Thursday, 26 August 2010

To fight or not to fight!

Mandela's, 'Long walk to Freedom' has been my summer reading this year and I've certainly enjoyed it. While reading it, I was constantly aware that this is only one side of the story, but it is, nonetheless, the most important and fascinating side of the story. Mandela was, without doubt, a great leader, always breaking new ground.

Mandela inevitably draws comparisons with Gandhi and Martin Luther King, but there are two glaring differences between Mandela and these two great leaders. Unlike King and Gandhi, Mandela was not religious and was not committed to non-violence - the two were no doubt connected.

Mandela regarded himself as a Methodist and noted, in his early years, if anything good was being done in South Africa it was invariably done by the church. However, religion did not appear to play a significant part in his life or in the motivation for his action. In fact, no ideology controls Mandela. He comes across as a pragmatist. He does not think in universal terms - peace and justice was certainly his goal, but this could mean violence and injustice might be necessary in the process. This is evident in probably the only paragraph in the book I found distasteful. Writing about the killing of nineteen civilians in 1983, he said,

"I felt profound horror at the death toll. But disturbed as I was by these casualties, I knew that such accidents were the inevitable consequence of the decision to embark on a military struggle. Human fallibility is always a part of war, and the price of it is always high. " (p.617-618)

Mandela was, in my view, a man of peace. He held South Africa back from the brink of civil war, but was willing to use violence to achieve this peace. The reason, he said, was that there was no constitutional outlet for non-violence,

"I told them [reporters] that the conditions in which Martin Luther King struggled were totally different from my own: the United States was a democracy with constitutional guarantees of equal rights that protected non-violent protest... South Africa was a police state with a constitution that enshrined inequality and an army that responded to non-violence with force. I told them I was a Christian and had always been a Christian. Even Christ, I said, when he was left with no alternative, used force to expel the moneylenders from the temple. He was not a man of violence, but had no choice but to use force against evil. I do not think I persuaded them." (p.620)

I don't think he persuades me either! A great leader he may have been, a theologian, he certainly was not! Whether Christ was "left with no alternative" is a moot point. He certainly didn't kill nineteen people! What's more, Jesus was confronted by a regime much more violent and oppressive than South Africa's, with absolutely no outlet for non-violent protest, and all the evidence suggests he did not advocate violence. Strikingly, King in his sermon on 'The Meaning of Non-violence' shared the view that violence is sometimes necessary in less constitutional contexts than the US. I remain undecided.

Leaving aside the universalism of King and Gandhi, simply on the pragmatic question of whether violence worked in South Africa, I also remain to be convinced. Did it bring the peace closer or hold it back? It certainly added to the lack of international support for Mandela.

Despite these reservations about Mandela's support of violence, I heartily recommend the book as inspiring and thought-provoking, if you've got the time to wade through it.


Anonymous said...

Well, i think i understand your dissent. I am reading his long walk to freedom as well. I was on the Robben Island two weeks ago. I have been watching documentaries on SA past and Mandela era. I was in SA township this weekend. But i live in Cape Town Observatory-previously "whiteonly"residence. How many white where here, how many blacks where here? How long did apathied take? how many blacks did apathied kill before mandelas "Spear of the Nation." If you visit south africa and visit the township, board a train and toured the city-also District Six and other measume-then calculate how long it took non-violence and after violence for the apathied to crumble. Apathied was the law of the land, a law blacks disobeyed and whites enforced. If laws are enforced with violence, dispbedience might demand violence

mark said...

You might be right. I certainly don't have the first hand perspective you have. Being about to visit Robben Island and townships must be amazing! I know I am trying to understand what happened in South Africa from distance. I'm intrigued to know, why did De Klerk abandon apartheid? Mandela does not provide a thorough analysis. How much was it about international pressure? Or was it because S. Africa had become ungovernable? Mandela suggests that whites improved their attitudes to blacks while he was in prison. Is this true? And, if so, why did they do it?

I'm sorry to bombard you (or anyone else out there) with these questions, but I'm interested to know.