Saturday, April 12, 2014

The Mandela Question

Ever since I read Nelson Mandela's autobiography some questions have been floating my mind. They have not resolved themselves with the passage of time. Why did Mandela opt for a campaign of violence against apartheid, rather than follow a Gandhian path? And why was Mandela such a compliant prisoner? This latter question is the one that catches my keenest attention...

Mandela was held in pretty horrible conditions. Take that as read. Prisons ar4e the essence of State power, nakedly visceral. Being a Black anti-apartheid lawyer convicted of treason inevitable implies that time in a White States prison will be more interesting than your average prison.

The physical conditions may not be unappreciable. A cell is a cell. Slavery is slavery. There are a thousand variations on those themes, some more horrific than others, yet the core aspects of imprisonment are common across all jurisdictions and institutions. Their purpose is the same.

And all prisons have objectionable aspects. Mandela faced more complications, difficulties, in being a Black leader advocating the violent overthrow of the State which held him in prison. Every moment should - I'd expect - be an affront not only to the human dignity of those contained but also morally repellent in being part of the White machinery to oppress the Black majority/

The question, then, is why was Mandela so compliant with the prison institution? Why did he spend years being marched to a quarry to break rocks under the lash and the sun? Alongside the outrage every prisoner invariably feels, Mandela faced the heavy burden of the racial disempowerment weighing his every step. His cell, his daily existence, was the essence of apartheid.

Why, then, did he not revolt? Why did he not organise? Why did he not, for example, refuse to work as a slave in the quarry? For Mandela did none of these. Oh, there was a lot of talk. The internal machinations of the ANC were endlessly debated under the guise of football team meetings. But actual action, resistance against the institution that limited his horizons? No.

I find this incomprehensible. Perhaps I take a hard, and harsh, line on these things, an outgrowth from my own history. But any moral being faced with injustice should feel compelled to stand up. And undoubtedly so when there is a political imperative to challenge injustice alongside the bare human one.

Yet Mandela didn't challenge. This is not uncommon amongst "political" prisoners, those whose external activities challenging the State lead them to prison. The PIRA prisoners in UK prisons, for example; Animal rights activists; A whole spectrum of political prisoners actually put their feet up in prison. This is strange to me, as prison is the essence of the very State against whom they are fighting.

To comply is, to some degree, to cooperate - and to collaborate. Prisons only run with the cooperation of prisoners. That latent power is rarely appreciated, let alone realised. Yet a political. moral being - such as Mandela is proclaimed to be - should have had the insight to appreciate how potent his actions within prison could have been.

Not that utility is an argument for or against action. Moral beings challenge injustice because it is right to do so; not born of a calculated chance of success. Mandela did nothing. Of course, it could be argued that the penalties he faced for prison activism could be severe. To which I shrug my shoulders. Resisting abuses of power carries an inevitable price.

Prisoners revolted in Auschwitz. Prisoners in the Gulag revolted. All paid heavily.... In recent times, we have the likes of Michnik held by the Polish-Soviet dictatorship/ Having being imprisoned for resisting totalitarianism, he wrote from his cell to the  head of the secret police - "Is that all you've got?" Prisoners in Germany sew their mouths shut. Turks go on hunger strike. As do Californian prisoners held in solitary. Prisoners everywhere resist abuse, and all accept the cause is right and the price must be paid to have any chance of success. In this context, that Mandela may have suffered even further for campaigning in prison is not an argument that absolves his inactivity.

The question remains, then. Why was Mandela so inactive in prison activism? After all, this is a man who stared down the Death Penalty for Treason. Moral cowardice is not an easy accusation to throw around. And yet...

This may relate to some strand in Mandelas politics or personality. In response to the Governments appalling brutality, the ANC decided that their response would be a campaign of violence (let us not be diverted into the morass of "terrorism" here), and an armed organisation grew up as part of the ANC.

This decision, in Mandela's autobiography, was not the result of any great debate or moral wrangling. but almost flowed organically from the situation of the time. It does indeed seem an obvious response for an oppressed and brutalised people. However, as Mandela was fully aware, there was an alternative in Gandhian active nonviolence.

Mandela chose violence. It has to be asked if a campaign based on active nonviolence may have avoided a generation of bloodshed. Equally, it has to be asked, why Mandela ignored, cooperated with, helped sustain even, the wicked part of the apartheid State which oozed from the pores of his cell walls.

Mandela changed his nation. Without him, I doubt that a peaceful transition from Apartheid would have been maintained. His achievements are huge.  And yet....


  1. Mandela achieved something amazing by forgiving his captors. That takes great strength of character. Jesus submitted to torture and forgave his executors. No-one who read the account of his death could accuse him of being a coward, he did not resist arrest or defend himself. Mandela came out of captivity a changed man. Humility and grace have a power of their own.

  2. ''Why did Mandela opt for a campaign of violence against apartheid, rather than follow a Gandhian path? '' If my memory serves this correctly (it's been a year or so since I last read LWtF) he addresses that question quite heavily in the earlier parts of the book, namely that 50+ years since the founding of the ANC, and 15ish years of his involvement and greater non-violent militancy had not seen results that they had hoped for, indeed conditions for blacks in SA had worsened. Mandela was always very clear that he didn't see non-violence as a moral imperative as Ghandi had, but as a tactic, and something to be put aside when it wasn't working.

  3. My guess is that Mandela was a shrewder tactician than Ben allows him to be. While he was, to the satisfaction of white power, neutralised in prison, he was still able to function usefully and to form his mind as a leader. As Ben knows from his own experiences it might be difficult for him, even after many years, to reveal particular channels of communication without putting others at risk. Yes, he learned patience along with forgiveness and, while many enemies felt that he should hang, he himself may have believed that one day he would be released and that he would complete his mission. If this is true, a career of self-injurious confrontation would have served no cause, but it might have deprived South Africans of their future.