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Political violence threatens an already battered democracy

Professor Raymond Suttner
Photo by Ivor Markman
Professor Raymond Suttner

14th June 2016

By: Raymond Suttner


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When I joined the liberation struggle led by the ANC/SACP alliance in the late 1960s, it entailed support for armed struggle. Until then I had been a liberal without the benefit of any exposure to the ANC and its allies, which had been absent from public politics in the aftermath of the Rivonia arrests.

I then abandoned my reading of Martin Luther King Jr and Mohandas (Mahatma) Gandhi, whose conceptions of morality and care for the wellbeing of other human beings had inspired me. I did not abandon their injunction to combat indifference to “evil” or remove their works from my bookshelf. But I did not see them as relevant to a life in which I had taken a course that entailed the use of force to combat and bring down the apartheid regime. I did not romanticise armed struggle, but saw it as a necessary choice with which I wanted to associate myself.


It is true that the ANC adopted armed struggle when all other options had failed. But one has the sense in some of the writings of Nelson Mandela, and even in the older Mandela writing Long Walk To Freedom, that he did not elevate non-violence to be a principle in its own right and an unconditional good. In differentiating his position from that of Chief Albert Luthuli, he said violence and non-violence were purely tactics for him, while non-violence was a principle for the Chief.  

Mandela devoted his later period in prison and his post-prison political career to securing peace because he did appreciate the need to end violence in a situation where people were dying, and in which there could be no winners. Those who were dying were not primarily white soldiers, but ordinary black people.


While seeking to ensure peace, Mandela and the government he led after 1994 did not devote much attention to establishing the principle of non-violence. They did little to ensure that it was recognised as a necessary condition for social wellbeing. Nor was it prominent in people’s consciousness in the period after 1990, even though it ought, constitutionally, to be one of the foundations of our lives. 

Conditions at the time did make it difficult to be unequivocal about non-violence. The unbanning of the ANC in 1990 did not signify any will on the part of the apartheid regime to ensure peace or freedom of political activity. Its official and unofficial repressive forces continued to launch attacks against the ANC and a number of black communities, the ANC’s presumed support base.

The elections were held with violence still occurring in some places. The early years of democratic rule were in the shadow of potential attacks on the new order. This was shown when plots against the new democracy were revealed, resulting in the firing of certain generals.

Consequently, even if an adequate value was placed on peace and non-violence, the conditions of the time were not propitious to propagating non-violence. To do so may have signified to those who wished to destabilise the new democracy that the ANC government was disarming in the face of their threats. 

One result is that the principles of non-violence and peace have never been popularised or adequately instilled in people’s consciousness. In 2011, the year of the 50th anniversary of Chief Luthuli’s Nobel Peace Prize and also of the formation of MK, almost all attention was devoted to recalling the heroism of MK.  Luthuli and his message of peace and non-violence received practically no attention.

I think it is necessary to advance non-violence today as an unconditional good and unconditional principle. That does not mean pacifism. Force is sometimes justified, notably in the face of an armed attack. But violence is only justifiable in exceptional conditions where a limited resort to force becomes necessary to eliminate armed attack or similar threats to the wellbeing of human beings. The unconditionality of the principle of non-violence is restored once the danger is removed.  Resort to violence is a conditional exception to a universally applicable principle.

It is important to stress non-violence because any act of violence against another human being extinguishes that person’s subjective agency, his or her capacity to act as an independent human person. Violence extinguishes the subjective qualities that are essential to the human character of the Other, against whom violence is wreaked. The universality of respect for free human beings and a free humanity is thereby denied.

Chief Luthuli and Communist leader Moses Kotane had been less willing to embark on armed struggle than Mandela, Walter Sisulu and others, but ultimately agreed to the formation of MK as a limited exception to the principle of non-violence. In Luthuli’s case, he conceded a limited exceptional condition where state violence made the ANC’s departure from non-violence a temporary necessity. Kotane’s resistance had been based initially on reluctance to abandon the terrain of peaceful political activities, but he became persuaded that that space had practically been eliminated by the violence of the apartheid regime.

When Mandela, one of the founders of MK, later bent every effort to secure a negotiated settlement that was intended to end the violence and also deliver the vote for all, the tripartite alliance of the time supported him. Ensuring that peace prevailed was a foundation stone of freedom.

The understanding of the freedom that was sought was universal. It was not meant to apply only to some, but to all. Where a person spoke a language that was less widely spoken than another did not mean that she or he should be entitled to fewer rights. The same applied to all ethnic groups, to people of whatever origin. Notions of Zulu ethno-centricism - as in Jacob Zuma’s depiction as “100% Zulu” during his 2005/6 rape trial - ran counter to the foundations of mutual and equal respect that are essential to the democratic order. All people were meant to enjoy all the freedoms on an equal basis in the constitutional democracy being established. 

Likewise, the freedom to pursue political activities was not intended as a gain only for the previously suppressed ANC, but as a universal right accessible to all organisations. Any attack on the freedom to organise by any political organisation, or within any political organisation, entails an attack on the universal freedom provided for all.

At the time of the first elections there was considerable conflict deriving mainly from IFP and NP government-inspired violence against the ANC and ANC-supporting communities, mainly in then Natal province and on the Witwatersrand. It appears that the subsequent weakening of the IFP may have seen the gradual absorption of some IFP warlords into the ANC in KZN. That province (but by no means the only place) has re-emerged as a site of political violence in the Zuma era. This is evidenced by attacks and murders related to selection for electoral lists and more generally against communities and organisations that stand in the way of what the ANC, its “factions” and the KZN government want. This happens even in defiance of court orders, as in the provincial government’s actions, including killings, against the shack dwellers movement Abahlali baseMjondolo.

In the present political climate, students and the EFF sometimes express a willingness to resort to violence. Sometimes these are buttressed by dubious readings of Frantz Fanon. It is not always clear that they are in fact saying that they will resort to violence or when they will do so. But resorts to violence are usually preceded by periods of ambiguity and it is important for those who value peace to nip this in the bud.

South Africa is already a very violent country and violence is almost entirely masculine. Emphasising non-violence buttresses the struggle for gender equality, and protects all who fall victim to violent masculinities. The struggle for peace must contest the notion that being masculine is to be rough and tough.

We must banish the romanticism that continues to attach to violence and militaristic symbolism. An emancipatory programme is urgent, putting peace and non-violence at its centre as conditions that make democratic debate and contestation possible.

Raymond Suttner is a scholar and political analyst. Much of his life was spent in the struggle against apartheid and in building the new democratic order. He served lengthy periods as a political prisoner and under house arrest.  Currently he is a professor attached to Rhodes University and UNISA and he has authored or co-authored Inside Apartheid’s Prison (2001), 30 Years of the Freedom Charter (1986) 50 Years of the Freedom Charter (2006), The ANC Underground (2008) and most recently Recovering Democracy in South Africa (Jacana and Lynne Rienner, 2015). He blogs at and his twitter handle is @raymondsuttner


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