Was Nelson Mandela’s Revolution Nonviolent?

November 13, 2013 Kristance Harlow

Recently the conservative evangelist radio and TV program, Wretched, interviewed a South African man named Dr Peter Hammond about Nelson Mandela’s revolution. Wretched is meant to be a different brand of Christian news, combining sarcasm and investigative reporting to bring a clear yet humorous clarity (through a religious lens) to news. It draws a certain subgroup of viewers who don’t want an overly strong evangelist political perspective, but who still want their news filtered through Christian ideology. On this show, Hammond made some strong claims that Nelson Mandela is a terrorist and a violent leader with radical and dangerous views. Hammond’s story of Mandela’s communist ties and extreme left wing politics is spreading like wildfire online. Many viewers are taking Hammond’s dialogue at face value, a practice I don’t recommend. Without a comprehensive understanding of Mandela’s history it’s impossible to understand his evolving philosophy and fight for change.

Under the assumption that the world perceives Nelson Mandela as a saint, Hammond focuses on Mandela’s association with public violent acts leading up to his imprisonment. Mandela was no Gandhi, he didn’t abide by similar ethics nor did he pursue the same avenue to revolutionize his country’s political infrastructure. Mahatma Gandhi’s philosophy was that of satya (truth) and ahimsa (non-violence), his lasting legacy has become one of the strongest symbols of nonviolent resistance in the modern age. Nelson Mandela, is not a symbol of nonviolence, he is a symbol of unity.

In college, Mandela studied Gandhi’s methods of nonviolent resistance. His participation in a non-violent student movement led to him being expelled from university. He was a part of a growing multi-racial effort to end state sanctioned racism. As the movement grew, the National Party, the former governing party of South Africa that enforced the apartheid, began to use increasingly extreme methods to crush the resistance.

One law of the apartheid was called Blacks (Abolition of Passes and Co-ordination of Documents) Act No 67 of 1952. This law forced all black males over the age of 16 to carry a passbook on them at all times. The law repealed earlier laws that were province based and implemented a nationwide requirement. Several years later it was expanded to force women to also carry passes. The pass was a form of identification that held personal details such as a photograph, employment information, tax records, and place of birth. In May 1960 demonstrations were held across the country where people burned their passes. Riots broke out and the National Party declared martial law, leading to the Sharpeville massacre where 69 people were killed at a demonstration. Thousands of people had turned up to a police station to turn themselves in for not carrying their passes. The police panicked as the protest grew and 69 people perished. In solidarity, Mandela burned his own pass and shifted from passive to armed resistance.

Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), the armed wing of the African National Congress, was founded by Nelson Mandela and began paramilitary attacks against the government at the end of 1961. His purpose was to free his country of the apartheid, this goal was the more important to him than spreading a gospel of nonviolence, a well-documented fact Mandela himself would agree with. The MK openly participated in terrorist tactics which included the bombing of military structures and central infrastructure buildings such as power plants. He studied the tactics of extremist guerrilla leaders in other countries, such as Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, and Mao. He utilized those tactics, believing them necessary for freedom.

The MK did not, as Peter Hammond claims, target civilians and Christian groups. Mandela was working for political change, he was not a religious martyr. Hammond criticizes Mandela’s lack of remorse for the acts of terrorism he orchestrated. Mandela used the tactics he felt necessary to move his country forward and free its people from systematic oppression and structural violence. Hammond attributes the practice of necklacing to Mandela which is when a tire covered in gasoline is placed around a victim’s body and lit on fire. However, this torturous method of execution did not begin in South Africa until 1985, and it was not endorsed by the ANC or Mandela. At the time, Mandela was in prison and had been for 20 years.

A third claim that Peter Hammond makes is that Mandela and communism are so intertwined that they cannot be separated. What Hammond doesn’t note is that it’s all in the details. Mandela recruited the South African branch of the communist party as allies to the anti-apartheid movement. He gathered as many tools as he could to fight for equality. Mandela’s story is long, multi-faceted, and tactical. He was doing all that he could to end what he believed to be the greatest evil on earth, apartheid. Whatever tool he thought to gather, whether communist allies or guerrilla warfare, he put in his arsenal and used it (successfully) to transform South Africa.

Mandela’s lasting legacy is not that of a saint. He did not push through change as a non-violent activist. He never claimed to be an icon of that kind of resistance. What Mandela did do is succeed in bringing together people of all genders, creeds, ages, and ethnicities to fight for a common cause. His efforts unified much of the world to oppose apartheid. His charisma and strategic (if controversial) decisions led the fight for change. No, Mandela is not Gandhi. Mandela is not a saint. He is a mover and a shaker and a world changer.

This article originally appeared on the now defunct site facesofunity.com for the documentary Face of Unity.

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