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Nelson Mandela

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Twenty-Five Years of Non-Violent Revolution

12 June 2011

Twenty-Five Years of Non-Violent Revolution

By Gwynne Dyer

The “Prague Spring” of 1968 was a gallant attempt at a non-violent democratic revolution, but it was crushed by Soviet tanks. Eighteen years later, in the Philippines, the first “people-power” revolution succeeded, and since 1986 non-violent revolutions have driven a great many dictators from power. The most recent was in Egypt, in February – but there never was a guarantee that these revolutions would turn out well.

It depends partly on how bad the ethnic and religious cleavages are in a country: Bulgaria and Romania were okay, but Yugoslavia was a blood-bath. It depends to some extent on how poor and illiterate the population is, although even very poor countries have made a successful transition to democracy. And it depends on good leadership and good luck, too. But it is the dominant political phenomenon of our time.

The revolution in the Philippines succeeded because by the late 80s, everything was happening in real time on global television. Oppressive regimes that had never had much compunction about killing people who challenged them didn’t feel confident about doing it before a global audience. They no longer felt free to use massive force unless the protesters gave them an excuse by resorting to violence themselves.

The Marcos regime that was overthrown in the Philippines in 1986 was a mere kleptocracy with little ideology beyond a vague “anti-communism”. When the infection spread to China in 1989, the outcome was different, because a disciplined Communist dictatorship WAS willing to kill large numbers of its own people in front of the television cameras. It understood that if it failed that test, it would not survive.

Less ruthless Communist dictatorships in Europe, longer in power and ideologically exhausted, did fail the test. The non-violent revolutions that began in East Germany in November, 1989, and ended Communist rule in the old Soviet Union itself by late 1991, could have been stopped if the local Communist regimes had been willing to follow the Chinese example, but none of them had the stomach for killing on that scale.

So about 350 million Europeans got their freedom and almost nobody died. At almost exactly the same time, the apartheid regime in South Africa released Nelson Mandela and began the talks that led to majority rule in 1994. A very well-connected African friend of mine told me later what had actually happened.

In late 1989, after the East German, Czech and Romanian regimes had fallen with scarcely a shot being fired, the head of the National Intelligence Service, the South African secret police, went to State President F.W. de Klerk and warned him that if the African National Congress put half a million people on the street in Johannesburg, he would only have two options: to kill ten thousand of them, or to surrender power unconditionally.

If he didn’t like either of those options, he should start negotiating the transfer of power now. So Mandela was released, and eventually there was a peaceful transition from apartheid to majority rule.

Then there’s a long gap, perhaps partly explained by the fact that the number of dictatorships in the world had already shrunk considerably. An attempted non-violent revolution in Iran in 2009 was mercilessly crushed. People worried that repressive regimes might have finally figured out how to counter non-violent revolution. And then along came the “Arab spring.”

So the technique is still alive, and it worked in Tunisia and in Egypt. On the other hand, it has been stamped out in Bahrein, whose fate resembles that of Prague in 1968. And while the revolt in Yemen has probably displaced the old regime, it has been very violent, and the new regime may be no more democratic than the old.

Same goes for Syria, and of course for Libya. There are no one-size-fits-all techniques for revolution or for anything else. But the desire for democracy, equality and fairness survives everywhere, and the least bad technique for trying to achieve those things is still non-violence. Even if sometimes the revolution succeeds but the aftermath doesn’t.

The original “people power” revolution in the Philippines was followed by two decades of political turbulence. Yugoslavia splintered into half a dozen warring fragments. Russia, though it escaped mass violence, is not exactly a model democracy.

On the other hand, South Korea, Indonesia and South Africa are now all democracies. So are Poland, Romania and Taiwan. The aftermath may not be what most people hoped for in Egypt, and it probably won’t be in the case of Syria. But non-violent revolution works often enough, and its results are positive often enough, that it is still the most hopeful political development of the past quarter-century.

The glass is half-full, and getting fuller. Even the most wicked and ruthless rulers must now take world public opinion into account, and we expect them to behave much better than dictators did in the bad old days. They may disappoint our expectations, but that is the standard by which they will be judged, and they know it.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 2 and 6. (“It depends…time”; and “So…happened”)

Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.

