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We must entrench the principle of non-violence

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We must entrench the principle of non-violence

Raymond Suttner

19th March 2014

By: Raymond Suttner

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When the Gauteng premier, Nomvula Mokonyane, visited Bekkersdal last year, she angered a community who are forced to live in dehumanised conditions, when she said the African National Congress (ANC) did not want their ‘dirty votes’.  They have not received the public apology they demanded.

This week when an ANC delegation visited the area to canvass votes it was met with stones and burning tyres. There are photographs of steps taken, through the use of firearms, to protect the ANC leaders. 

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No matter what the Premier did, the ANC has a right to campaign in the area.  It is part of free and fair elections and political freedom more generally, to eliminate ‘no go areas’, for the weak and also the powerful.  Denying entry to the ANC was illegal. But how was entry to be secured?  Police and intelligence services ought to have known what type of resistance and what level of anger and danger would be encountered. 

Clearly there was no plan or preparatory work prior to the visit, to address the problem through negotiations or minimum force. The ANC and bodyguards of the politicians allegedly fired live ammunition into the air, though we do not know whether or not shots also were fired at people.  An ANC official is photographed carrying a gun behind his back.  He may face charges and the Gauteng ANC is reported to be disciplining him, a welcome step at a time when constitutionalism is being undermined. 

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Perhaps the most disturbing image is of a policeman about to shoot a man at point-blank range, probably with rubber bullets. We do not see what happened after the attack, but we know that rubber bullets can blind or cause brain damage or death.  Was it necessary to defend the right of political organisation through such extreme means?

This is only one glimpse of an everyday phenomenon, where different sides of political divides or parties to other disputes in our society address problems through violent means.  Despite living in a constitutional state, the principle of non-violence is not deeply grounded in South Africa.

In some countries, like the UK, sociologists report on various myths that feed into a fear of violence: myths that are not realised in practice, because the level of violence does not correspond to the fear. In South Africa, however, there is substantial correspondence between our fears and the incidence of violence we do in fact encounter. Consequently, it becomes very important to take steps and send an unambiguous message that violence is unacceptable.

Violence is a well-established pattern of conduct, historically and in the present. It is buttressed by a culture of rough, tough masculinity exemplified by people who are treated as heroes, in sport, politics and a range of other spheres of life. 

This runs across all population groups and various activities in society, but I want to focus on lessons from the ANC, which took up arms in 1961, after decades of fruitless legal struggle.  Chief Albert Luthuli had explained in 1952:

"Who will deny that thirty years of my life have been spent knocking in vain patiently, moderately and modestly at a closed and barred door? What have been the fruits of my many years of moderation? Has there been any reciprocal tolerance or moderation from the Government? No! On the contrary, the past thirty years have seen the greatest number of laws restricting our rights and progress until today we have reached a stage where we have almost no rights at all."

After the ANC’s banning and the Sharpeville massacre the organisation had to decide, whether, in the words of the MK manifesto, to “submit or fight.”  Under strictly limited circumstances, when it was impossible to pursue its political aims through peaceful means, it was decided to depart from previous commitments to non-violence.

The armed struggle was nevertheless not a preferred means of struggle.  That is why Nelson Mandela, the first commander of MK, grasped the opportunity for peaceful resolution of the apartheid conflict when it presented itself.

After 1990 we have had free elections and lived under a constitution that has guaranteed what was denied before then. But it is necessary to build the peace, for it is clear that there remains a residual desire to resort to violence where it is no longer permissible or justifiable on moral or political grounds. 

There has never been a concerted effort to popularise the principle of non-violence.  Instead, and especially in the Zuma era, militarism has been romanticised: police, with official encouragement, have resorted to maximum force.  Political differences have led to assassinations and other attacks.  We need to return to the principles that guided the ANC of Mandela, [Oliver] Tambo, Luthuli and [Walter] Sisulu, who recognised that they acted on the basis of a heavy responsibility.  They recognised that peace is an unqualified good and that any use of violence has to be strictly limited and conditional.  Once those conditions are no more, resort to force is completely unacceptable.

Professor Raymond Suttner, attached to Rhodes University and UNISA, is an analyst and professional public speaker on current political and historical questions. He writes a regular column and is interviewed weekly on Creamer Media’s Polity.org.za.  Suttner is a former political prisoner and was in the leadership of the ANC-led alliance. He blogs at raymondsuttner.com.

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