Mandela: By Any Means Necessary 19 February 2014

Nelson Mandela passed away in December 2013, hailed universally as a hero, but too often the life of sacrifice and dedication that made Mandela a hero is forgotten.

Nelson MandelaAt the end of Spike Lee’s eponymous film about the civil rights activist Malcolm X, Mandela appeared as a school teacher in Soweto. He recited a famous Malcolm X speech to the children: “We declare our right on this earth, to be a human being, to be respected as a human being, to be given the rights of a human being in this society, on this earth, in this day, which we intend to bring into existence…” At this point, the film cut away to Malcolm X concluding the speech with: “by any means necessary”. According to CNN’s article Nelson Mandela: 10 surprising facts you probably didn’t know, this was because ‘the pacifist Mandela wouldn’t say “by any means necessary”’.

This struck me as odd for a few reasons. First of all, why would someone agree to say almost all the words of a speech if they disagreed with its conclusion? If you disagreed with a particular opinion, you would not blithely recite the foundation blocks of the argument. Second, and perhaps most importantly, Mandela was no pacifist, and to paint him as such is a misrepresentation.

A bit of digging around and the truth emerges. Mandela avoided the final words of Malcolm X’s speech not because he disagreed with them, but because he was concerned about how they might be taken out of context and misappropriated during the highly tense and political negotiations for a post-apartheid South Africa that were happening at the time. Mandela was always politically shrewd, and the final cutaway allowed him to avoid any potential fallout from saying those famous but often misunderstood words – “by any means necessary”.

The Forgotten Mandela
Yet, “by any means necessary” is perhaps the most appropriate phrase by which to understand Mandela’s life, struggle and many achievements. Modern portrayals of Mandela stray into white-washing the man into a Mother Theresa-like figure, or a non-violent protestor akin to Gandhi or Martin Luther King. Mandela was neither. He was a man committed to peace but willing to use violence when necessary. In fact it is worth noting that in 1985, 22 years into his incarceration, Mandela was offered release by South African President P.W Botha on the condition that he “unconditionally rejected violence as a political weapon”. Mandela refused.

Mandela was imprisoned in 1963 aged 45. He was released in 1990 aged 72. The young Mandela – the radical, the activist, the campaigner, the guerrilla warrior, the boxer, the leader of a violent paramilitary organisation – is all but forgotten. Yet to forget him in his youth would be an unforgivable dishonour to the memory of Mandela.

Early Life

Mandela during trial

Mandela dressed in traditional Xhosa clothes during his trial.

Mandela was born in 1918 among the Xhosa tribe and part of the Thembu Royal Clan. He was born Rolihlahla Mandela but given the name Nelson while attending a Methodist primary school. The school was formative in the man Mandela would grow to become. This was firstly for giving him the name Nelson. He writes that he was told an English name, much like English culture, is better than an African name or an African culture. Mandela resented these teachings and the Eurocentric cultural supremacism that was embedded into South Africa’s institutions. He witnessed this even more so at the Methodist College he attended in Fort Beaufort. By comparison, Mandela loved and often sought to better understand the native cultures, languages and practices of Africa. He never embraced the colonial and racist views that surrounded him.

Mandela however welcomed the Christian faith taught to him at school. Mandela’s mother was a devout Christian and hoped to pass on her faith to Mandela – she was successful. Though he would rarely speak about faith openly, Mandela was an extremely reverential and devout Christian. He wrote later that he hesitated joining the African National Congress, an organisation he would lead as president, due to the atheism of many of its members.

By all accounts, Mandela was a bright and intellectual student. At the University of Fort Hare, he excelled and threw himself into campus life with passion. He was an avid boxer, participated in various dramatic productions and was active in the Student Christian Association. It was during this time in which he studied law, that he became active in politics participating in boycotts and organising students – no doubt informing his later life. Leaving university without a degree, he began work as a legal clerk in Johannesburg, completing his BA with the University of South Africa through distance learning.

