JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — Nelson Mandela, South Africa’s first black president, is a giant in the world of liberation heroes, up there with Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.
But unlike Gandhi, who said that nonviolence and truth were inseparable, and King, who famously declared that violence was immoral, Mandela embraced armed struggle to end the racist system of apartheid.
To many South Africans, particularly within the African National Congress, Mandela was a great man partly because of his willingness to use violence, not in spite of it.
Many believe apartheid would have endured much longer if he hadn’t rebelled and overturned the ANC’s long-standing nonviolence policy.
As a young man, Mandela’s favorite sport wasn’t a team sport like soccer, with strict limits on contact. Boxing was what thrilled him. As a young politician, his rhetoric was angry, uncompromising and inspiring. His aim was to incite revolt.
In the early 1950s, the ANC and the South African Indian Congress launched a nonviolent operation of strikes and protests called the Defiance Campaign against the unjust laws of apartheid.
By 1953, Mandela had decided that it wasn’t working. He felt that the ANC’s leaders — old-fashioned, traditional figures such as the party’s president, Albert Luthuli — were out of touch with reality.
In September of that year, he made a speech in the Johannesburg suburb of Sophiatown that was to be later famously known as the “No Easy Walk to Freedom” address.
In the speech, Mandela said the ANC had to come up with new plans for political struggle.
“You can see that there is no easy walk to freedom anywhere, and many of us will have to pass through the valley of the shadow again and again before we reach the mountaintops of our desires.
“Dangers and difficulties have not deterred us in the past. They will not frighten us now. But we must be prepared for them like men in business who do not waste energy in vain talk and idle action.”
In 1956, during a trial at which 156 ANC leaders and activists, including Mandela, were charged with treason, he told the court that he supported nonviolence as a principle — not true at the time; he supported it only as a tactic — because he knew he and others could be convicted if he said otherwise. The trial dragged on until 1961, but Mandela and the others were acquitted.
The Sharpeville massacre in 1960, when South African police killed 69 protesters, was the last straw for Mandela and other proponents of armed struggle.
Mandela carried the day at a series of all-night meetings with ANC leaders in mid-1961 to set up the ANC’s underground military wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe, or Spear of the Nation.
Mandela’s opponents said that if the ANC embarked on violence, the regime would massacre more civilians. Moses Kotane, secretary-general of the South African Communist Party, argued that continued nonviolence could work if activists were more imaginative.
Mandela met with Kotane for a full day to try to change his mind. He argued that South African activists had to consider an armed revolution because angry young men and women outside the ANC were ready to take up arms, and if the ANC did not lead them it would become irrelevant.
Finally Mandela believed he had won Luthuli’s blessing to form Umkhonto we Sizwe and embark on violence. But the timing was terrible. In October, the Norwegian Nobel Committee announced that it was bestowing the previous year’s unawarded Peace Prize on Luthuli, an enormous symbolic victory for the ANC. Luthuli backtracked and again espoused nonviolent methods of resistance against apartheid.
The ANC has always been a hierarchical organization, highly respectful of its leaders. Mandela was left high and dry by the president’s public statements. Some activists might have gone back to Luthuli to get the leadership to re-endorse the military struggle, or quietly dropped the matter. Not Mandela.
At almost the most embarrassing possible moment, less than a week after Luthuli was awarded the Peace Prize in Oslo, Umkhonto we Sizwe launched its first military action: five bomb attacks on power stations and government buildings in Port Elizabeth, Durban and Johannesburg on Dec. 16, 1961.
After he founded Umkhonto we Sizwe, Mandela was sent by the ANC for military training in Algeria and Ethiopia. He held a gun for the first time. It felt comfortable in his hands. When he fired at a rock across a river, he didn’t hit it, but he got close enough to raise dust nearby, delighting his instructors.
Mandela returned from his trip in July 1962 but was arrested soon after and faced trial for sabotage in Rivonia, a Johannesburg suburb. Police found incriminating evidence about the armed struggle, and Mandela and some of the others tried with him were convicted and jailed for life in 1964. Mandela was offered freedom several times on various conditions, including renouncing violence, but he refused.
Umkhonto we Sizwe continued its fight, launching hundreds of bomb attacks.
But just as he had embraced violence without the permission of ANC leaders, Mandela, on his own initiative, wrote to leaders of the white supremacist government in 1985, initiating peace talks. Gradually, he negotiated a peaceful end to apartheid and the release of political prisoners. One of the last to be freed, he continued talks with the white government and persuaded it to agree to free, democratic elections, in effect a surrendering of its power.
Umkhonto we Sizwe abandoned its policy of violence in 1990 as negotiations on the dismantling of apartheid and the setting up of free elections continued.
After his release, and on becoming South Africa’s chief executive in 1994, Mandela adhered to the commitment to peace, tolerance and equality that became the hallmark of his presidency. Like Luthuli, whom he had opposed on the question of violence, Mandela in 1993 was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, along with then-South African President F.W. de Klerk, for the negotiations ending apartheid.
Mandela’s rhetoric changed from the sharp, angry words of a young revolutionary to the considered, dignified wisdom of a beloved elder.
In the early 1990s, biographer Richard Stengel pointed out that people were criticizing Mandela for not being a more rousing speaker, as he had been in his youth.
“Well, in a climate of this nature, when we are trying to reach settlement through negotiations, you don’t want rabble-rousing speeches,” Mandela replied. “I don’t want to incite the crowd. I want the crowd to understand what we are doing and I want to infuse a spirit of reconciliation to them.”
Ultimately, the world remembers Mandela not for his call to arms, but for his gentler call for reconciliation in a country deeply divided by race to this day.
The popular conception of Mandela as a saint, one he always debunked, ignores the moral struggle in the ANC that caused the movement to abandon nonviolence.
In a 1979 letter to his then-wife, Winnie, Mandela reflected ruefully on the contradictions in people’s lives, and what it is to be human and fallible. An excerpt appears in his last book, a collection of notes and writings, “Conversations with Myself.”
“Habits die hard and they leave their unmistakable marks, the invisible scars that are engraved in our bones and that flow in our blood, that do havoc to the principal actors beyond repair.... Such scars portray people as they are and bring out into the full glare of public scrutiny the embarrassing contradictions in which individuals live out their lives.
“We are told that a saint is a sinner who keeps on trying to be clean. One may be a villain for three-quarters of his life and be canonized because he lived a holy life for the remaining quarter of that life.
“In real life we deal, not with gods, but with ordinary humans like ourselves: men and women who are full of contradictions, who are stable and fickle, strong and weak, famous and infamous, people in whose bloodstream the muckworm battles daily with potent pesticides.”
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