More than 40 years have passed since Nelson Mandela delivered his speech defending himself before the South African court that sent him to prison to serve a life sentence. Yet his words are so relevant even today that the Israeli publishing house Nahar has seen fit - and justifiably so - to print them in Hebrew together with commentary and explanations. The central issue in that speech has certainly not lost any of its significance: Is political violence legitimate? This issue is relevant to both the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the international context, especially in light of recent events in occupied Iraq.
In his profound and moving speech before the Pretoria Supreme Court in April 1964, Mandela argues that there are situations in which political violence is legitimate. His stormy life clearly attests to the fact that the use of force that he initiated in South Africa dramatically altered the course of events there and helped bring about the downfall of the country's apartheid regime. In extreme situations, claims Mandela, force is the last resort available to the victim but, when it is used, it must be monitored and controlled. This is unquestionably a complex, sensitive issue that raises questions that have not yet been resolved.
In his defense speech, Mandela offers the reasons for what appears today to be the most important decision in his life: a shift from a 50-year-old, nonviolent and unsuccessful political struggle to the use of force. The background to his decision consisted, of course, of the injustices of the apartheid system and the immense suffering undergone by his people. Apparently, Mandela does not really believe that he has much of a chance of persuading his judge, who is part of the apartheid system. Thus, his speech is addressed to the world and to future generations; his words, in effect, are also addressed to Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King (who was still alive when the speech was delivered), his spiritual "fathers" who taught him the philosophy of nonviolence that he ultimately decided to abandon.
For whites, too
Mandela made some very difficult decisions throughout his struggle against apartheid: the severing of ties with the aristocracy of his tribe and his decision to join the struggle against apartheid; the inclusion of whites in the African National Congress (ANC); the call for the imposition of sanctions on his own homeland; the launching of talks with the apartheid regime while he was still serving his prison sentence; the creation of a national unity government following his release from prison; and, finally, his decision to step down as president of South Africa, even though he still had the energy to continue his political career.
However, his most difficult and dramatic decision was made in 1961, when he decided to lead the blacks of South Africa in a violent struggle. The event that led him to alter his position so drastically was the 1960 massacre in the town of Sharpeville, when the apartheid army opened fire and killed 69 black demonstrators. Most of them were shot in the back as they joined others fleeing the police bullets.
Concerning the shift to the use of force, Mandela writes that it would be preferable for his movement to "guide" the violence according to principles aimed at saving human lives. If that sort of initiative is not taken, he reasoned, he and his movement might find themselves left behind in the struggle for a new South Africa, and be dragged after a political movement that might not be run under their leadership. He states that he was authorized to establish a military organization and that he and his organization would be taking a new path. He also notes the irony that, although he had never been a soldier, never participated in a battle and never fired a shot at an enemy, he must now create an army.
Throughout the entire struggle, Mandela felt he was fighting not just for the blacks of South Africa, but for the country's whites as well. In his eyes, the struggle was in the best long-range interests of both oppressor and oppressed, and he was convinced that the downfall of racism would benefit both sides. He did not regard every manifestation of violence as terrorism. The controlled violence he instituted in South Africa seems almost like child's play in contrast with the horrible events that have occurred in Israel over the past three decades.
Mandela speaks of a violence that does not lead to the loss of human life, something that seems almost like science fiction from our Middle Eastern perspective. He instructs his troops never to plan in advance to injure or kill human beings. Even in the course of an operation, his soldiers are under strict orders not to kill or even physically harm anyone. In fact, most of the offensives launched by the Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation, or MK for short), the black liberation army of South Africa, were low-key attacks on public buildings and strategic targets that symbolized apartheid. Although some people did die in the attacks, these deaths were the exception to the rule. Mandela exercised almost total control of the height of the flames, even from his prison cell.
Appalled by the PLO
During my term of ambassadorship to South Africa, I talked about political violence with "Tokyo" Skawala, one of the prominent younger leaders of the MK and, later, the ANC. He is today a leading member of South Africa's business community. Skawala relates that, in the 1970s, members of the MK and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) trained together at the same camps in what was once the Communist Bloc and in southern Lebanon, and engaged in many conversations about the level of violence. Skawala recalls how angry he and his colleagues in the MK were when Palestinians took hostages and killed schoolchildren. He and his colleagues repeatedly told the members of the PLO that they were blackening the name of struggles for national liberation. The MK trainees were appalled by the cruelty of the PLO.
As everyone knows, these conversations had no impact on the Palestinians, who maintained and even ratcheted up the level of violence of their operations, moving on from skyjackings to the bombing of buses and suicide bombings in crowded public areas. The Palestinians saw no relevance in Mandela's doctrine of controlled violence and it is regrettable that, in his more mature years, Mandela, who has received such universal praise, has not seen fit to reiterate in Palestinian forums what his warriors angrily told Palestinian militants 30 years ago.
"I Am Prepared to Die" is first and foremost a lesson in visionary leadership, the kind that flourishes in a major crisis. The Palestinian people has not yet found such a mega-charismatic leader as Nelson Mandela; however, Palestinian suffering will not continue forever. Judging from the South African experience, the eroding and bloody suffering of an entire nation ultimately connects with a great leader who will bring the suffering to an end. A wise, cool-headed leader, who will appear one of these days, will know how to lead the Palestinian people to the right path of action and will know how to liberate it from its suffering. We must realize that everyone will benefit from the emergence of a Palestinian Nelson Mandela, whose wisdom will always triumph over emotion and who will openly declare that the liberation of the Palestinians will benefit both nations.
Israel as well needs a leader capable of understanding the hearts and souls of both warring sides. An Israeli Nelson Mandela must be able to convince the Israeli public that, as long as the Palestinians are not free, we will also be the prisoners of the dispute. Such a leader will have to be capable of explaining to us that if we oppose the Palestinians' right to liberty, their victory, when it arrives, will be our defeat.
"I Am Prepared to Die" is one of the most important and most courageous speeches ever delivered in the 20th century. Granted, the speech did not spare Mandela a long prison term or the destruction of his private life. Nonetheless, it presented him, before both the South African public and the world, as a politician with a clearly defined platform and with supreme leadership abilities. In an era when Joseph Trumpeldor's famous and often quoted phrase, "It is good to die for our country," is now the subject of a controversy here in Israel, it is extremely important that a book like "I Am Prepared to Die" should be read by both Israeli and Palestinian adolescents. Just reading it can reduce the level of violence between the two nations.
"I Am Prepared to Die" is the precise opposite of "A Guide for Suicide Bombers," and it is also the precise opposite of incitement to violence. The book is an important guide to life, liberty and fraternity.
"Black Justice: The South African Upheaval" by Dr. Alon Liel, Israel's first ambassador to a democratic South Africa, has been published in Tel Aviv by Hakibbutz Hameuchad.
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