Political Activism
While working as a clerk, he met individuals who introduced him to the African National Congress. He was impressed with the organisation, but not convinced, not only for its atheism as mentioned, but due to its strong communist slant which he did not find strongly attractive. He nonetheless remained in contact with the organisation as he enrolled in the University of the Witwatersrand as the only black African student to pursue his legal qualifications. Towards the end of his studies, he became increasingly involved in politics, costing him his degree due to the time he devoted to activism. He joined the African National Congress and from an unconvinced outsider at the periphery of the organisation, he quickly became a trusted and passionate leader – establishing the ANC Youth League in 1944 with his trusted friend Anton Lembede.

Lembede was a significant influence upon Mandela. He was considered radical among the ANC for his view that to achieve a post-apartheid South Africa, black Africans must work alone without the help of Indian South Africans or ideological partners such as white communists. Lembede died in 1947, but his influence remained upon the young Mandela.

Anti-Apartheid Resistance
In 1948, the situation changed dramatically. In the general elections, at which only whites were allowed to vote, two openly-racist parties formed a coalition and established the National Party. The resulting government aggressively expanded segregation and apartheid policies that oppressed millions of black Africans in the country. This change impassioned Mandela to oppose apartheid with even more vigour.

By 1952, Mandela was president of the ANC Youth League and influential in the organisation as a whole, and with his colleagues he organised the Defiance Campaign. Inspired by the nonviolent resistance of Mahatma Ghandi, the Defiance Campaign was an alliance of Black Africans, Indian Muslims and communists who committed themselves to non-compliance with discriminatory laws in place in South Africa. Mandela abandoned the ‘blacks only’ approach of his late friend Lembede for the campaign. Here we see Mandela’s view of ‘by any means necessary’ emerge. It was clear that, to bring about governmental change, protest would need to come from all quarters and the idealism of Black Africans helping themselves out of oppression was not something he could maintain.

Mandela was arrested for his involvement in the campaign as were many others. The Defiance Campaign was met with stiff resistance by the South African government who were not interested in yielding ground. They introduced martial law and conducted mass arrests against those involved in noncompliance, though the membership of the ANC itself grew fivefold from 20,000 to 100,000.

Violent Resistance
By the late-fifties, Mandela was left with few options in front of him as a leader of the anti-colonial and anti-apartheid movement in South Africa. The Defiance Campaign had created a fervour of resistance among the population but had produced no successes to speak of. The government had introduced self-serving laws to extend apartheid and grant itself what powers it needed to stem the protest movement. It was clear the National Party would not change tact easily. They were committed to their racist views and seemed willing to do whatever it took to defend them. The voting white population of South Africa also could not be looked to for bringing a change of government. The Defiance Campaign had highlighted how little support the white population had, and to defend their position in society which looked increasingly threatened, they would turn to the government who promised to protect it – in this case the existing National Party.

Eventually, Mandela decided the only way forward was armed violence and resistance. It would take a tragedy however to convert this decision into action. On 21st March 1960, 7,000 black protesters converged on a police station in the South African township Sharpeville to protest apartheid laws. The police officers responded to the apparent siege by firing weapons into the crowd, killing 69. In 1961, Mandela co-founded Spear of the Nation, a guerrilla warfare group which sought to destabilise the ruling government and end apartheid through political violence. Mandela himself was chairman and leader. Spear of the Nation would be described as the armed wing of the ANC.

Spear of the Nation however held itself to high standards. The organisation decided on a campaign of sabotage, conducted mainly at night, to minimise any loss of human life. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, later set up by Mandela, found that it had, for the most part, tried to adhere to the articles in the Geneva Protocols on warfare. That is not to say it was successful in this regard. Many of the organisation’s campaigns resulted in death, especially a landmine campaign that was soon abandoned and a number of bombings on government and military installations.

The government responded quickly to the threat from Spear of the Nation, arresting Mandela and many others suspected of involvement. In 1964, a year after his arrest, Mandela was convicted and sentence to life imprisonment. It was during this time his reputation became global. The United Nations and the World Peace Council were among the many that called for the release of the political prisoners. The University of London Union, with which Mandela was conducting a distance learning course, elected Mandela as their president in act of solidarity.

