No change without violence

Mandela’s biographer says: weapons were essential for the fight

Photo Magnum/Hollandse HoogteNelson Mandela acting as a defence lawyer in Johannesburg, South Africa, 1961.

Last Friday, biographer Tom Lodge gave a lecture at the Academy Building as part of the early celebrations for Nelson Mandela’s hundredth birthday. “The threat was more important than violence itself.”

“It’s been thirteen years since I wrote the book”, recalls biographer Tom Lodge. “We’ve learnt more about Mandela’s secret political operations in the fifties and sixties since then. For instance, he was a member of the communist party from 1960 to 1962, but I didn’t know that back in 2005.”

The Professor of Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Limerick was the main speaker at Friday’s symposium, by which the African Studies Centre is marking the hundredth birthday of the former South-African president. Mandela, who died in 2013, received an honorary doctorate from Leiden University in 1999.

The African National Congress (ANC), founded in 1912 to protect the interests of blacks, initially believed in non-violent resistance. However, in 1960, after the bloodbath in the township of Sharpeville, where the police killed 69 black protesters, the ANC were convinced that armed conflict was inevitable. In fact, in 1961, some of the ANC’s leaders, including the man who was to become renowned for his reconciliation efforts, set up a paramilitary branch. The guerrilla unit was called Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), Spear of the Nation.

“Actually, it wasn’t a very successful paramilitary organisation”, Lodge explains before his lecture. “But politically speaking, they needed MK. If they hadn’t set it up, the ANC would have lost support and their more militant rivals would have gained more influence. MK gave ANC authority.”

Nonetheless, Mandela’s career as an armed revolutionary was short-lived: he was arrested in 1963 and spent a total of 27 years in gaol, including in the infamous prison on Robben Island.

“MK was not really much good at operations”, Lodge continues. “But the threat of violence has always been more important than violence itself. It put pressure on the South-African government, to whom it became obvious that political change could not be avoided in the end. The government spent lots of money trying to suppress the ANC and MK: young, white men were conscripted into the army against their will.”

Moreover, foreign investors tend to lose interest when there are bombs going off everywhere. “The international sanctions never really worked. The fact that the country found it increasingly difficult to borrow money, particularly with heavy rioting in the townships in 1984, had more impact.

Eventually, the violence led to a credit squeeze because South Africa was too much of a risk for businesses. There are those who say change would have come about even if the ANC had not used violence, but I don’t agree.”

Mandela was finally freed in 1990 and set out on a course of reconciliation. “That was very wise. It was important that whites could believe in a new South Africa too, and Mandela managed to achieve that, to a large extent.”

Lodge: “For instance, he showed empathy with the white population by taking an interest in rugby, although blacks associated the national team, the Springboks, with white domination. When the team won the world cup playing home in 1994, Mandela, who donned a Springbok shirt for the occasion, presented the trophy to Captain Francois Pienar.”

By Vincent Bongers

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