these bombings took great pains to avoid the loss of civilian life.
At the same time, Mandela and the other leaders were readying themselves for the likelihood that the armed struggle would escalate into full-scale guerrilla warfare. He began touring independent African nations to receive military training and raise funds. On his return, he was arrested along with other MK leaders in a raid on the ANC safehouse at Liliesleaf Farm.
They were tried for high treason in what came to be known as the Rivonia Trial. Mandela acted as the attorney but presented no evidence. Rather than a legal case, he made a moral one. In a legendary four-hour speech from the dock, he issued a scathing indictment of the apartheid regime while asserting the moral imperative of the ANC’s struggle.
Mandela echoed the sentiment expressed by John F. Kennedy only two years prior: “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.” He argued that the anger of the African masses would soon turn into terrorism if not properly channeled, and sabotage was the least violent option at their disposal.
[W]e felt that without sabotage 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 Government. We first broke the law in a way which avoided any recourse to violence; when this form was legislated against, and when the Government resorted to a show of force to crush opposition to its policies, only then did we decide to answer violence with violence.
In the end, due to international pressure, Mandela and his comrades were spared the death penalty. Instead, they were sentenced to life imprisonment on Robben Island, where they would spend the better part of the next three decades while the struggle raged on outside.
With much of the ANC’s senior military leadership either in prison or exile, organized armed resistance ebbed for more than a decade until 1976. That year, a student movement protesting education inequality and the forced teaching of Afrikaans was violently suppressed by the state. The massacre brought the brutal reality of the regime into stark relief: security forces equipped with armored cars and automatic weapons fighting schoolchildren armed with stones.
Nearly 200 were killed and more than 1,000 injured. Among the first—and the youngest—victims were Hector Pieterson, 13, and Hastings Ndlovu, 15. The image of anti-apartheid activist Mbuyisa Makhubo carrying Pieterson came to symbolize the horror visited upon what is now known as the Soweto uprising.
Once again, as Mandela correctly observed, the oppressor dictated the form of the struggle. The massacre radicalized an entire generation, who would carry out the final bloody phase of the armed struggle.
The killings steeled the ANC’s resolve and swelled the ranks of anti-apartheid paramilitaries. With an influx of committed recruits, the guerrilla war began in earnest. Cadres were sent to sympathetic countries like Angola, Mozambique and Tanzania for advanced military training. From 1976 to 1981, there were 112 attacks. Over a particularly intense five-month period starting in November 1977, there was an average of a bombing each week.
While sabotage attacks against both military and economic targets, like railways and other infrastructure, remained the mainstay for much of the early 1980s, there was a marked increase in shootouts between MK operatives and security forces during this period.
In 1981, another turning point came when the South African Defense Forces (SADF) conducted a raid on an MK outpost in Matola, Mozambique, which killed 16 South Africans and a Portuguese engineer who was mistaken for MK commander Joe Slovo. After the raid, the ANC became increasingly willing to accept the loss of innocent life.
This shift in tactics could be seen in the 1983 Church Street bombing, carried out as a reprisal for both the Matola raid and the assassination by letter bomb of Ruth First, a stalwart anti-apartheid activist and Slovo’s wife. Though the target was the offices of the South African Air Force (SAAF) in Pretoria, the bomb went off prematurely, leading to significant civilian casualties. Twenty-one were killed, including two MK operatives and 11 military personnel, while more than 200 were injured, of which 84 were SAAF staff.
The ANC attempted to maintain a proportional ratio of civilian-to-military casualties, but as the findings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) showed, it largely failed. From 1976 to 1986, 130 people were killed in bombing attacks—not all of which were confirmed to have been executed by MK—and only 30 were military or security personnel. However it’s worth pointing out that this wasn’t outside the norms of conventional warfare. Between 75 and 90 percent of all casualties in late-20th century wars were civilians.
The TRC observed that “of the three main parties to the conflict, only the ANC committed itself to observing the tenets of the Geneva Protocols” but also insisted that it must be held to account for “gross human rights violations” committed during the course of the anti-apartheid movement.
The vast majority of these had occurred during the final years of the armed struggle following President Oliver Tambo’s 1985 announcement of a new ANC strategy to make “apartheid unworkable and South Africa ungovernable.” The ANC’s Kabwe Conference had resolved to take the fight out of the black ghettos and into white areas.
Under the new “people’s war” framework, autonomous MK operatives had wide latitude to act on their own initiative, which led to more indiscriminate bombing campaigns targeting restaurants, supermarkets and discos. Though these actions violated ANC official policy, the TRC argued that the party did not do enough to rein them in and thus were “morally and politically responsible.”
