In Nelson Mandela’s autobiography he tells a story about a sparrow. This was in the early 1960s when the late South African leader was hiding out on a farm near Johannesburg with members of the Communist Party and the African National Congress and some of their families. They were plotting what was called “armed struggle” against the Apartheid regime. (Many others would call it terrorism.) But at the time Mandela’s only gun was an old air rifle he used for target practice and dove hunting.
“One day, I was on the front lawn of the property and aimed the gun at a sparrow perched high in a tree,” Mandela writes in Long Walk to Freedom. A friend said Mandela would never hit the little creature. But he did, and he was about to boast about it when his friend’s five-year-old son, with tears in his eyes, asked Mandela, “Why did you kill that bird? Its mother will be sad.”
“My mood immediately shifted from one of pride to shame,” Mandela recalled. “I felt that this small boy had far more humanity than I did. It was an odd sensation for a man who was the leader of a nascent guerrilla army.”
Of course autobiographies always rely to some extent on recovered memories, some of them recovered myths. But Mandela’s thinking about warfare, revolution and terrorism—tempered by pragmatism and humanity—is almost as instructive as his later actions in support of peace.
In the early 1960s, just before his arrest and incarceration for more than a quarter century, Mandela was, in fact, a very angry man. As his longtime friend Bishop Desmond Tutu once told Sky News, “he needed that time in prison to mellow.”
Mandela had given up on Ghandian passive resistance after the massacre of protesters in Sharpeville in 1960. “Our policy to achieve a nonracial state by nonviolence had achieved nothing,” he concluded. But from the beginning, Mandela’s anger was controlled, and his use of violence calculated. He never trained as a soldier, but he made himself a student of revolution. Mandela sent fighters for training and indoctrination to China when it was still ruled by that revolutionary icon, Mao Tse-Tung. He studied Menachem Begin’s bloody struggle against the British in Palestine.
Mandela learned much from the Algerian war against the French, which was then at its height, and not the least of those lessons was the vital role of global propaganda: “International public opinion,” one Algerian envoy told him, “is sometimes worth more than a fleet of jet fighters.”
So, when it came to the use of violence, as with so much else in his life, Mandela opted for pragmatism over ideology. The little sparrow notwithstanding, the question was not just one of morality or humanity, but of whether the means would serve his ends.
“We considered four types of violent activities,” Mandela recalled: “sabotage, guerrilla warfare, terrorism, and open revolution. For a small and fledgling army, open revolution was inconceivable. Terrorism inevitably reflected poorly on those who used it, undermining any public support it might otherwise garner. Guerrilla warfare was a possibility, but since the ANC had been reluctant to embrace violence at all, it made sense to start with the form of violence that inflicted the least harm against individuals.”
This was imminently practical. The last thing Mandela wanted to do was unite, through fear, the often bitterly divided white Anglo and Afrikaner populations. So, strict instructions were given “that we would countenance no loss of life. But if sabotage did not produce the results we wanted, we were prepared to move on to the next stage: guerrilla war and terrorism.” (My emphasis.)
In the end, Mandela was arrested before the armed struggle reached that stage. Then, as he languished in prison—a powerful symbol, but no longer accountable as a commander—terrorism did come to the fore. The infamous Church Street bombing in 1983, for instance, targeted the South African Air Force headquarters, killing 19 people and wounding 217, among them many innocent bystanders.
When at last the white South African government, facing the possibility of wider civil war and pressured by international sanctions, turned to Mandela for secret talks, it could do so knowing he had the authority to negotiate without the taint of direct involvement with the carnage. His combination of pragmatism and humanity was key.
As Mao famously said, “a revolution is not a dinner party.” But if its leaders are as wise as Mandela, at the end of the day they can find a way for everyone to sit down at the same table.