Violence: necessity or virtue?

The ANC (and I include myself because I was in leadership then) has failed in not asserting, from 1990, the principle of non-violence. One cannot build a mutually supportive or stable society without such a principle in our personal and public life.

Violence is usually unjustified. It is a breach of peace, or potential peace in our case, which is a condition for a society based on mutual respect. It tends to dehumanise the other, especially in political violence where the victim is defined as the enemy.

In the history of the ANC there was an understanding that necessity demanded a break from purely non-violent activity. Walter Sisulu and Nelson Mandela, who secretly inquired of the Chinese about armed support in 1952, appear to have come to that decision earlier than Chief Albert Luthuli and his confidant, communist leader Moses Kotane.

But in all cases it was a choice that was made with responsibility and no sense of joy. Indeed, it brought pain and separation from loved ones and all or most who were involved made great sacrifices.

It was and is understandable that people have felt great pride over Mkhonto weSizwe (MK), an army born of the people, representing the oppressed and fighting back against their oppressors. But that was a different context from today. It is now undesirable to emphasise heroic acts of war where these feed into violent actions.

Yes, this is part of our liberation heritage, but it is not directly applicable to a society where we seek peace. Songs that encourage irresponsible recourse to violence in a constitutional state do not constitute a constructive recourse to history.
The shift of leading Indian cadres from Gandhian non-violence to MK is instructive. Was this an abandonment of everything that had happened in the Indian Congresses since Gandhi and in the ANC since its foundation? This was not only a break with previously peaceful methods but also with continuity. There was disagreement within the Indian Congresses over the resort to arms. On the disagreement, it is well known that JN Singh said it was not non-violence that had failed but ‘we who have failed non-violence”. Many believed that route had been pursued with insufficient vigour.

Luthuli and Kotane, and not only the leaders in the Indian community, were slow in adopting armed struggle, in seeing the moment of necessity as having arrived. But Luthuli had indicated as early as 1952 that 30 years of knocking on the door through non-violent struggle had yielded no results; in fact, it had seen increased oppression. That statement may, consciously or not, have encouraged examination of other modes of struggle.

It should be known that Luthuli was not ambiguous about armed struggle once it was clear in his mind that it had to be. He reluctantly concluded that it was unavoidable. Like Kotane, Luthuli believed that MK cadres had to be properly trained so that they would not become cannon fodder. There is now clear evidence that he used the money from the Nobel Prize mainly to purchase farms in Swaziland that were used for MK and others in transit.

How does the resort to armed struggle sit with the convictions of Gandhism? While there was disagreement among the followers of and heirs to Gandhi, he also recognised that alternative methods may be justified through necessity; that is, the conditions prevailing at a particular time. We cannot see Gandhi’s own life as a rebuke against those who resorted to arms. He, like Luthuli, was never a pacifist. He spoke of militant non-violence as the ‘moral equivalent of war”. He also said that one must distinguish the ‘violence of the brave” from the ‘violence of cowards”. He saw bravery in those who defended the weak and the vulnerable by violence.

In line with the continued belief in non-violence, Professor ZK Matthews, famous scholar and ANC leader, told the World Council of Churches in 1964 that he was pleased the armed struggle was led by men like Sisulu and Mandela, committed as they were to non-violent struggle.

Violence was always considered a temporary aberration. We need, as the Freedom Charter and the Constitution do, to state the desire for peace unambiguously. It needs to be built into our discourse and everyday political and personal activities.

The current use of militaristic representations and singing ‘kill the boer” are not only decontextualised but also dehumanising of those who are killed. This feeds into seeing people as things in order to commit violence against them. In singing ‘kill the boer” now, what was done with reluctance and misgiving is glorified.

The early resort to arms was connected to an overall ethic of non-violence. What we have today is a situation where a virtue is made out of what was a necessity.

The controversy around this song is not about one person against the ANC leadership but disagreement about the moment of singing it. When used by Peter Mokaba in the early 1990s, it was a phrase in a toyi-toyi chant: ‘Kill the boer! Kill the farmer! Hau! Hau!” That was stopped by the ANC leadership.

The current refrain ‘kill the boer” is in fact disembodied from a song of the 1980s that relates to a young man appealing to his mother to let him go and fight for freedom:

Mother let me go
O, Mother let me go
To take up bazooka, to take up arms
Shoot, shoot, shoot!
We will shoot with our bazookas!
The cowards are afraid, the cowards are afraid, the cowards are afraid!
They fear bazooka!
They fear Mkhonto!
We will shoot the boers, we will shoot the boers!
We will shoot, we will shoot, we will shoot with our bazookas!

(Translated by Nomboniso Gasa)

There is no glorification of the gun out of a specific context. It is a pleading with a mother to let her son (and often it was a daughter, for there were women in MK) go to fight to remedy what was seen around them. The young man was not afraid to do his duty, to respond to necessity, to fight apartheid with the means seen as effective.
In the past violence was never seen as a virtue, but a tragic necessity. That understanding needs to be reinstilled in the consciousness of our people.

Raymond Suttner is a Unisa professor and was an underground operative and leader in the United Democratic Front, ANC and South African Communist Party. He is preparing a book on the Zuma era for Jacana. This is an edited version of a presentation to the Centre for Indian Studies in Africa at Wits.

We make it make sense

If this story helped you navigate your world, subscribe to the M&G today for just R30 for the first three months

Subscribers get access to all our best journalism, subscriber-only newsletters, events and a weekly cryptic crossword.”

Raymond Suttner
Raymond Suttner works from Johannesburg, South Africa. Research on politics, history, gender, etc. Books include The ANC Underground, 2008, Recovering Democracy in SA, 2015, Inside apartheid's prison, rev ed 2017. Raymond Suttner has over 27196 followers on Twitter.

Related stories


Already a subscriber? Sign in here


Latest stories

The Opera Virgin attends ‘The Marriage of Figaro’

Opening one’s mind to new artistic disciplines could provide enlightenment to glorious new pursuits.

What’s behind the vulture poisonings in Kruger and Chobe parks?

People poison vultures for various reasons, including a belief that they can see into the future and to stop authorities from being alerted to poaching

Kenya’s Ruto declared president-elect amid results chaos

Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) chairman Wafula Chebukati said Ruto had won almost 7.18 million votes (50.49%) in the August 9 vote, against 6.94 million (48.85%t) for his rival Raila Odinga.

Kenya vote chief declares Ruto president-elect

The deputy president has been declared the winner of the close-fought election, despite several commissioners rejecting the results

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…