Gunning For Change
5 June 1984
THESE thoughts come from someone who is profoundly repelled by violence. Like many women, I even have trouble dealing with personal anger or conflict of any kind. And like most people who support Third World development. I began doing so simply because I believed in justice and equality and wanted to see an end to others’ suffering.
I still support health care and agricultural projects for the same old reasons. Yet over time I find myself supporting liberation movements which have armed wings as well. How did that come to be?
Though as a high school student I protested against bombings that burned people alive in Southeast Asia, it took me a very long time to see that I needed not only to oppose atrocities but indeed actively to support those who were fighting for living wages, food for their families, clothes for their children. It took a long time because the people who were fighting for these things were on the ‘other side’, both in the news reports and somewhere deep in my consciousness.
El Salvador or South Africa confront us with the same reports today. Yet to make that transition from opposing one government s brutality to supporting the opposition forces, we must re-examine not only our own country’s economic, political and military ties with repressive regimes but also the media institutions that allow us to look at immense suffering, and yet not to ‘see’ it or to see the ways in which it can be ended.
We must examine not just our own conscience but our collective consciousness as well - the attitudes and values on which we base our support or indecision regarding armed liberation movements. Most of us have not been prepared for the kind of thinking, talking and actions needed in an age of computer-aided death squads and Mutual Assured Destruction.
How can I support the idea of armed liberation movements elsewhere, while at home I support the peace movement?
Is it nonsensical to work for peace in our own country and yet accept the need for violent change in another? I don’t think it is.
In the case of the peace movement in the First World, we must respond as citizens of the countries which produce and deploy throughout the world the weapons which may kill us all. Millions of Europeans and North Americans quite rightly feel personally implicated. They are telling their political leaders to dismantle a system that is designed to obliterate whole cities, indeed life on the planet itself.
It is no coincidence that our own highly militarized countries are former or present imperial powers. The wealth of our countries has been built on exploitation and sheer terror, carried out by force of arms. Africa, Asia, Latin America (and Ireland among others, for that matter) were conquered militarily: the plunder continues today. Much of what we consume - including our food and clothing - comes from countries where parents cannot feed or clothe their own children. Supporting the peace movement here and armed liberation there is not necessarily contradictory. Trying to support peace without working for justice is.
We in the First World, then, must peacefully demand of our own political leaders an end to the exploitation and injustice from which our countries have betsefitted and others have suffered.
At the same time, change is coming from within the Third World. In the case of South Africa. we have been asked to support the African National Congress (ANG), who are fighting for basic human rights. If I believe it is their right (not privilege) to have the same rights I enjoy.then I must support them in their efforts to obtain them.
Why can’t they use peaceful means to reach their goals?
Liberation movements which I support have exhausted peaceful attempts at change. The ANG of South Africa is a case in point.
After its founding in 1912, the ANC organized peaceful demonstrations, civil disobedience and other protests. They were met with intransigence and cruelty. The most infamous incident took place at Sharpeville on March 21 1961, when 69 unarmed and peaceful protesters were massacred and another 200 wounded.
It was after Sharpeville that the decision was taken to launch armed attacks against the South African government and its agents. Peaceful demonstrations have got black South Africans nowhere.
Agricultural workers today earn less than $50 per month, with wine often served as partial payment. They put in a 14-hour day, often seven days a week. They are fed on discarded, unmarketable food. 75 per cent of African families live below the poverty line in South Africa; disease and infant mortality rates are among the highest in the world.
Hence the slogan of the trade union movement, ‘Organize or Starve’. The ANC and allied movements continue organizing resistance and now, increasingly, armed attacks on economic and military targets.
Regarding peaceful resistance in totalitarian regimes, George Orwell has said that Gandhi’s nonviolent methods are not applicable: ‘He believed in "arousing the world", which is only possible if the world gets a chance to hear what you are doing. It is difficult to see how Gandhi’s methods could be applied in a country where opponents of the regime disappear in the middle of the night and are never heard of again. Without a free press and the right of assembly it is impossible, not merely to appeal to outside opinion, but to bring a mass movement into being or even to make your intentions known to your adversary.
The country’s leaders have vowed that black and coloured people will never enjoy equal status. ‘There is no place for him in the European community,’ said H.F. Verwoerd of the Bantu, insisting that the separate education system must never show the black man ‘the green pastures of European society in which he was not allowed to graze’. In 1978 C.P. Mulder said, ‘there will not be one black man with South African citizenship… - Why should I try to hide it? This is our policy.’
In an economic system based on profit and exploitation, only token power is given away, never real power. Real power must be seized.
By resorting to violence, won’t people become like the enemy they’re trying to overcome?
The myth that violence must beget violence was put to rest on July 19, 1979 in Managua, Nicaragua. After an armed insurrection in this Central American country, the Sandinista Liberation Front came to power with an agenda for reconstruction, not reprisals.
In the last year of fighting against the Somoza regime, 50,000 people had lost their lives in hideous killings, another 100,000 had been wounded. 50,000 children orphaned and over 500,000 left homeless. Somoza had bombed schools, hospitals, market places; his National Guard daily inflicted torture and death.
Yet when the Sandinistas gained control of the country there was no violent retribution. They immediately focussed on health care, agriculture, nutrition, literacy. New children’s playgrounds and programs for the aged and disabled are as much a feature of the new Nicaragua as are the plazas full of enthusiastic cadres. The success of Nicaragua’s literacy and health campaigns is acknowledged world-wide. Former Nicaraguan guardsmen have been imprisoned for their crimes but there has been no ‘bloodbath’ or dehumanizing treatment.
The Nicaraguans were the first to recognise that the war they were forced to fight had traumatized their people, especially the young. However, it did not brutalize them. Self-defence is not a euphemism for a people’s latent aggression. Ask any woman in your own community who has forced herself to take a self-defence course if she likes what she has had to learn.
I do not claim that armed resistance will suddenly solve problems that were centuries in the making; or that it can be supported always and in every case. However, with cases as clear as South Africa, Nicaragua and El Salvador, we cannot in conscience ignore the calls for support. And in other cases - Ireland, the Sahara, East Timor or other areas - we have a responsibility to find out more about who is benefitting and suffering from present conditions. If we refuse even to consider listening to them because we have already branded them ‘terrorists’, then we will be guilty of some of the deepest forms of bias and racism.
We must also grant others in the Third World the dignity of finding their own path to development and making their own mistakes. As for our endorsement of their acts. the ANC’s stated goals, for example, are outlined in their Freedom Charter: if they ever abandon those goals, that will be reason enough to withdraw support.
And as we discuss the ethics of supporting armed resistance by oppressed peoples, we must remember that their struggles are inevitable: we can no more stop them than we can stop the tides or alter the path of the sun. We cannot debate whether fighting will happen in South Africa or El Salvador: it is going on already and will continue - with us or without us.
We can either prolong that fighting by sitting back; or we can accelerate the process of change with thinking, critical support.
Eleanor MacLean is a freelance writer and broadcaster from Nova Scotia.