At the same time, condemning “violence on all sides” is a false equivalence. Putting aside the fact that one was fighting to end racial oppression and the other to preserve it, the violence of the ANC was not equal to that of the apartheid government in severity, scale, ethics or any other dimension.
In reviewing applications for amnesty submitted to the TRC, the commission found nearly 900 incidents of killings committed by the SADF and police inside and outside the country, noting that each incident could involve multiple deaths. In one single incident, a raid into Southwest Africa (Namibia), more than 600 were killed, including 400 civilians.
The TRC also observed that the number of killings was greatly underestimated, given that apartheid forces routinely covered up deaths and were less than forthcoming at the proceedings. For example, police would put burning tires around the neck of murdered activists—a practice known as “necklacing”—to simulate the common punishment used for collaborators. They would blow the bodies up with a landmine to make it appear like the victim was killed while placing it.
In addition to massive acts of state terror, like the massacres at Sharpeville and Soweto, security forces engaged in the kinds of practices that the word “terrorism” typically evokes. Craig Williamson, the intelligence officer responsible for the assassination of Ruth First, carried out a number of other bombings, including the destruction of ANC’s London office as well as the murder of Jeannette Schoon and her 6-year-old daughter Kathryn. The TRC granted him amnesty.
An elite counterinsurgency unit known as Vlakplaas bombed churches, private homes and other buildings used by anti-apartheid activists, such as Cosatu House and Khotso House, the headquarters of the Congress of South African Trade Unions and the South African Council of Churches, respectively. Neither of these organizations had ever been engaged in armed struggle, and both bombings were approved by the minister of law and order at roughly the same time as Prime Minister Botha was calling on Mandela to renounce violence.
And these were actually the least of Vlakplaas’ misdeeds. Under the command of Eugene “Prime Evil” De Kock, it acted as a death squad, abducting, torturing and assassinating hundreds of activists. One of its most notorious operators Paul van Vuuren was nicknamed “The Electrician” for his modus operandi of electrocuting prisoners to death.
As regrettable as the loss of life during the armed struggle was, it’s hard to imagine how apartheid could have fallen without it. To an uniformed observer, Mandela’s refusal to renounce violence might have seen morally indefensible, but in light of the circumstances and with the benefit of hindsight, it proved to be the correct choice.
The armed struggle could only be ended once F.W. de Klerk legalized the ANC and all other black organizations in 1990, making it possible for black South Africans to peacefully express their political will.
Over the course of the decades-long fight to establish a multiracial democracy, decisions regarding the use of violence were never made in a vacuum, and it’s necessary to confront the matter honestly. Turning Mandela into a saint and history into hagiography poses two great risks.
First, dodging the issue of violence and failing to properly contextualize it risks ceding control over the discourse to those who are fundamentally hostile to Mandela and the ideas he represents.
Far-right Australian pundit Andrew Bolt, convicted in 2011 under the nation’s racial vilification laws, published a brief article shortly after Mandela’s death titled “The Dark Side of Nelson Mandela.” He wrote:
For many whites abroad, he seems even Christ-like — someone who’d suffered for the sins of white guilt, and absolved those who believed in him of the sin of racism. But Mandela was no Christ nor even Gandhi nor Martin Luther King. He was for decades a man of violence. In 1961, he broke with African National Congress colleagues who preached non-violence, creating a terrorist wing.
White nationalist Youtuber Stefan Molyneux’s video “The Truth About Nelson Mandela,” released the same day, was even more egregious. Though ostensibly a libertarian, he fills the video with apologia for the unambiguously statist apartheid regime. Molyneux even likens Mandela’s 1961 sabotage campaign, which killed no one, to the Oklahoma City bombing, the deadliest terrorist attack on US soil prior to Sept. 11.
Second, shying away from any discussion of Mandela and violence risks reinforcing the notion that the oppressed must be held to a higher standard than the oppressed.
The orthodox liberal position is that nonviolence is the only morally acceptable form of resistance even in the face of a powerful and ruthlessly amoral enemy. In order for Mandela to be considered righteous, his connection to violence must be sidestepped or minimized since the accepted premise is that there is no condition under which violence is justified.
Curiously, Western liberalism has no difficulty finding moral rationalizations for mass violence when it is committed by the world’s most powerful military (see the doctrine of “humanitarian intervention” as espoused by former UN Ambassador Samantha Power), yet disenfranchised people in impossible situations must be paragons of virtue to be worthy of admiration and support.
The oppressors not only “dictate the form of the struggle,” as Mandela astutely observed—they also establish the boundaries of acceptable resistance in their own favor, constantly narrowing the number of avenues available until none are left.