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Gail Presbey

Reviewing African Revolutions

On Bill Sutherland & Matt Meyer: Guns and Gandhi in Africa: Pan-African Insights on Nonviolence, Armed Struggle and Liberation in Africa




Bill Sutherland /
Matt Meyer:
Guns and Gandhi in Africa: Pan-African Insights on Nonviolence, Armed Struggle and Liberation in Africa.
With a Foreword by Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
Trenton, NJ:
Africa World Press,
2000.
279 pages
ISBN 086543-751-3




Africa World Press:
external linkWebsite

1

  As someone very interested in Gandhi's nonviolent experiments with freeing India from colonial domination, I was also interested in the mixed success and failures of nonviolence found in African independence movements. Why did independence movements, following Fanon's lead, reject nonviolence as impractical in the African context? Had nonviolence been found wanting, or, had it not yet been tried extensively enough? For someone with questions such as mine, this book by Bill Sutherland and Matt Meyer is a godsend. The authors have the same questions as mine, and they have done the footwork to find the answers from a variety of perspectives. They chart the debates, listing the pros and cons of what went on, by interviewing many of the most important actors on the political scene in Africa.



 Years of Experience

2

  Not mere armchair speculators, Bill Sutherland lived in Africa since leaving the U.S. in 1953. At the time, his disillusionment with the U.S. under the influence of McCarthyism, and his commitment to Pan-Africanism, led him to embrace an option that W.E.B. DuBois had also chosen: he moved to Ghana. That was the beginning of his adventures in solidarity with revolutions against oppression, and the search for opportunities to engage in nonviolent change. Matt Meyer, himself a resident of New York City involved in draft resistance, and a generation or so younger than Sutherland, notes his frustration that constituencies of War Resisters League and other peace groups were predominantly white. Meyer began to see the links between struggles in the U.S. and South Africa when he worked in solidarity with the End Conscription Campaign (ECC), which was a way for white South Africans to oppose apartheid by refusing to be drafted. He came to know Bill Sutherland, and recognizing a true wealth of knowledge when he met one, he decided to help him write down all his adventures in nonviolence over the years in Africa, as well as further documenting the most contemporary ideas and feelings of activists in the 1990s. While Matt Meyer is the narrator's voice in the book, the book is centered on the life and ideas of Bill Sutherland.



 First priority:
 fight for freedom, against injustice


»The authors take pains to explain that, while they are advocates of nonviolence, they are supportive of a wide spectrum of revolutionary actions. As Sutherland explained, 'I identify with any people's struggle to get a boot off their necks'.«

3

  The authors of the book take pains to explain that, while they are advocates of nonviolence, they are supportive of a wide spectrum of revolutionary actions. As Sutherland explained, »I identify with any people's struggle to get a boot off their necks«. The peace activist authors state provocatively that more love and creativity can be found among active violent revolutionaries than among those who refuse violent action yet remain inactive. They are committed to the idea that it is up to each movement or group of oppressed people to determine their own ideologies and tactics. Sutherland's friendships and support for African-American activists like Malcolm X and Robert Franklin »Williams« are testimonies to his open-mindedness and commitment to stand in solidarity with all who are fighting injustice.

4

  The authors challenge the "purist" pacifists who enjoy taking the moral high ground to come and learn from the stories of activists in Africa. But they likewise challenge those who too quickly refer to "pragmatics" as their reason for abandoning nonviolence. They insist that all taking of a life has negative consequences, and can't be seen as "good" (even in pursuit of the noblest goals) or "cathartic" (as Fanon would say). In this way they can remind one of the medieval church, which while approving fighting in the context of just wars, nevertheless prescribed penances for soldiers who killed. (Immanuel Kant, in his essay On Perpetual Peace, similarly argued that the day after winning a war, the victorious army should have a day of mourning and repentance for the war casualties on both sides of the conflict.) Nonviolence, the authors admit, is a slow, necessarily mass-based, disciplined strategy, which expresses itself in actions of noncooperation, boycotts, and strikes. It has its disadvantages, but clearly also has its strengths. Yet the authors are frustrated with how nonviolence is »neglected by revolutionaries of all stripes«.



 Could nonviolence have succeeded?

David M. Sibeko:
"The Sharpeville Massacre. Its historic significance in the struggle against apartheid".
In: Notes and Documents 8 (1976).
external linkArticle


Praveen Swami:
"Massacre of Jallianwala Bagh".
In: Frontline (1997).
external linkArticle

5

  In a challenging "what if" scenario, the authors speculate about what would have happened in South Africa after Sharpeville, if instead of choosing to abandon violence and start Umkhonto we Sizwe, the African National Congress (ANC) instead devoted itself to mass nonviolent actions. The country was ripe for the toppling of apartheid: there was a huge economic crisis. A mass nonviolent action could have blocked the Chase bank bailout of the broke apartheid government. However, people in the movement were demoralized by the casualties at the Sharpeville massacre. One argument often directed at nonviolent activists (voiced by Kenneth Kaunda in this book) was that it was fine for Gandhi to use nonviolence against the British, who would stop short of massacre and negotiate with protestors, but against the apartheid government, there would be no mercy. Sutherland is not sympathetic with this line of reasoning, however. He notes that the British killed more Indians at the Amritsar massacre (also called Jallianwala Bagh massacre) than those who died at Sharpeville.

6

  His point is that nonviolent activists need to be organized and disciplined; they must be trained to anticipate losses, so that they don't give up if there are casualties. This does not imply a callousness about the deaths at Sharpeville, but rather a determination, as in violent resistance, to risk one's life in the pursuit of a common worthy goal. His criticism of the ANC's decision to add violent tactics of sabotage did not lessen Sutherland's commitment to their struggle, as he notes, »I couldn't tell the ANC or PAC  1  to wait until my nonviolent experiment works«.

