Mandela's Paradoxes Made His Journey Even Greater
Posted by Al Giordano - December 6, 2013 at 1:02 pm
By Al Giordano
Two of the paradoxes surrounding the late great Nelson Mandela are on my mind today.
One is how our celebrity-focused culture virtually ignores the work of the rest of his colleagues during Mandela’s 27 years in prison (1963-1990) that ended Apartheid. The official media picture is as if a man went to jail and solely by example toppled an entrenched system of mandatory racial segregation. That’s not at all how it happened. The organizing – and, in particular, the evolution of it – by so many others remains one of the epic collective heroic stories of the twentieth century.
The other is Mandela’s absolutely unique evolution on questions of violence and nonviolence and their efficacy in struggle. Mandela began, by his own words, as an expressly Gandhian leader. “I followed the Gandhian strategy for as long as I could,” he later reflected, “but then there came a point in our struggle when the brute force of the oppressor could no longer be countered through passive resistance alone.” He then helped lead the military wing of the movement, received training in guerrilla warfare and sabotage in Algeria, and was arrested when back in his own country for that activity. He was kept in prison longer than his original five-year sentence precisely because he refused to renounce armed struggle, right up through his release in 1990.
But while Mandela was in prison, his colleagues in the African National Congress and related organizations changed their strategy from one of armed insurgency to one of nonviolent civil resistance. One former ANC official, Howard Barrell, has described a turning point that came when a delegation from South Africa went to visit Vietnamese military general Vu Xuan Chiem and others who had defeated the US occupation in the early 1970s. The South Africans laid out their situation and sought advice, telling how many trained soldiers they had, how many weapons of each kind, etcetera. They believed they were ready to escalate to a guerrilla war. It was the Vietnamese, according to Barrell, who convinced them otherwise. I’ll paraphrase because I don’t have a recording of his remarks, but the Vietnamese reportedly told the South Africans: You haven’t done the most important thing yet. In Vietnam, we were not ready to fight a guerrilla war until first we had educated and organized public opinion to support us. That is the most important first step. Without that, nothing else is possible.
The movement changed its strategy, returning to its Gandhi-influenced roots, and set about organizing and educating to build public support. It wasn’t the gun that defeated Apartheid – and those who claim it was are being willfully ignorant of the authentic history of events – but, rather, the strike, the boycott, the training of participants in how to organize such things, and a full arsenal of nonviolent civil resistance tactics that won the day.
Mandela told his jailers that he would renounce armed struggle only when the State – which had committed serial massacres and violence upon civilians – would do the same. Yet during his 27 years in prison, the movement simply found that nonviolent resistance was more effective than armed struggle. It wasn’t a question of “morality” as society understands the word. It was a question of what worked and what did not work (which to me, I suppose, is the highest moral question for any aspiring change agent out there).
Once out of prison, Mandela’s position evolved anew to advocating nonviolent resistance and crediting it for his release and the toppling of Apartheid.
"In a world driven by violence and strife, Gandhi's message of peace and non-violence holds the key to human survival in the 21st century,” Mandela said in 2007, adding that Gandhi “rightly believed in the efficacy of pitting the sole force of the satyagraha against the brute force of the oppressor and in effect converting the oppressor to the right and moral point."
This was a leader who paid close attention to his fellow and sister organizers, and to the everyday struggles and opinions of the people (that explains, for example, his keen interest and use of sports – something many of today’s hapless “activists” consider somehow “bad” because sports are “competitive” and have “winners” and “losers,” gasp! – as an organizing tool to heal the wounds of so many years of imposed racial segregation).
I admire Mandela, first and foremost, as a shining example of a leader who was “in it to win it.” He sought concrete, historic and “big” change, knew that it could not be achieved without the support of public opinion, and proved expertly flexible in, through trial and error, discovering what worked and what did not work, and embracing what did work.
People who confuse the question of nonviolence as one of “violence or peace” – this includes those who fanaticize pacifism and those who fetishize armed struggle, who to me are mirror images of each other’s most authoritarian impulses – don’t seem to get what I take as the real lesson of Mandela and the other great heroes of social struggle of the twentieth century, including Gandhi himself: Choosing what works over what does not work is not a question of ideology. It is one of life or death. Mandela will always be one of history’s great role models in the art of building public opinion to win victory, instead of suffering defeat after defeat.
I dedicate these reflections to my dear friends and colleagues of the School of Authentic Journalism Mkhuseli “Khusta” Jack and Anele Mdzikwa, for whom the struggle brought extreme personal sacrifices and also great meaning.