Nelson Mandela’s support for Armed Struggle

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”:

2. The aim of all political association is the preservation of the natural and imprescriptible rights of man. These rights are liberty, property, security, and resistance to oppression.

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.



7 thoughts on “Nelson Mandela’s support for Armed Struggle

  1. It seems likely that the violence was counterproductive in this case. The ANC did not take power by force, and the violence probably provided a justification for suppressing them.

    Did Mandela comment later on the wisdom of not condemning the violence earlier?

  2. I’m not really speaking about whether or not violence is productive or counter productive in particular cases, I’m concerned with the legitimacy of the right to political resistance in natural law, and the recognition of something like those principles by an important and celebrated figures who is co-opted by the feel-good peace discourse. I don’t know much about Mandela, but you could certainly try to look that up and it would be interesting to know his later views.

  3. Perhaps Mandela’s unwillingness to condemn violence was a mistake. It is probably safer to assume that violence is not legitimate – with the onus on those who think otherwise to prove their case.

    That process of moral justification seems similar to the process of arguing on moral grounds that a state should go to war.

  4. You don’t seem to be paying attention to what I’ve said – asserting the right to political resistance including acts of violence does not justify any particular acts of violence – anymore than the right of states to use violence against their own populations justifies every act of state violence.

  5. “That process of moral justification seems similar to the process of arguing on moral grounds that a state should go to war.”

    It is similar, in the sense that arguing that states having the right to go to war on moral grounds does not justify any particular war. Rather, it places on them the burden of actually justifying particular wars on moral grounds.

    Of course we should place a similar burden on the ANC. But I am not discussing whether or not they met this burden, and besides, that question is not relevant to the question of the moral right to political violence in general. We needn’t “be safe” by assuming the violence was not legitimate because we needn’t “assume” anything at all – we can make statements about what we know about rather than about what we don’t know about.

  6. Terrific blog post, thank you for this! Nelson Mandela is one of my heroes, and I actually had the privilege of seeing him speak IN PERSON at the closing ceremony of the 2002 Internation AIDS Conference in Barcelona. What an incredible inspiration! And I’m so glad you wrote this blog to point out the “whitewashing” (as I believe you aptly called it) of his political history.

    The above commenter is just silly. The ANC achieved their goals, didn’t they? It’s like Mandela said–they only adopted sabotage and armed resistance when they saw that peaceful resistance was getting them NOWHERE. She/Milan said: “It seems likely that the violence was counterproductive in this case.” How so? Conveniently she gave no evidence to support her opinion.

    “The ANC did not take power by force, and the violence probably provided a justification for suppressing them.” I wonder if Milan read Mandela’s autobiography–or even his words that you quoted here? LOL. Anti-apartheid activists were ALREADY being repressed, long before they adopted armed struggle. See, for example, that little thing called…APARTHEID.

    —Love and Liberation—


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