Nelson Mandela’s approach to liberation politics was not always peaceful
The central charge against Nelson Mandela when he stood in the dock facing a sentence of death was sabotage. The year was 1964, and Nelson Mandela was forty-six years old. He did not overtly deny the charges made against him, but rather justified his actions as necessary for the emancipation of his people.
What did he do to land up in court? Well, at that point in South Africa history, any kind of black political agitation was likely to end up on the wrong side of the law, so it was inevitable at some point that Mandela would be tried, and in many ways he was lucky that he did not just simply disappear. Those were violent times, in a violent society, and pacificism in the Gandhiesque sense of the world had no place in this struggle. White South Africa would not give up without a fight, and as Mandela himself put it, ‘it is the oppressor who defines the nature of the struggle.’
Mandela founded the African National Congress Youth League, the organ of mass mobilization in the townships of South Africa, but mass mobilization in the African liberation context has a dark side. The ANC Youth League was also the enforcement arm of the party, and although Mandela probably did not get his own hands dirty, it is very improbable that he was not at least party to some of the day to day violence that was associated with the South African liberation struggle.
He was also a founding member of Umkhonto we Sizwe, or the Spear of the Nation, which was the armed wing of the African National Congress. A symmetrical war with the South African security establishment would obviously have been a hopeless quest, and so MK, as it was known, relied on sabotage and hit and run attacks, and it was responsibility for many acts of this nature that Mandela was eventually brought to trial.
It would be naïve to imagine a revolutionary in that time and place adopting tactics of passive resistance, and Mandela certainly was a product of his time and place. By the time he walked out of prison in 1990, he had remodelled his persona into the man that we all know and love, but that was not always the man that he was…