50 Years After Rivonia: Mandela as General and Strategist

Image courtesy of BBC News (via Rex Features). Image courtesy of BBC News (via Rex Features).

**Note: Updated on April 2, 2014.

One way of thinking about Nelson Mandela that has been vastly under appreciated is his  strategic judgment.  This is natural as he’s most famous for bringing together the Rainbow Nation after the fall of an entire way of life.  However, he was an insurgent at one point – seeking to overthrow a government through (selective) violent means.  So there is something there for those interested in military judgment – you just have to know where to look.

60 Minutes is a good place to start.  When Mandela passed a few months back, they did a feature entitled “Nelson Mandela in his own words.”  The video is spellbinding, but so is the transcript. Note the commentary from one of Mandela’s closest compatriots – on how Mandela saw himself:

Image courtesy of CBS News. Image courtesy of CBS News.

This clearly demonstrates that Mandela saw himself as a military leader – a general – in a protracted war.  This 60 Minutes segment got me thinking about Mandela some more – and I looked into his famous speech (testimony) on April 20, 1964 – as part of the Rivonia Trial.  I’ve given each section bold/italics for subject titles, but the rest are Mandela’s words from 50 years ago this month.  I’ll leave you with his words…because, when you’re done, you’ll see that there is no commentary that ought follow.  This is a performance that one simply cannot follow.  Enjoy.

*Assessment of strategic situation:

I came to the conclusion that as violence in this country was inevitable, it would be unrealistic to continue preaching peace and non-violence. This conclusion was not easily arrived at. It was only when all else had failed, when all channels of peaceful protest had been barred to us, that the decision was made to embark on violent forms of political struggle. I can only say that I felt morally obliged to do what I did.

Four forms of violence were possible. There is sabotage, there is guerrilla warfare, there is terrorism, and there is open revolution. We chose to adopt the first. Sabotage did not involve loss of life, and it offered the best hope for future race relations. Bitterness would be kept to a minimum and, if the policy bore fruit, democratic government could become a reality. The initial plan was based on a careful analysis of the political and economic situation of our country. We believed that South Africa depended to a large extent on foreign capital. We felt that planned destruction of power plants, and interference with rail and telephone communications, would scare away capital from the country, thus compelling the voters of the country to reconsider their position. Umkhonto had its first operation on December 16 1961, when government buildings in Johannesburg, Port Elizabeth and Durban were attacked. The selection of targets is proof of the policy to which I have referred. Had we intended to attack life we would have selected targets where people congregated and not empty buildings and power stations.

***********

*Study of the art of war:

We felt it our duty to make preparations to use force in order to defend ourselves against force. We decided, therefore to make provision for the possibility of guerrilla warfare. All whites undergo compulsory military training, but no such training was given to Africans. It was in our view essential to build up a nucleus of trained men who would be able to provide the leadership which would be required if guerrilla warfare started.

At this stage it was decided that I should attend the Conference of the Pan-African Freedom Movement which was to be held early in 1962 in Addis Ababa, and after the conference, I would undertake a tour of the African states with a view to obtaining facilities for the training of soldiers. My tour was a success. Wherever I went I met sympathy for our cause and promises of help. All Africa was united against the stand of white South Africa, and even in London I was received with great sympathy by political leaders, such as Mr Gaitskell and Mr Grimond.

I started to make a study of the art of war and revolution and, whilst abroad, underwent a course in military training. If there was to be guerrilla warfare, I wanted to be able to stand and fight with my people and to share the hazards of war with them.

***************

*Strategic Alliances:

As far as the Communist party is concerned, and if I understand its policy correctly, it stands for the establishment of a state based on the principles of Marxism. The Communist party sought to emphasise class distinctions whilst the ANC seeks to harmonise them. This is a vital distinction.

It is true that there has often been close cooperation between the ANC and the Communist party. But cooperation is merely proof of a common goal – in this case the removal of white supremacy – and is not proof of a complete community of interests. The history of the world is full of similar examples. Perhaps the most striking is the cooperation between Great Britain, the United States and the Soviet Union in the fight against Hitler. Nobody but Hitler would have dared to suggest that such cooperation turned Churchill or Roosevelt into communists. Theoretical differences amongst those fighting against oppression is a luxury we cannot afford at this stage.

**************

*Commitment and Will:

Above all, we want equal political rights, because without them our disabilities will be permanent. I know this sounds revolutionary to the whites in this country, because the majority of voters will be Africans. This makes the white man fear democracy. But this fear cannot be allowed to stand in the way of the only solution which will guarantee racial harmony and freedom for all. It is not true that the enfranchisement of all will result in racial domination. Political division, based on colour, is entirely artificial and, when it disappears, so will the domination of one colour group by another. The ANC has spent half a century fighting against racialism. When it triumphs it will not change that policy.

This then is what the ANC is fighting. Their struggle is a truly national one. It is a struggle of the African people, inspired by their own suffering and their own experience. It is a struggle for the right to live. During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.

Author: ML Cavanaugh

Unequal parts strategist, assistant professor, wordsmith, runner, wine-o, reader, philosopher of firepower, and hopeless lover of three ladies named Rachel, Grace, and Georgie.

One thought on “50 Years After Rivonia: Mandela as General and Strategist”

  1. Neither the ANC or the PAC at this time could not seriously to threaten either the RSA or the SFDF. Only when the SADF air superiority over southern Angola was defeated by the Cubans, did the RSA National Party consider political negotiations only with the ANC to end this conflict. Anything else on the part of Nelson Mandela was simply either bravado or wishful thinking.

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