Nelson the Terrorist

4 July 2006

Nelson the Terrorist

By Gwynne Dyer

The oddest bit of news this week has been the tale of the hunt for Nelson Mandela’s pistol, buried on a farm near Johannesburg 43 years ago. It was a Soviet-made Makarov automatic pistol, given to Mandela when he was undergoing military training in Ethiopia. (He also went to Algeria, to learn from the revolutionaries who had just fought a savage eight-year war of independence to drive out their French colonial rulers.) A week after he buried the gun, he was arrested by the apartheid regime’s police as a terrorist and jailed for life.

It’s very hard now to imagine Nelson Mandela as a terrorist. He is the most universally admired living human being, almost a secular saint, and the idea that he had a gun and was prepared to shoot people with it just doesn’t fit our picture of him.. But that just shows how naive and conflicted our attitudes towards terrorism are.

Nelson Mandela never did kill anybody personally. He spent the next 27 years in jail, and only emerged as an old man to negotiate South Africa’s transition to democracy with the very regime that had jailed him. But he was a founder and commander of Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation), the military wing of the African National Congress, and MK, as it was known, was a terrorist outfit. Well, a revolutionary movement that was willing to use terrorist tactics, to be precise, but that kind of fine distinction is not permissible in polite company today.

As terrorist outfits go, MK was at the more responsible end of the spectrum. For a long time, it only attacked symbols and servants of the apartheid state, shunning random attacks on white civilians even though they were the main beneficiaries of that regime. By the time it did start bombing bars and the like in the 1980s, Mandela had been in prison for twenty years and bore no direct responsibility for the MK’s acts — but neither he nor the ANC ever disowned the organisation. Indeed, after the transition to majority rule in 1994, MK’s cadres were integrated into the new South African Defence Force alongside the former regime’s troops.

There’s nothing unusual about all this. Jomo Kenyatta in Kenya, Archbishop Makarios in Cyprus, Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe and a dozen other national leaders emerged from prison to negotiate independence after “terrorist” organisations loyal to them had worn down the imperial forces that occupied their countries. In the era of decolonisation, terrorism was a widely accepted technique for driving the occupiers out. South Africa was lucky to see so little of it, but terrorism WAS part of the struggle there too.

Terrorism is a tool, not an ideology. Its great attraction is that it offers small or weak groups a means of imposing great changes on their societies. Some of those changes you might support, even if you don’t like the chosen means; others you would detest. But the technique itself is just one more way of effecting political change by violence — a nasty but relatively cheap way to force a society to change course, and not intrinsically a more wicked technique than dropping bombs on civilians from warplanes to make them change their behaviour.

Neither terrorism nor military force has a very high success rate these days: most people will not let themselves be bullied into changing their fundamental views by a few bombs. Even in South Africa’s case, MK’s bombs had far less influence on the outcome than the economic and moral pressures that were brought to bear on the apartheid regime. But that is not to say that all right-thinking people everywhere reject terrorist methods. They don’t.

What determines most people’s views about the legitimacy of terrorist violence is how they feel about the specific political context in which force is being used. Most Irish Catholics felt at least a sneaking sympathy for the IRA’s attacks in Northern Ireland. Most non-white South Africans approved of MK’s attacks, even if they ran some slight risk of being hurt in them themselves. Most Tamils both in Sri Lanka and elsewhere support the cause of the Tamil Tigers, and many accept its methods as necessary. Americans understandably see all terrorist attacks on the United States and its forces overseas as irredeemably wicked, but most Arabs and many other Muslims are ambivalent about them, or even approve of them.

We may deplore these brutal truths, but we would be foolish to deny them. Yet in much of the world at the moment it is regarded as heretical or even obscene to say these things out loud, mainly because the United States, having been suffered a major attack by Arab terrorists in 2001, has declared a “global war on terror.” Rational discussion of why so many Arabs are willing to die in order to hurt the United States is suppressed by treating it as support for terrorism, and so the whole phenomenon comes to be seen by most people as irrational and inexplicable.

And meanwhile, on a former farm near Johannesburg that was long ago subdivided for suburban housing, they have torn down all the new houses and are systematically digging up the ground with a back-hoe in search of the pistol that Saint Nelson Mandela, would-be terrorist leader, buried there in 1963. If they find it, it will be treated with as much reverence as the Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch. The passage of time changes many things.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 7. (“As terrorist…troops”; and “Neither…don’t”)