Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Ghandi, John Mountford, Umkhonto we Sizwe, Violence

Probably the closest Nelson Mandela came to showing any propensity for violence prior to forming Umkhonto we Sizwe, was in bouts of stick-fighting as a young boy in rural Transkei. This was hardly likely to prepare him for his future as a violent revolutionary.

The ANC had, since its inception in 1912, adopted a strict policy of non-violence. In this they used Mahatma Ghandi, and his peaceful protests against discrimination under British ruled SA from 1893 – 1913, as their role model.

However after the Treason Trial ended in 1964, and tanks rumbled through the townships ahead of the May 29 stay-away, Mandela began to push the reluctant ANC towards abandoning non-violence. He had started the debate as early as 1952, but now was determined that it should be finalized. He told the NEC that he believed that non-violence was a tactic that should be abandoned when it no longer worked, and that the people were ahead of the ANC:

“If we did not take the lead now, we would soon be latecomers to a movement we did not control.”


Chief Luthuli eventually relented. He proposed that a military movement should be a separate and independent organ, under the control of the ANC, but autonomous. Persuading the Indian Congress was, however, an even more difficult nut to crack. In a meeting that went on throughout the night, JN Singh told the joint executive that ‘non-violence has not failed us – we have failed non-violence’. Mandela disagreed. Finally, towards dawn, there was a resolution: the official ANC policy would still be that of non-violence, while Mandela was authorized to go ahead and form a separate military wing: Umkhonto we Sizwe – The Spear of the Nation.

It had taken the ANC 50 years to come to this point; and it took another 30 years of the armed struggle to bring democracy to South Africa.

Approximately 7 000 deaths occurred during the period 1948 to 1990, when Mandela was released. From 1990 to 1994 there were 14 000 deaths.

Why did the ANC hang on to non-violence so grimly, when violent revolution had been the order of the day in Africa for decades?

Who was right – Mandela, or Ghandi?

What might have happened had the ANC not pursued the armed struggle?