Martin Plaut on the death of Nelson Mandela

Friday 6 December 2013

The death of Nelson Mandela has been greeted with an entirely understandable outpouring of grief in South Africa and across the world. But audiences must have been left with some very strange impressions of the man by the hours of commentary.  This was perhaps exemplified by an Indian commentator on the BBC describing the great man as a Gandhian.  Now there are many things one can say about the former president, but he was not a supporter of non-violence. 

His first ‘struggle’ was with his own party – the African National Congress. With Oliver Tambo and other members of the ANC Youth League he transformed it into a militant organisation, which confronted the apartheid state in the 1950s. Then – in the 1960s – he led the armed wing of the ANC, Umkhonto we Sizwe – the spear of the Nation. Through a campaign of sabotage, some clashes with the white military and police and (rare) attacks on civilian targets, the ANC attempted to bring about a revolution.  Mandela, until he was jailed, led this operation.  It was only in jail that he began reflecting on this path and although he refused to renounce the ‘armed struggle’ while in captivity, he was prepared to open negotiations with his white captors. 

It was precisely because he had taken such a militant path that Mandela was able to bring about reconciliation once he was finally released in February 1990.  He was able to use his huge moral authority to insist that there would be no revenge against whites. But even more importantly he was able to end the vicious clashes between ANC supporters and the mainly Zulu Inkatha Freedom Party, which had been stoked by the apartheid security forces.  At times this pitted Mandela against his own people, who had suffered and died at the hands of Inkatha. Mandela insisted that this had to end and – finally – Inkatha joined the 1994 election, but so late that their party had to be added onto the bottom of the ballot.  This was the moment that Mandela saved South Africa from civil war and was a huge achievement. 

Nelson Mandela was the towering figure of our age, but he was no pacifist and certainly no Gandhian.