The 50th anniversary of uMkhonto we Sizwe on December 16 2011 is an opportunity to examine the role, meaning and impact of armed activity in the struggle for liberation and wider South African history.
MK evokes different responses. Many revere this army ‘born of the people’, that is, comprised almost entirely of black people, who were officially denied access to arms and training. MK was established because legal, peaceful political activities pursued by the ANC for decades had been closed. The organisation repeatedly emphasised that military struggle was part of a wider range of forms of resistance, aimed at securing democracy.
But many see MK as representing an unnecessary and harmful part of political history. Some believe that peaceful struggle was not given sufficient chance and that illegality and use of force was embarked on when other options had not been exhausted. This was one of the reasons given for some leaders resisting MK’s initial establishment.
While MK was created because of conditions in the 1960s it has an enduring legacy that needs examination.
The power of MK during the struggle (and today) cannot be understood purely through its military performance. It evoked imagery that empowered those who aspired to be free. To understand this, one needs to recapture the impact that an army constituted from below, a people’s army made on oppressed people. One needs to remember the impact of young soldiers attacking police stations, one of the front lines and faces of apartheid repression. This created a sense of hope, where many depicted the apartheid regime to be invincible.
But today we need to find ways for South African society to go beyond the embedded culture of violence and militarisation, which precedes MK and continues to exist in a range of sites of violence.
In acknowledging MK’s place in history, in recognising what it achieved we also need constant awareness of the dangers attached to any military legacy.
In this context we need to accept that violence is problematic in principle. It is antagonistic to peaceful relations between human beings and undermines mutual respect. Violence creates aggressors and victims or survivors of physically and/or psychologically harmful acts. It may be necessary as self-defence but it can ultimately solve no problem. It tends to have long term negative effects on aspirations for peace between individuals even where the motives may have been pure.
Perpetrators of violence tend to lose sight of the human qualities of the Other who is attacked. Primarily masculine toughness tends to be celebrated or even to marginalise manifestations of gentleness. Such practices and legacies are unconducive to building a culture of nonviolence and peace. This means that it is important to demystify violence and re-insist that nonviolence is not cowardice, though both violence and nonviolence may sometimes be cowardly, as recognised by Mohandas (Mahatma) Gandhi and Chief Albert Luthuli.
That one may be justified in using force under specific, essentially limited conditions means that where those conditions do not exist violence should not remain a signifier of bravery, heroism and what is good. That was clearly recognised in the ANC’s Morogoro strategy and tactics document of 1969, which was careful to distinguish use of arms in situations of war and in other political contexts. ‘Our movement must reject all manifestations of militarism which separate armed people’s struggle from its political context.’
How we relate to MK’s legacy is not purely historical but very relevant to current politics, where much political discourse draws on military imagery, for example in calls to ‘shoot to kill’, ‘pick up the spear again’ and ‘kill the boer!’, made by state and political figures. All of these treat the liberation military history as having a timeless application. This is dangerous in a society that is recovering from centuries of conflict.
Unfortunately at the time of unbanning of ANC in 1990 a period of ‘no peace no war’ reigned with police and other forces attacking the organisation and massacres perpetrated against black communities. Self defence units were hastily constituted, often becoming independent sources of power and use of force.
In such conditions a culture of nonviolence could not be instilled and has never subsequently been actively promoted. It is true that the constitution was established as part of a commitment to peace, but it coexists with constant evocations of militarism.
Military symbols and actions cannot be treated as having continued validity in our society. Public expressions of militarisation of society, whether through language or institutional changes in state structures entrench values that undermine mutual respect between human beings and between citizens and the state.
In marking MK’s 50th anniversary, we need to consciously fashion a new language and practices that instil respect for human life and the dignity of all persons. This is critical in creating conditions for realising the goals of liberation.
Raymond Suttner is a former underground operative, political prisoner and leader in the ANC-led liberation movement. He is the author of 'The ANC Underground in South Africa', (Jacana, 2008) and is currently a part-time professor at Rhodes University, and emeritus professor at UNISA, based in Johannesburg.