Revolution: The Only Alternative


IN A HEATED DEBATE on ABC's "Nightline" last month, political foes, the Rev. Jesse I. Jackson and the Rev. Jerry R. Falwell, faced off for more than an hour. The subject was South African apartheid. Falwell and Jackson exchanged personal barbs; they agreed--not surprisingly--on next to nothing.

The one point they did echo, however, was that South Africa's racist regime must end.

From the far right to the far left, with few exceptions, Americans express their abhorrence and disgust at South Africa's system of racial oppression. Everyone agrees it must stop--the sooner the better.

While some argue that revolution is inevitable in South Africa, others respond with admirable humanitarian concern that the world must do its best to bring about peaceful change. Unfortunately, the hope for peaceful change in South Africa is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the situation in that country and inevitably supports the unconscionable status quo.

PEACEFUL POLITICAL change, even if it is neither immediate nor comprehensive, is unarguably preferable to violence. The specter of revolution and race war in South Africa is horrifying, for it will inevitably be bloody and threaten to wreek one of the most productive economics in the world. Obviously, the group that would suffer most in such a confrontation is the white establishment--whites stand to lose their wealth, their country, and very possibly their lives. And yet, it is the white government that is giving Black South Africans no option but to engage in violent resistance.


Just last Thursday, for example, a riot broke out in downtown Cape Town. A group of Black women gathered to sing songs of protest against the presence of security police in Black townships. It was the lunch hour and many people, white and Black, gathered around. The police moved in first with water cannons and then with dogs, whips and rubber truncheons. At first they attacked only Blacks; later they went after anyone standing in a group, Black or white. Police knocked over and beat cameramen on the scene. Blacks fought back. Some turned cars on their sides to make barricades; others pelted police with vegetables from street vendors. If Black South Africans can neither vote nor demonstrate, what are they to do?

There is an extraordinarily long history of non-violent resistance in South Africa. Long before apartheid was codified into a coherent system of racial oppression after World War II, South Africans of all races participated in non-violent struggles against institutionalized racism. From its inception in 1912, until 1960, the African National Congress (ANC) waged what may well have been the longest campaign of non-violent resistance to overtly violent repression ever. This resistance reached a head with the defiance campaigns of the 1950s--a series of mass protests against discriminatory laws quite similar to the marches and sit-ins of the civil rights movement in the United States.

YET THERE WERE two crucial differences between non-violent protests in South Africa and the American South. First, American Blacks were protesting against private and informal discrimination in a country where the government was publicly and irrevocably committed to political equality. South Africans were protesting discrimination by a government publicly committed to racial discrimination.

Second, the response to non-violent protests in the South was largely non-violent. The use of dogs and fire hoses against protesters in Birmingham outraged most of the nation and so was instrumental in passing civil rights laws. On the other hand, violent repression of peaceful protest was routine in South Africa. Police used water cannons, dogs, and whips; tens of thousands of protestors were imprisoned.

Yet the ANC steadfastly pursued non-violent protest until the Sharpville massacre made it all too clear that violence was the basis of political power in South Africa. On March, 21 1960, police at Sharpville in the Transvaal opened fire on people who were peacefully protesting the pass laws. Sixty-nine men, women and children were killed. The government's message was clear: we do not care what you think, and if you oppose apartheid, we will put you in jail or kill you.

Mohandras Ghandi tried non-violent resistance in South Africa. He gave up and went to India.

A NON-VIOLENT STRATEGY simply can not succeed against an opponent that has absolutely no qualms or political liabilities from suppressing it with violence. Since 1960, the Sharpville tragedy has been repeated countless times. Sometimes it's public, as at Uitenhage last spring; often it is anonymous and cruel. But the killing is undeniable--whether by sadistic prison guards or by security police who randomly terrorize Black townships.

Nelson Mandela was imprisoned in 1964 for plotting violent resistance to the South African government. Last year, responding to mounting domestic and international pressures, the government offered him his freedom on the condition that he renounce political violence. Mandela held a one sentence press conference and returned to captivity. His message: "Let them first renounce violence."

Many who claim to oppose violence say that the impetus for change in South Africa must come from peaceful, moderate groups of all races. Organized, multi-racial, non-violent resistance did exist at the beginning of the current phase of unrest in the form of the United Democratic Front (UDF), which represented millions of people in more than 600 community, church and political associations across South Africa. Within the last year, the leaders of the UDF have been rounded up and arrested. They face charges of treason.

There is already violence in South Africa, and its source is obvious.

If the white minority government is committed to peaceful transition to a non-discriminatory system, why have they answered peaceful protest with brutal repression? They have presented Black South Africans with a clear choice: resist violent oppression with peaceful martyrdom or resist it with violence. To advocate peaceful resistance in South Africa is simply inconsistent with meaningful opposition to apartheid. The time has come to decide which violence to support in South Africa--to oppose revolution at this point is only to sanction further repression.