Mandela would spend the next 27 years in prison, but was by no means inactive. On Robben Island, his first site of incarceration, he was active in organising the prisoners, establishing what was informally called the University of Robben Island, conducting protests and hunger strikes for greater rights for prisoners and also engaging in deep study and reflection.

It took several decades, but by the early nineties, political pressure internationally as well as civil unrest at home convinced the South African government that apartheid was not sustainable. President F. W. de Clerk of the National Party released Mandela in February 1990 and many other political prisoners and began a period of negotiation to end apartheid.

A New South Africa

Mandela on release

Mandela, on his release from prison, was met with crowds of supporters.

The release of Mandela was met with widespread welcome, though the man himself was conscious that his release alone would not end the racism and structural oppression that ran through society. The next four years were turbulent, but Mandela as a key leader and political symbol among the African National Congress, led many of the negotiations with the South African government. Despite Mandela being a figure of resistance among many black South Africans, not all his decisions were welcomed. He was often resolute on negotiation, rather than protest, and willing to offer concessions to the government that many among the ANC disapproved of.

Again, ‘by any means necessary’ is a term that is worth remembering. There was a time when violent resistance was necessary for Mandela; that time had come and gone, and now was an era in which negotiation, compromise and talks would lead to a better future than violence, and so Mandela committed himself to that path.

In 1994, the first general election in South Africa that was open to all citizens to vote took place. The African National Congress, a once-banned ‘terrorist’ organisation led by Mandela, a prisoner of 27 years, won the election in a landslide victory.

During the elections, the breadth of Mandela’s willingness and commitment to work through democratic means was demonstrated. The period was filled with violence. Most notable was the Shell House Massacre in which ANC security guards opened fire on and killed nineteen members of the Inkatha Freedom Party who were protesting at the ANC’s headquarters against the elections. The Inkatha Freedom Party were bitter opponents of the ANC, but despite this Mandela personally met with their leader, convincing him to halt any retaliations and work within the proposed democratic system.

Compromise and Calm
It is easy to see how this fragile era could have led to civil war; it was Mandela’s dedication to peace and ending violence that allowed South Africa to weather the storm of post-apartheid and achieve a stable and brighter future.

As President of South Africa, the first black president of the nation, Mandela implemented many reforms, policies and laws that sought to stabilise a nation that had suffered nearly four decades of violence and centuries of colonisation. Perhaps his most admirable contribution to post-apartheid South Africa was the establishment of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Rather than follow the example set after World War 2 with the Nuremberg trials, Mandela instituted a commission that offered amnesty in exchange for testimony on the horrors, injustices and crimes of apartheid South Africa. It was largely successful. By offering amnesty, it allowed the worst abuses and injustices to come to light while preventing a witch-hunt mentality or victor’s justice. Not all were pleased with the work of the commission – in total the commission granted amnesty to 849 people, a too lenient approach for many.

Mandela’s Legacy
In 1999, at the end of his tenure of presidency, Mandela stepped down from politics and refused to re-run. He had brought South Africa out of apartheid, successfully brought a diverse spectrum of South Africans to government, had begun the process of healing from the wounds of apartheid and had taken steps to forge a national identity that included everyone – including white South Africans.

During his trial in 1964, Mandela delivered one of his most famous speeches: –
“I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons will live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal for which I hope to live for and to see realised. But, My Lord, if it needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die”

Mandela, in the end, lived to see his ideal of a democratic and free society. When needed, Mandela used armed resistance, and when needed, Mandela used forgiveness, compassion and love. Thus it is more than fitting that Mandela repeat the words of Malcolm X, and of a dream of a just society, brought into existence ‘by any means necessary’.

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About Abdul-Azim Ahmed

Dr Abdul-Azim Ahmed is Editor of On Religion magazine. He holds a doctorate in religious studies and an MA in Islam in Contemporary Britain.

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