“violence was the only weapon that would destroy apartheid”

From Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom:

One Sunday evening, not long after the incident at the Odin, I was scheduled to speak in Freedom Square. The crowd that night was passionate, and their emotion undoubtedly influenced mine. There were a great many young people present, and they were angry and eager for action. As usual, policemen were clustered around the perimeter, armed with both guns and pencils, the latter to take notes as to who was speaking and what the speaker was saying. We tried to make this into a virtue by being as open with the police as possible to show them that in fact we had nothing to hide, not even our distaste for them.

I began by speaking about the increasing repressiveness of the government in the wake of the Defiance Campaign. I said the government was now scared of the might of the African people. As I spoke, I grew more and more indignant. In those days, I was something of a rabble-rousing speaker. I liked to incite an audience, and I was doing so that evening.

As I condemned the government for its ruthlessness and lawlessness, I stepped across the line: I said that the time for passive resistance had ended, that nonviolence was a useless strategy and could never overturn a white minority regime bent on retaining its power at any cost. At the end of the day, I said, violence was the only weapon that would destroy apartheid and we must be prepared, in the near future, to use that weapon.

The crowd was excited; the youth in particular were clapping and cheering. They were ready to act on what I said right then and there. At that point I began to sing a freedom song, the lyrics of which say, “There are the enemies, let us take our weapons and attack them.” I sang this song and the crowd joined in, and when the song was finished, I pointed to the police and said, “There, there are our enemies!” The crowd again started cheering and made aggressive gestures in the direction of the police. The police looked nervous, and a number of them pointed back at me as if to say, “Mandela, we will get you for this.” I did not mind. In the heat of the moment I did not think of the consequences.

But my words that night did not come out of nowhere. I had been thinking of the future. The government was busily taking measures to prevent anything like the Defiance Campaign from reoccurring. I had begun to analyze the struggle in different terms. The ambition of the ANC was to wage a mass struggle, to engage the workers and peasants of South Africa in a campaign so large and powerful that it might overcome the status quo of white oppression. But the Nationalist government was making any legal expression of dissent or protest impossible. I saw that they would ruthlessly suppress any legitimate protest on the part of the African majority. A police state did not seem far off.

I began to suspect that both legal and extra-constitutional protests would soon be impossible. In India, Gandhi had been dealing with a foreign power that ultimately was more realistic and farsighted. That was not the case with the Afrikaners in South Africa. Nonviolent passive resistance is effective as long as your opposition adheres to the same rules as you do. But if peaceful protest is met with violence, its efficacy is at an end. For me, nonviolence was not a moral principle but a strategy; there is no moral goodness in using an ineffective weapon. But my thoughts on this matter were not yet formed, and I had spoken too soon.

That was certainly the view of the National Executive Committee. When they learned of my speech, I was severely reprimanded for advocating such a radical departure from accepted policy. Although some on the executive sympathized with my remarks, no one could support the intemperate way that I had made them. The executive admonished me, noting that the impulsive policy I had called for was not only premature but dangerous. Such speeches could provoke the enemy to crush the organization entirely while the enemy was strong and we were as yet still weak. I accepted the censure, and thereafter faithfully defended the policy of nonviolence in public. But in my heart, I knew that nonviolence was not the answer.