Mandela was a radical, and that’s a good thing.

Nelson Mandela was a radical revolutionary, for a time a secret member of the South African Communist Party, and inspired by Fidel Castro’s 26th of July movement he founded the MK (Spear of the Nation), a guerrilla group which set off scores of bombs and probably killed at least 100 people over the course of apartheid. Before being arrested and pleading guilty to sabotage against the state, Mandela personally secured weapons from the governments of Tunisia and Liberia and studied a course in guerrilla warfare for two months in Ethiopia.

And good on him!

The canonisation of Mandela by the mainstream has involved glossing over the more radical elements of his autobiography. It has predominantly only been reactionaries and racists who have pointed out the above. I point it out, though, not to tar his name and ruin his legacy, but to start an honest conversation about the occasional necessity of political violence.

Of course violence should never be the ‘go to’ option and it wasn’t for Mandela. The ANC fought against racist injustice peacefully for 40 years, only to see the injustices grow and grow to the point where the apartheid regime was shooting at peaceful protestors and massacring its black citizens. Despite provocation at such events as the Sharpeville massacre, the MK (especially in the short period of time Mandela led it before being arrested) focussed its bombing campaign on “strategic targets” that would involve minimal casualties. This was not a terrorist campaign based on striking terror into the hearts of white South Africans; it was a destabilisation campaign aimed at making it difficult for the apartheid government to function. It was an incentive to negotiate. Once elected as President, Mandela showed his commitment to peaceful social transformation by eschewing recriminations against his former oppressors. Nonetheless Mandela clearly felt that although violence shouldn’t be the ‘go to’ option, it was an option. And this sets him apart from leaders like Ghandi who saw violence as inherently immoral.

Perhaps to appreciate why extreme measures were deemed necessary by Mandela it is worth looking at how much of an extreme situation he was operating in. Apartheid South Africa was not a democracy; indeed from afar it looks very much like a police state. Eighty percent of the population were ineligible to vote for the national parliament. Protests were banned and sometimes dispersed violently and political parties that opposed government policies (such as the ANC and the Communist party) were outlawed. Thousands upon thousands of people who did participate in political activity, even peaceful activity, were arrested, held without charge and frequently tortured. This obviously made peaceful resistance nearly impossible – a very different environment than the one Martin Luther King Jr was operating in. The basic liberties of non-whites were severely restricted; they had no legal freedom of speech, expression or movement. They were required to carry a passport in their own country and could not travel or visit many areas of South Africa. Three and a half million black Africans were forcibly removed from their homes and relocated to less desirable areas where they could not farm and would henceforth live in dire poverty. Their properties were sold at cheap prices to white farmers. Laws restricting property ownership led to 80 percent of the country’s land being owned by whites. Laws that restricted what businesses non-whites could run and where economically crippled non-whites. While South Africa had a first world health and education system for whites, only the worst of these services was available to non-whites. Although the specific policies of the South African government changed and evolved over time, the legal basis of apartheid from 1949 onwards resembled the Nuremberg laws implemented in 1935 in Nazi Germany. While the US wavered between tepid support and tepid opposition to apartheid South Africa, the USSR was actively fostering subversion and Cuba was sending troops to resist the spread of apartheid into Angola. Is it any wonder then that Mandela fell in with the communists?

Very few people would say that apartheid wasn’t wrong, but a common response to political violence is ‘two wrongs don’t make a right’. First it is worth pointing out the hypocrisy of westerners who condemn political violence yet enjoy many of their current political freedoms because of the French revolution, American revolution and English civil war. Second, and more importantly, I want to challenge this statement that two wrongs don’t make a right and hence political violence is unjustified. The statement is dripping with the moral philosophy known as deontology. It asserts that actions have inherent goodness or badness in them. Doing something bad is always bad, even if it may somehow result in greater happiness for the majority of people. For a deontologist the ends never justify the means. Immanuel Kant is the most famous exponent of deontology; he exhorted people to always treat other humans as ends and not as a means to an end. To do so is ones duty.

