Thursday, June 27, 2013

Mandela and the Morality of Political Violence

With Nelson Mandela's condition deteriorating, and reports that the iconic figure has not even opened his eyes in days and may be on life support, reporters and pundits are busily writing pieces about him, and the Twittersphere is abuzz with rumors of changes to his medical state. Wise, insightful quotes from him are shared amongst friends and strangers, and abundant praise his heaped upon Mandela for his innumerable accomplishments and importance to the South African anti-Apartheid movement. This praise is well-deserved. What most unfortunately neglect, is Mandela's early actions, and the violence of the African National Congress's military wing (towards both civilians and armed targets) before it became a part of the political system. Mandela is a multi-faceted character, and his choice to use political violence is a fascinating study.

For me, Mandela's complexities define and distinguish him. Though he was responsible for a number of fantastic achievements, he also co-founded a violent organization that murdered civilians. How should someone like him be remembered? The good things Mandela did (including post-Apartheid reconciliation initiatives) outweigh the bad, but it also seems dishonest to ignore the bad things he did and the fact that his actions may have caused harm unto others.

More than just judging him for what he did or did not do, it is important to consider the motivations behind his decision to act violently. When is political violence justified and on what scale? If one is making an argument based upon a moral issue, does this person have a responsibility to be more "moral" than the idea or group that one is opposing? Mandela provides an extensive explanation of his thinking which led to his decision to use violence as a political tool in his 1964 statement from the Rivonia trial.

I hope that writers and reporters, and in turn their readers, are able to think of and remember Nelson Mandela as an important man who contributed a lot of good to society, and as an important man who also did some morally debatable things. 

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