What Nelson Mandela can teach us all about violence

Mandela was a great man. He was also a violent man. Ignoring that fact does him no justice

Published December 8, 2013 2:00PM (EST)

When journalist and commentator Chris Hedges decried “violent” anarchists as a “cancer” in the Occupy movement, the violence he had in mind amounted to little more than a few smashed commercial windows.

Ample digital ink has been spilled in the last day by smart observers urging against the whitewashing of Nelson Mandela’s past. In the eyes of his fervid opponents, and many of his fervent supporters, Madiba was a radical, and a violent one. Compared to the militant actions Mandela would countenance and support from his African National Congress, what gets deemed “violent” or “militant” in the U.S. today is both laughable and problematic. On the occasion of the death of a great and violent man, it seems worthwhile to discuss what does and does not get deemed “violent” — and by who, where and when.

It’s beyond the purview of these paragraphs — and to be honest, I’m tired of the hackneyed polemic — to address whether violence, especially politically motivated violence, is ever justifiable or commendable. Instead, I’ll simply posit that violence is itself a moving goalpost. In the contested terrain of political struggles, however, it’s safe to say that any acts posing a threat (existential, ideological and wherever the twain meet) to a ruling status quo will be deemed violent. Even an act as minimal as a smashed Starbucks window can pass muster here — spidering cracked glass serves as reminder to those who might notice: “We do not consent to a gleaming patina; shit’s fucked up and bullshit.”

But I’m not going to weigh in on the ethics of revolutionary violence. To do so would miss how the concept of violence operates in our society: We erroneously isolate certain acts to deem “violent” or “nonviolent” — then “justifiably violent” or not, and so on — and in so doing we miss that there's never a singular “violence”: there’s an ongoing dialectic of violent and counter-violent acts.

It’s within such a dialectic that we understand Mandela’s support of violence. His relationship to armed and violent struggle is nuanced and certainly not unique to him. He knew counter-violence was necessary in his violent context. He has also expressed that he and his ANC comrades prioritized the reduction of harm to human bodies. For Mandela, violence was a tactic. As Christopher Dickey noted, “when it came to the use of violence, as with so much else in his life, Mandela opted for pragmatism over ideology.”

Mandela’s own explanation of the his group's approach to militant tactics was nuanced, highlighting again that violence is not one stable category:

We considered four types of violent activities — sabotage, guerrilla warfare, terrorism, and open revolution. For a small and fledgling army, open revolution was inconceivable. Terrorism inevitably reflected poorly on those who used it, undermining any public support it might otherwise garner. Guerrilla warfare was a possibility, but since the ANC had been reluctant to embrace violence at all, it made sense to start with the form of violence that inflicted the least harm against individuals.

Crucially, Mandela was open to escalation to terror tactics and guerrilla war. The ANC’s 1982 attack of the Koeberg nuclear plant — yes, crucial infrastructure — killed 19 people. Unsurprisingly, the ANC was listed as a terrorist organization by the United States. Mandela himself was on a U.S. terror watch list until 2008. But now he is dead and the work of historicizing is well underway. Attempts, notably by white liberals, to enshrine Mandela as a peaceful freedom fighter do no justice to his actual fight. Musa Okwanga has put it best:

You will try to smooth him, to sandblast him, to take away his Malcolm X. You will try to hide his anger from view. Right now, you are anxiously pacing the corridors of your condos and country estates, looking for the right words, the right tributes, the right-wing tributes. You will say that Mandela was not about race. You will say that Mandela was not about politics. You will say that Mandela was about nothing but one love, you will try to reduce him to a lilting reggae tune. "Let's get together, and feel alright." Yes, you will do that.

He could go on: Yes, you will do that, and even as you offer up paeans sanitizing Madiba, you will sit back and watch as young blackness continues to be treated as a crime in U.S. cities. You will decry the flash riots in London and the streets of East Flatbush, as young, unarmed black men are shot by police. You will see violence only as you choose to, and often without thinking.

The deifying and sanitizing of Mandela reflects an all-too prevalent “Not In My Backyard” (NIMBY) mentality, often adopted by the white liberal commentariat. (The ass-backwards, explicitly racist opinions of the right-wing are not my focus here. Take it as read: they suck.) My friend Lorenzo Raymond has written about what he calls the “Nonviolent In My Backyard” tract of NIMBY — a position occupied by Chris Hedges among others. As Raymond noted of this sort of NIMBY liberal, “Yes, of course, they celebrate militant, spontaneous, non-bureaucratic grassroots uprisings outside of U.S. borders, even if they’re as physically close as Oaxaca or politically close as London.  But as soon as the insurrection gets to their neck of the woods, suddenly we must have everything in triplicate, blessed by the elders, and executed quietly and even ‘neatly.’”

The parameters, by NIMBY reasoning, of acceptable or justified radical violence expand as the struggles in question are grow farther from U.S. soil, and when the event is separated by years and decades. We imprison today’s whistle-blowers and canonize yesterday’s insurrectionists. But (and here’s the trick) the ability to do so is premised on the belief (even a tacit one) that our current context is not so bad, but dissent, militancy and violence is fine there and then — just Not In My Backyard.

NIMBY liberalism rejects the background violence of its own context — the structural racism, the inequality, the totalized surveillance, the engorged prisons, the brutal police, the patriarchy, the poverty, the pain. A smashed window, a looted store, a dented cop car can be read as “violent” now only because a certain NIMBYism fails to see such (small) acts as counter-violent responses to ubiquitous violence. Heroic and necessary violence is reserved for distant lands and completed revolutions.

We see this sort of logic writ large in War on Terror ideology. In a fear-mongering propaganda segment on last week’s Sunday morning talk shows, Senate Intelligence Committee chair Dianne Feinstein and her House counterpart Mike Rogers warned viewers that terrorism is on the rise. “There are new bombs, very big bombs…There are more groups than ever. And there is huge malevolence out there", said Feinstein. As I commented at the time, in describing rage at the U.S. as contentless “malevolence,” Feinstein tacitly rejects that the anger and radicalization may be grounded in responses to U.S. violence. Similarly, when British Prime Minister David Cameron described the events of the 2011 London riots as “criminality pure and simple,” he ignored the context which gave rise to the rage — the racist policing and widespread inequality highlighted by the London School of Economics and the Guardian in their study of the riots (and well-known by anyone paying attention to their social context).

I’m not suggesting for a second that the contemporary U.S. or U.K. should be compared to apartheid South Africa. I’m noting only that the treatment — either the validation or the whitewashing — of Mandela’s violent militancy is significant, nay crucial, at this current moment when even low-level dissent and property damage is decried and dismissed as violence, pure and simple. Mandela’s story should remind us that there’s nothing simple nor pure about violence.

By Natasha Lennard

Natasha Lennard is an assistant news editor at Salon, covering non-electoral politics, general news and rabble-rousing. Follow her on Twitter @natashalennard, email nlennard@salon.com.

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