Nelson Mandela & The Politics of Revolutionary Violence

by R.L. Stephens II on August 13, 2013

Nelson Mandela’s health is in serious decline. In the event of his death, much will be written about his legacy.  Typically, most mainstream U.S. discussions about Mandela focus on his time after leaving prison, particularly his years as a president. He had become so politically safe that even President Obama paid homage to Mandela on a recent trip to South Africa.

Mandela the Rebel

However, the U.S. hasn’t always been a Mandela’s supporter; in fact, he was on the U.S. terrorism watch list until 2008. Most people forget that Mandela was imprisoned because, while commander of the insurgent wing of the ANC, he supported violence and sabotage. Furthermore, he remained in prison for 27 years because he “repeatedly rejected government offers to release him from prison if only he would renounce armed struggle”.

Violence within social movements is often an uncomfortable topic. A recent article in the Chronicle for Higher Education provocatively argued that violence is often “the answer to political problems”.

Violent struggle—war, revolution, terrorism—more than any other immediate factor, determines what nations will exist and their relative power, what territories they occupy, and which groups will exercise power within them.

Benjamin Ginsberg, Why Violence Works

If we really want to reflect on Mandela’s life, we are going to have to acknowledge the role of revolutionary violence in the anti-apartheid movement.

In their 1961 manifesto, the armed insurgents of the African National Congress’ Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation), led by Nelson Mandela, initiated the beginning of the “people’s war” against apartheid.

The government policy of force, repression and violence will no longer be met with non-violent resistance only!… Umkhonto we Sizwe will be at the front line of the people`s defence. It will be the fighting arm of the people against the government and its policies of race oppression . It will be the striking force of the people for liberty, for rights and for their final liberation!

Manifesto of Umkhonto we Sizwe Leaflet issued by the Command of Umkhonto we Sizwe, 16th December 1961

Armed Propaganda

Revolutionary violence as a symbolic tool was a critical component of the South African anti-apartheid movement. Violence as myth is often more powerful than the material outcomes of the violent acts themselves. Many militants referred to their actions as “armed propaganda”.

As it gripped the imagination of the ANC, the notion of armed propaganda provided the organisation with a rationalisation for the weaknesses of its military activity… It began to redefine almost all its armed activity… as being, and as having been, primarily propagandistic in its purpose. This recasting accurately reflected the limitations of ANC armed activity and the primary benefit the organisation had derived from it, namely popular acclaim.

Armed Propaganda and Non-cooperation

For these militants, the boost their attacks gave African morale became more significant than the damage they did to the apartheid regime’s infrastructure.

‘Armed Propaganda’ boosted activists’ morale… even smaller, less dramatic attacks had an immediate impact… raising morale among activists and providing proof that resistance would continue despite repression… Small attacks made large impressions when they were linked to popular struggles: where police had cordoned off a township, a post office might be hit by a hand-grenade; in the middle of a bus boycott, an empty bus might be bombed.

Gay Seidman, Guerrillas in their Midst: Armed Struggle in the South African Anti-Apartheid Movement

The violent and nonviolent wings of the movement maintained a close bond, and often shared the same members. When the masses would participate in extremely risky nonviolent campaigns against apartheid, such as strikes and boycotts, they were often backed by young militants from the armed ANC. Even after largely abandoning the tactic of armed war against the apartheid regime in the 1980’s, anti-apartheid organizers continued to support and respect those who prolonged the violent insurrection.

Solidarity across struggles, identities, and tactics is the best way to sustain movement and yield results. Desmond Tutu, a well-known South African pacifist and Nobel Peace Prize winner, never condemned those who used sabotage and violence in the struggle against apartheid.

We in the South African Council of Church have said we are opposed to all forms of violence – that of a repressive and unjust system, and that of those who seek to overthrow that system. However, we have added that we understand those who say they have had to adopt what is a last resort for them. Violence is not being introduced into the South African situation de novo from outside by those who are called terrorists or freedom fighters, depending on whether you are oppressed or an oppressor. The South African situation is violent already, and the primary violence is that of apartheid, the violence of forced population removals, of inferior education, of detention without trial, of the migratory labor system, etc.

Desmond Tutu, Nobel Peace Prize Speech

The issue of violence vs. nonviolence continues to trouble us as we build modern coalitions. We should look to Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, and others in the anti-apartheid movement as examples of a blueprint for solidarity across tactics.

Why We Must Remember Mandela the Rebel

Credit: Getty Images

Credit: Getty Images

As we look back on Nelson Mandela’s life, let’s not overlook the significance that revolutionary violence played in his political efforts.  In fact, as media outlets recast Mandela’s legacy, they often erase or misrepresent the legacy of “armed propaganda” during those years of revolt.

Many in the West, including the United States and the United Kingdom, actively organized against Mandela. Many Western democracies openly supported South Africa’s apartheid regime, and some even went as far as advocating for Mandela to be hanged.  Never once was the United States government a serious ally to Mandela and the anti-apartheid struggle. Lest we forget, it was nations like Cuba that sent troops to Angola to fight a war against the South African state, even as the U.S. provided military support to the South African government.

As glowing praise showers Mandela’s fading star, we cannot allow Western states to revise history and erase their efforts to suppress Mandela and the broader anti-apartheid movement. Again, he was on the US terrorism watch list until 2008, so I have to wonder what exactly motivates this false sense of sentiment on behalf of many of Mandela’s Western antagonists.

Nelson Mandela was indeed an exceptional man, but let us forever remember him as a rebel, not just a president.  Let’s embrace the truth about his lifelong struggle against apartheid, and fully honor his many sacrifices.


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