I think it is wrong to suggest that actions have intrinsic moral goodness or badness in them. Let’s say, for example, that we consider lying to be inherently wrong. If the ends never justify the means then there are no circumstances at all when we could morally justify lying. So if the gestapo come knocking on our door to ask us where Anne Frank is, we are morally obliged to show them the way to her hiding spot. Moral decisions and actions do not occur in a vacuum and so I think one always has to look at the broader context one in operating in. Lying might be bad as a rule but in this situation not only can you justify lying, I would contend that it is actually wrong to tell the truth. It is morally wrong to show the gestapo to Anne Frank.

So let’s bring it back to Mandela and political violence. You can say that violence is bad as a general rule but I object to the idea that violence is intrinsically and necessarily bad. As with everything one must look at the broader context in order to make a judgment. After all, would we consider a plot to kill Hitler a bad thing? Probably not because although killing is bad as a general rule, in the broader scheme of things this example of killing seems pretty damn justifiable. We wouldn’t say ‘two wrongs don’t make a right’ when it comes to killing Hitler because killing Hitler, except to the most extreme pacifists and deontologists, is not a wrong.

So looking at Mandela, he obviously looked at apartheid and saw how terribly immoral apartheid was; how it was destroying millions and millions of lives for generations. And so he did his moral calculations and decided that if blowing up power stations and killing a few people was the only practical way to end this evil then just like lying to the gestapo or killing Hitler, it would be justifiable. And the fact is international sanctions were not the only reason the National Party negotiated an end to apartheid, increasing destabilisation and fear of civil war (a civil war that Mandela never wanted and successfully avoided once elected President by presiding over a unity government) was a major factor.

Ghandi opposed violence for religious reasons, he believed that violence was a sin against God. Mandela, unlike Lenin, was also a religious man. St. Augustine, though, argued in The City of God that peacefulness in the face of a grave wrong that could only be stopped by violence was a sin. Let’s say here for the sake of the argument that some violence was necessary to bring down apartheid in a timely fashion. (Clearly a point of debate but a point that Mandela was obviously convinced of, with some justification). In this case, the pacifist who does all they can peacefully to oppose apartheid is still not doing enough. Indeed what they are doing is allowing apartheid to remain in place, and that is a wrong. So people like Mandela are faced with a fork in the road where both paths lead to wrong – the wrong of violence or the wrong of peaceful acceptance of evil. If both are wrong but one – violence – appears necessary to end a grave injustice, then it appears the more moral decision, though also more risky decision, is to choose violence. After all just as the old left wing slogan goes, there can be no peace without justice.

We usually celebrate figures like Washington, Lincoln, Roosevelt, Churchill and Lafayette, who were undoubtedly responsible for far more violence than Mandela ever was. In calling Mandela a radical revolutionary I do not disparage him, I consider him to be one of the most successful and honourable revolutionaries in history; far more successful than Lenin, Mao or Robespierre and certainly up there with the likes of Lincoln. The posthumous celebrations of his life have tended to treat him as a simple saint. That is not the case, he was far more complex than that. And that is why he was so truly great, because the world is so complex, as are the moral decisions we make within it.

Elliot Brice is a high school teacher who has an Honours degree in philosophy from the University of Melbourne.


  1. Excellent article! I covered his election to the RSA presidency as a freelance journalist and did a fair amount of research on him beforehand. Perhaps in his death it seems that his full history is glossed over, but I remember many stories about him and the ANC while he was still in prison through his election that included his full history. It’s also impossible to know how Winnie carried on in his place and ignore the violence of their struggle. But your point is well taken for younger generations who only know of him as a near saint.

  2. Interesting post! I think one important factor in considering both the morality and the acceptance (or lack of) of Mandela’s use of violence was his status as a non-state actor – a citizen acting against his own country. The celebrated figures you mention are quite distinct from Mandela in their use of violence, they were accepted leaders of countries and the violence they called upon was through the military forces at their command (to varying degrees, I guess with Washington it depends on when you consider the States to have gain independence). This lent their use of force a certain inherent legitimacy before any consideration of why they were using force is entered into. The distinction between a state and non-state violence doesn’t have to be deontological, I would think a fairly solid utilitarian argument could be constructed for the principle that the benefits of stable government mean a greater justification for non-state violence is required than for state-base violence. Ultimately this comes back to a calculus between the evils of violence and the evils of apartheid together with the lack of non-violent alternatives, as you’ve indicated. But the form of his violence does play into this to some degree.

  3. […] Mandela was a radical, and that’s a good thing. ( […]

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