Reports from Kenya
August 19, 2009
it is always risky to criticize an icon. In this case, I am going to
take on Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress (ANC).
When I was recently in the United States, I visited some friends in
Maine who took me to a teen choir concert by a group called Village
Among the four leaders was a woman from South Africa. So naturally, the
concert had a good number of rousing South African songs. But I objected
to one. It was called “The Machine Gun” and glamorized the
ANC switch in the early 1960’s from non-violent direct action against
the apartheid regime to one of violent resistance. I think that this
was a great mistake (I also thought so at the time it happened). I wrote
an email to Village Harmony to express my displeasure. So I thought that
I would give you my thinking at length.
Here are some of the implications of that decision to the fight for equality
in South Africa.
1. Non-violent direct action, which the ANC had promoted from its beginnings
in 1917, is a grass-roots mobilization of large numbers of concerned
people. Violent revolution is the work of a small elite group that is
willing to be trained, follow hierarchical orders, willing to kill others/destroy
property, and to risk long term imprisonment or death. At the time of
this decision the ANC was well aware of this change.
2. The resort to violence forced the South African police and security
forces to become more professional, better equipped, higher tech, vicious,
and confrontive. The South African Black, Colored, and Asian populations
were the ones that suffered from this increased effectiveness and brutality.
3. It took only a short time for the ANC leadership to be either put
in prison, like Nelson Mandela, or flee the country. This caused the
freedom movement to be essentially leaderless inside South Africa until
the Black Consciousness Movement (which essentially was a return to non-violent
mass direct action) began again in 1976. Therefore independence was delayed
by a decade or more.
4. The resort to violence by the ANC allowed the South African Government
to gain international support because many governments in the world are
very worried about violent insurrections among their own populations.
5. In the end the armed liberation struggle in South Africa was not particularly
effective (regardless of the mythology, most violent revolutions aren’t
successful). Nonetheless great damage was done to surrounding countries
as South African commandoes frequently invaded them to destroy the South
African freedom fighters.
6. Most of the deaths from this violent struggle were Black on Black.
Necklacing – placing a tire filled with gasoline on the neck of
a suspect and lighting it – became an acceptable practice.
But these are all issues that deal with the liberation struggle itself.
It is the long term implications that bother me most.
1. By the time majority rule came in 1994 South Africa had become a very
violent country. After fifteen years the new South African Government
has been unable to put this genie of violence back into the bottle.
2. It was remarkable how easy it was for Nelson Mandela to tour African
countries in the early 1960’s and receive all the weapons, training,
and funding that he wanted for the violent resistance in South Africa.
The problem is that hundreds of other Africans – claiming discrimination
and exploitation of their group by the ruling elite – have done
the exact same thing. This acceptable behavior by both “rebels” and
other governments has been one of the necessary conditions for the continued
armed insurrections and violence on the continent.
3. Those elite guerrilla fighters in South Africa now control the government
themselves. This elite felt that they “sacrificed” during
the freedom struggle; now they feel that they are due just rewards. The
result has been a focus on enriching this small segment of the Black
population as they enter the wealthy, privileged society of formerly
white-only South Africa. Those at the bottom have been mostly ignored
except during the rhetoric occurring during election times. While racial
inequality has diminished (but only to a certain extent) wealth inequality
continues as before.
So the Machine Gun song bothered me. I spend my time trying to get guys
to put down their machine guns and repairing the trauma that those machine
gun carrying guys –whether rebels or government soldiers – have
created. And I am not alone in this. All the AGLI workers and supporters
plus countless others are striving toward the goal of a peaceful, just,
Africa. Let us not glamorize violence as a means of change since the
end result is that those at the bottom get hurt and there is little more
than a change of faces at the top as the elite continue to exploit the
situation and their country for their own benefit.
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