Amnesty and Political Violence: The Case of Nelson Mandela

This post is a sequel to my response to Christopher Hitchens’ recent criticisms of Amnesty International.

Amnesty inevitably faces difficult choices about whom it associates with. During the Cold War, campaigns for the release of political prisoners held by right-wing governments in Greece, Spain, Portugal, Argentina and Chile could, almost inevitably, involve Amnesty sharing a platform with Communists. Care needed to be taken. If an Amnesty representative were just one among numerous extreme left wing politicians, Amnesty would lose its claim of political neutrality: if, though, it eschewed association with political groups or bodies altogether, it would be ineffectual.

A more serious question arose when Amnesty International refused to act on behalf of a prisoner of conscience because they had engaged in or advocated violence.

The case of Nelson Mandela at the time of the Rivonia trial (1964) was a great test for Amnesty.

Helen Joseph

Helen Joseph, anti-Apartheid activist. Photo: John Greenwell, 1963.

By way of background: Mandela was the leader of the African National Congress. That organization was formed on the 8th January 1912. From the outset, when the organization was engaging in the initial struggle against the Native Land Act it was deliberately non-violent. And throughout, non-violence was a basic principle. In the famous 1956 Treason Trial, the Court specifically rejected charges that it had sought to accomplish its aims through violence. And indeed, in 1960, its then leader Albert Luthuli, when receiving the Nobel Prize for peace said, “who will deny that thirty years of my life has been spent knocking in vain, patiently, moderately and modestly at a closed and barred door”.

Then, in 1960 — the shootings at Sharpeville.

Even then, the ANC called only for a peaceful demonstration — a national day of mourning. The Government declared the ANC illegal and after the emergency restrictions were lifted, the ANC was to remain illegal under a permanent ban.

On the 16th December 1961, the A.N.C. formed Unkonto We Sizwe. On the 11th July 1963, Nelson Mandela, the ANC leader, along with Walter Sisulu and others were swooped on by the South African Police at Rivonia. The famous Rivonia trial followed. There was no doubt that the African leaders were planning violence. The reason for this was explained clearly enough by Mandela himself in his speech at the trial in June 1964:

Man with Pass Papers

Man with Pass Papers. Photograph: John Greenwell, 1963.

“I must return to June 1961. What were we, the leaders of our people to do? We had no doubt that we had to continue to fight. Anything else would have been abject surrender … We of the A.N.C. had always stood for a non-racial democracy, and we shrank from any action which might drive the races further apart than they already were. But the hard facts were that fifty years of non-violence had brought the African people nothing but more and more oppressive legislation and fewer and fewer rights. It may not be easy for this Court to understand but it is a fact that for a long time the people had been talking of violence – of the day when they would fight the white man and win back their country, and we, the leaders of the A.N.C. had prevailed upon them to avoid violence and pursue peaceful methods. When some of us discussed this in May and June of 1961 it could not be denied that a policy to achieve a non-racial state by non-violence had achieved nothing … At the beginning of June 1961 after a long and anxious assessment of the South African situation, I and some colleagues came to the conclusion that as violence in this country was inevitable it would be unrealistic and wrong to continue preaching peace and non-violence .. This conclusion was not easily arrived at. It was only when all else had failed, when all channels of peaceful protest had been barred to us, that the struggle was made to embark on violent forms of political struggle and to form Unkonto We Sizwe.”

With Mandela and his colleagues on trial for their lives, what course should Amnesty International adopt?

Jonathan Power in his history of Amnesty, describes what happened:

“1964 brought the fledgling organization its first internal controversy. This blew up around Nelson Mandela, held prisoner by the South Africans on the notorious Robben Island.He had been adopted as a prisoner of conscience in 1962 when he faced charges of trying to organize a strike of African workers and attempting to leave the country without a passport. He had been leading non-violent campaigns against the government’s apartheid system for almost a decade. At various times he had been banned from holding meetings and had restrictions imposed on his movement.” But with the Rivonia trial “the British group who had adopted him decided that his turn to violent opposition .. meant they could no longer support him as a prisoner of conscience … This triggered off a far-reaching debate that was settled only when Amnesty decided to poll all its members. The overwhelming majority decided in favour of maintaining the basic Amnesty rule that Amnesty should not adopt as prisoners of conscience those who used or advocated violence”. But many Amnesty members were unhappy at abandoning Mandela just as he was being incarcerated with little hope of him ever coming out alive. In the end, a compromise was reached. Mandela would no longer be a prisoner of conscience, but Amnesty would make representations to the authorities if it thought the trial had been unfair,the prison conditions were severe or if torture was ever used. This kind of compromise was used many times later, remained a source of controversy, not least when employed at the time of imprisonment of the Baader-Meinhof gang.”

Philemon Matheole

Philemon Matheole, Treason Trial co-accused. Photo: John Greenwell, 1963.

The Victorian Section of Amnesty, of which I was President, was similarly perplexed but adopted a different approach. We had a special interest in South Africa arising out of my visit to Johannesburg in January 1963. I had met there Helen Joseph who was under House arrest, Jo Slovo who was to become a Minister, in Mandela’s first post-apartheid government, his wife Ruth First, the author, who was murdered by a letter bomb some years later and Bram Fischer and his wife Molly. Bram was leader of the Johannesburg Bar and had succesfully defended the accused in the Treason trial of 1956. He was to appear in the following year for Mandela in the Rivonia trial. And partly because of my visit we had a large number of South African prisoners of conscience.

Nevertheless, I myself was of the firm view that Amnesty could not compromise on the ‘violence’ exclusion from the prisoner of conscience definition. This was not because I thought violence was always impermissable – Mandela was such a case. Von Stauffenberg and the 20th July 1944 attempt on Hitler’s life was, of course, another. But to allow individual exceptions would have created an impossible task of containing the non-violence element in the ‘prisoner of conscience’ definition in the future. And so, a number of us resolved the problem by forming a group outside Amnesty – South Africa Protest – to campaign unrestrictedly for Mandela during and after his trial and before sentence. We dared not imagine that upon conviction he would escape death. We were relieved when he was sentenced to imprisonment.

I wrote to Bram Fischer after conviction and sentence and received this reply.

As President of the Victorian Section in 1970, I wrote down my reflections on the problem Amnesty faces with regard to political violence.

Published in: on February 28, 2010 at 4:08 pm  Leave a Comment  
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