When I think of Nelson Mandela I think of a man of peace who spent decades in prison due to his opposition to Apartheid in South Africa. I think of peaceful resolution of a longstanding racial conflict that resulted from worldwide popular opposition, and I think of Mandela’s imprisonment as a beacon point for that opposition.
I’d be surprised if this wasn’t a very common view of Nelson Mandela – I remember distinctly a grade 6 classroom in my elementary school featuring a large poster of the man, and I doubt this poster could have been in such a location if his legacy was not seen as one of peaceful resistance against oppression.
The problem with this view, however, is that it is utterly wrong. Nelson Mandela was in prison not for passive or peaceful resistance, but for his leadership role in the ANC, a terrorist group involved in an armed conflict against Apartheid South Africa. He was tried along with 9 other ANC leaders in the 1963/64 Rivonia trial, where the arrested were tried for 221 acts of political violence against the state.
It is true that the ANC had a long history of non-violent struggle, but in the 1950s Mandela saw that “fifty years of non-violence had brought the African people nothing but more and more repressive legislation, and fewer and fewer rights”. Moreover, the Apartheid state had begun to use political violence as a normal tactic to suppress Africans protesting their second class status. Mandela and a few colleagues came in june 1961 to the conclusion that “as violence in this country was inevitable, it would be unrealistic and wrong for African leaders to continue preaching peace and non-violence at a time when the Government met our peaceful demands with force”. Therefore, far from being a man of non-violence, Mandela was instrumental in the ANC leadership that saw the opening up of a front of violence against the apartheid regime in South Africa. Mandela was more the Rory O’Brody than Gerry Adams of the ANC.
Nelson Mandela continued to support armed struggle throughout his prison term. He was offered conditional release in 1985 if he agreed to sign a document condemning terrorism, and he refused, insisting that he had turned to armed struggle only when “all other forms of resistance were no longer open”, and demanding that the president of South Africa unban the ANC and “guarantee free political activity”. Reading his statement, one imagines he might have appealed to the 2nd article of the French “Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen”:
This, I believe, is really the principle that articulates the natural law right to engaged in armed struggle against oppression when other forms of resistance are no longer available. And, perhaps more importantly, to support publicly the rights of others to engage in armed struggle against state ideology which condemns all political violence as “terrorism”, and therefore de-facto illegitimate.
Thinking seriously and honestly about conflicts in the world today means not ignoring the potential legitimacy of armed struggle, and not white-washing revolutionary leaders in the past in order to put up their posters in public schools whilst no one is offended.
Note – Nelson Mandela’s quotations are taken from “I am Prepared to Die”, the statement given at the opening of the defence case at the Rivonia trial.