Nonviolence vs. Pacifism, or How to solve unsolveable problems?

How to countenance a situation that can’t be countenanced? I started thinking about that again as I was reading the updated biography of Nelson Mandela by Anthony Sampson (updated by John Battersby, pub. 2011). First of all, there is the kind of racism that, while stepping on your toes, isn’t about running you completely to the ground so as to avoid having to make concessions. Then there is the other kind that sees you as property and whipping you to work harder so as to squeeze every last bit out of you until you’re discarded as useless.

We are dealing with the latter kind here. When Mandela was born in Transkei, Eastern Cape in 1918, the South African Union (1910) was just eight years old. It was a union of Afrikaners, who had carved a foothold for themselves more or less violently before the British arrived, who claimed the upper hand, more violently. There were the eight Xhosa wars, the ongoing Zulu wars and the two Boer wars. But in 1918, South Africa was relatively calm, and young Mandela was privileged to go to the Methodist mission schools and able to begin Fort Hare University before running into the “system”. The system, being mostly administered by the British, who were experienced and apparently more educated than the agrarian Afrikaners, was mostly content to say “no” to aspiring blacks, who asserted their rights.

Despite great inequalities, that society provided many opportunities, but was still inherently a racist one, having stripped the Africans of their land and rights, using them as cheap labour in the diamond and gold mines. As an aside, even if there were no wars going on, those diamonds should indeed have been considered bloody, not that the rich ever much minded. When after WWII the Empire was rolled back somewhat, the South African Union became the Afrikaners’ own Republic, with the support of the remaining British, who had settled more or less permanently.

The 1948 Republic meant a different System, which was more blatantly racialist and aspired to drive all black people out of sight of white ones, at the cost of the black Africans, naturally. The Apartheid idea was introduced, and its execution began. It meant a literal separation, forcing blacks from all major cities and substituting a Bantu education system for the Mission schools, the idea being that the blacks shouldn’t get education that would only serve to make them want more opportunities (they were right in their perverse way, as people such as Mandela, Oliver Tambo and Walter Sisulu, leading lights of ANC, had profited from the enlightened English mission schools).

In short, Mandela’s personal development is instructive. At the beginning of his time in the ANC, he was committed to nonviolence, much influenced by Gandhi, who had first made an impression in protest campaigns against the pass rules in South Africa. Gandhi had often reminded that nonviolent resistance was not to be confused with passive resistance. He said that there is nothing passive in his resistance. Likewise, the ANC organised some effective stay-at-home days (a strike would have been illegal) or walking to work vs. using the bus, in protest to raising bus fares.

When a system is using progressively more violence against a protest movement that has a policy of not using violence to strike back, it makes sense that the nonviolent are experiencing their options eliminated one by one, until it seems that violence is the only option. This seems to have happened in Syria, where government has been torturing and killing peaceful demonstrators. Also, it seems that communist China is moving towards more repression and violence against dissidents again.

So the difference between India and South Africa? I referred to Gandhi earlier, and I’d like to put something in perspective. Gandhi had enormous influence in India, but behind the screens it was Nehru who was putting the options to the government, and in effect saying that if this peaceful demonstration doesn’t work then you’re going to have violence on your hands, and the blood of thousands. The British Army bravely shot hundreds of unarmed and peaceful people in a peaceful mass meeting, and that was very dangerous.

It seems that a regime that only believes in violence is difficult to convince of their options without making it clear that things will escalate, that at some point people will start to lose their patience and using violence. In the case of India, the British gave up partly because they were not able to enforce their rules that protected their financial interests so they thought they might as well; there was also politically a good moment to be giving up colonies.

In South Africa, it wasn’t a distant administration of a coloniser somewhere, but a Nationalist Party government, whose doctrine was based on false racist ideas about the blacks’ inferiority. The government also used scare tactics among the whites, who were made to fear for their position if blacks and Indians were given their civil rights that belonged to them. Perhaps partly the fear was justified, because the whites had privileges they’d have to give up in a society where equal opportunity was given; they’d have to compete with the blacks, and despite all the professed belief in the inferiority of those “races”, underneath the knew that given equal opportunity, they’d not be any better.

In order to solve problems like the Middle East (Israel) situation, there is a tough question: Who is going to be the one, who stops the vicious cycle of retribution? Somebody would have to say, “I choose forgiveness over revenge” for the situation to be defused. Unless people learn to live and let live, the world will not be able to survive another billion inhabitants. There are enough resources to feed us, but not if arable land is being eroded and destroyed all over, not if fairer distribution methods are not implemented.

Otherwise, I think we’ll always have a pendulum in social development; for example the tug of war between the “deregulation” crowd and the “centrist/socialist” control one. There is no one-size-fits-all solution for any particular problem, but equal opportunity is the one that is always required for a peaceful society in the long run. And if we’re religious, as I am, we should remember Jesus’ teachings, too. He taught us not to think ourselves better than our neighbours. That’s equal opportunity. People will not be the same, and achieve the same, but opportunities can be given by pooling resources; call that socialism if you wish.

As an aside, I wish to say I have much respect for ANC’s history, but it seems that specially during Zuma’s presidency, the party’s internal politics (Zulu vs. Xhosa) have taken over the national priorities, and both ANC and South Africa have suffered because of that.

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