Nelson Mandela’s refusal to sign a pledge denouncing the use of violence to secure equal rights for nonwhite people in South Africa has evoked diametrically opposed responses from people in the United States. I recently interviewed numerous political leaders, black and white, for a study of racial discrimination in this country and in South Africa compared to caste discrimination in India. The responses were almost equally divided. Many of the black leaders felt that, because Mandela would serve the nonwhite cause better as a free man than as a prisoner, he should sign “the piece of paper” without qualms and not feel obligated to abide by the government-enforced conditions once released. Many of the whites said that Mandela’s refusal to sign “a legitimate pledge” is a tacit admission of his violent attitudes, lending credence to the South African government’s fears of a bloody revolution if Mandela is released.
Anyone who believes in principled politics, something that is becoming increasingly rare these days, should have no difficulty in understanding Mandela’s unwillingness to sign a pledge that he does not believe in, even if it means prolonged imprisonment. At least he is a man who stands for what he believes.
However, I have some serious problems with the implication inherent in his refusal: that nonviolence is unsuitable as a tool to gain redress of nonwhite South Africans’ grievances. This view is held by virtually all nonwhite leaders in that country. It is, I am afraid, rooted in crass ignorance of the concept of nonviolence.
Unless the nonwhite movement in South Africa is exceptionally lucky in persuading another country to commit its armed forces to routing the racist Afrikaner regime, there is no way they are going to win anything through violence. Random street fighting, which has taken a heavy toll of young black lives, has not even stretched the resources of the South African police beyond 10%. Understandably, no country in the world, whatever its commitment to human rights and dignity, is likely to get seriously involved in a conflict that could easily escalate into a global conflagration.
When my grandfather, Mohandas K. Gandhi, was faced with the same dilemma in India that Nelson Mandela faces today in South Africa, he opted for nonviolence. This was not so much because he was spiritually committed to such a philosophy, but because he was a visionary with a keen perception for political strategy. Gandhi was convinced that he would never be able to elicit the support of a third country to fight a violent war against the British, nor did he consider it right to get someone else involved in what was intrinsically a bilateral issue. He was equally convinced that it would be suicidal to ask untrained, unarmed people to challenge a sophisticated fighting machine with sticks and rocks. Nor was there any hope of his getting hundreds of thousands of volunteers and the requisite armaments for a violent war. Gandhi knew that the element of surprise played an important part in determining the outcome of a battle. Consequently, he chose the time, the place and the strategy for the battle waged with nonviolence and had his adversaries at their wits’ end. Those who believe that the British were gentlemanly in their reaction need to re-read Indian history.
Nonwhite South Africa has flouted every aspect of this philosophy of nonviolence, yet violence has gotten the nonwhites nothing. They have sacrificed thousands of innocent lives at the altar of violence; scores of leaders like Nelson Mandela and Zwelakhe Sisulu have languished in prison for the best part of their lives while the second, third and fourth lines of leadership fled the country. The leaderless people have been left to vent their anger and frustration with rocks and petrol necklaces.
The exiled leaders have been trying to drum up support for trade and diplomatic sanctions against South Africa, as they have for 40 years, even though sanctions have proved to be totally ineffective. India, for instance, was among the first to accept the 1949 U.N. resolution and impose trade and diplomatic sanctions, yet there is a growing trade, through third countries, estimated to be between $8 million and $14 million a year. The record of other countries that have accepted sanctions is no better. The fault lies not in the implementation of the ban, but in the greed of others who want to take advantage. There is always another country willing to buy Indian goods and re-export them to South Africa. It is virtually impossible to persuade more than 200 nations of the world that sanctions would be effective against South Africa.
Sanctions are somewhat like keeping a seriously handicapped baby alive through life-support systems while promising his people that the baby will grow strong and one day bring a racist government to its knees. The baby will be 40 years old next year; how long should the people wait?
Because of the peculiar nature of South Africa’s colonization--the Afrikaners having burnt the bridges to their homelands in Europe--there is no way the nonwhites are going to get them to leave, nor will they be pushed into the sea, without a massacre of mind-blowing proportions. In South Africa the government calls the shots. It is in the interest of the government to encourage radical nonwhite leadership that is committed to violence, because violence justifies counter-violence. After all, isn’t “an eye for an eye” still the most popular philosophy for human survival?
Salvation for nonwhites in South Africa lies in working for unity. The blacks have got to overcome their tribal animosities and unite with other nonwhites and with whites who believe in a multiracial society. It cannot be overlooked that South Africa is, like the United States, essentially a multiracial society of immigrants, all of whom have an equal stake in the country. The original inhabitants of South Africa, the Hottentots, like the original inhabitants of the United States, the native Indians, have long been decimated. All who are in South Africa now have come from elsewhere and have contributed equally to building it economically.
The next step would be to evolve a strategy that would take the initiative away from the government. If someone has the foresight and intelligence to discover something other than Gandhi’s nonviolence, but as effective, good luck to them. But they need to be the masters of the situation and not let the Mandelas and Sisulus languish in prison in vain while they flog a dead horse in the West. Opting for exile can be construed as fear of repression and incarceration, and if that be so, how can those who fear imprisonment be expected to die for their country?
It might be too late for Nelson Mandela to pick up the reins of leadership, but if there is anyone who can swing the fortunes of the South African battle to the advantage of the nonwhites it is he and no one else. For this reason alone I wish he would sign the pledge to abhor violence with conviction and give direction to the floundering nonwhite movement.