7

  Sutherland notes that those who side with violent tactics often say that »the only thing the other side will understand is force«. But Sutherland cautions, yes, the other side understands force, and they understand it even better than us, and they have the means to wage a war. So we who want to oppose them, must invent something else, a new approach. Misconceptions about nonviolence abound, including the idea that nonviolence naively ignores power dynamics in the hopes of utopian peace. Based on this reading, many abandon nonviolence because it is not seen as pragmatic. Sutherland explains, bluntly, that nonviolence must be, and can be, strategic.



 Topics Covered, Approach

»Following Sutherland's life which criss-crosses the globe and finds him interacting with noted statespersons and activists such as Kwame Nkrumah, Julius Nyerere, Kenneth Kaunda, El Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, Graca Machel, to name the more famous ones, brings some excitement to many of the chapters.«

8

  The book does presume some familiarity with African politics in the last half century. The book does not go into detail about the history of countries, their political parties, their key players, cultural attributes, language and ethnic groups, the relationship between the African country and European colonizing countries, etc., but instead delves right into things and begins to chart Sutherland's movements in the country. The book also goes straightforwardly to the key events where nonviolent and/or armed revolutionary activities and discussions are happening.

9

  The book is therefore lacking much of what we would expect in a travel documentary or a biography. There are no poetic descriptions of surroundings and details, no touching accounts of Sutherland's struggles to adapt to life in a continent different than the one on which he grew up. This book is chock-full of the business of discussing nonviolence and politics. The book might therefore become disorienting for the person who needs a road map, a more detailed background to make it from step to step as the book unfolds.

10

  It is also sometimes work to read it, especially when you get to one of the fifty-page long chapters which is nothing but a marathon series of excerpts of ten interviews with highly motivated activists. When one discussion ends, the next one begins, no break for "coffee", or even for the authors to mull over what has been said. No change of scenery, where are the interviews taking place? Indoors, outdoors, on a hot day, rainy day? Despite its density, anyone who would gladly spend ten hours in a windowless conference centre glued to an exciting discussion on nonviolence will probably also have the stamina to make it through such chapters and be grateful for what was learned.

11

  Meyer certainly has the devotion to his topic, but this reader suspects that his writing style might possibly have been honed in the genre of newsletters and planning committee minute-taking. Perhaps it was Meyer's intention to focus on those interviewed and not himself, but a good journalist can sometimes convey more insights to the reader by noticing and reporting the subtleties of gesture, context, surroundings, and interactions. Meyer's approach is much more straightforward, as he tells us what people said, and what other people said back (with only fleeting mention of subtleties of context).

12

  Luckily, following Sutherland's life which criss-crosses the globe and finds him interacting with noted statespersons and activists such as Kwame Nkrumah, Julius Nyerere, Kenneth Kaunda, El Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, Graca Machel, to name the more famous ones, brings some excitement to many of the chapters. And Sutherland's exploits are often of the kind that could make an action-packed documentary. For example, he and Bayard Rustin, among others, went up through northern Ghana to what was then Upper Volta to protest French nuclear testing in the desert. Their goal was to get as near to the test site as possible and publicize their opposition. They were kicked out of the country, only to sneak back by cover of night through smuggling routes, where they were eventually detected and deported again.



 Interviews with Nyerere and Kaunda

Bruce Janz:
African Philosophy Resources: African Philosophers.
external linkWebguide

13

  Sutherland had personal friendships with many African heads of State. Originally close to Nkrumah, and enthusiastic about Nkrumah's nonviolent "positive action" campaign, their friendship was strained when Sutherland spoke out about his friend's growing dictatorial tendencies, and Sutherland voices disappointment about Nkrumah's eventual abandonment of support for nonviolent action in Africa. Sutherland has kept a lifelong relationship with Nyerere, and the book includes a lively debate between the two, where they clearly »agree to disagree« on a wide range of topics while still holding much mutual respect for each other. Sutherland and Meyer also include convincing interpretations of why some of Nyerere's most ambitious reform programs failed.

14

  The book goes on to include a long interview with Kenneth Kaunda, another African head of State who began as an enthusiastic nonviolence supporter and ended up saying that his earlier stance was just not practical for his new role. It was mostly due to his reflections on what went wrong with Kaunda after taking power that Sutherland began to realize that it was not enough to oppose colonialism, one had to go further and oppose the nation-state. What African Heads of State were inheriting was a form of government based on authoritarianism, with police force and armies poised to oppress. In that context, if Kaunda was not going to dismantle such a system, he would have to enforce it.



 Struggles in Southern Africa and Pan-Africanism

»Sutherland and Meyer note with some frustration that despite the large role that nonviolent action took in South Africa, they met almost no South Africans who were personally committed to a lifestyle of nonviolence. Instead, there was an overarching emphasis on 'pragmatism'.«

15

  Further chapters consulted freedom-fighters and political analysts in Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Namibia, and various factions and parties in South Africa. Graca Machel regretted the violence which Mozambique saw during the many years of fighting. Apartheid had criminalized the children, she charged. It had turned eight and nine year olds into killers, with no regard for human life. What human values are now left in them, how does one rebuild values? She notes that Mozambicans tried negotiations with Portugal, but Portugal refused to come to the negotiating table until there had been armed struggle. Sutherland and Meyer note with some frustration that despite the large role that nonviolent action took in South Africa, they met almost no South Africans who were personally committed to a lifestyle of nonviolence. Instead, there was an overarching emphasis on "pragmatism".

16

  In the latter chapters of the book, Sutherland describes his longstanding involvement with the Pan-African movement. Here the authors provide some background for those not familiar with the history of Pan-African congresses, begun by W.E.B. DuBois and others earlier in the century. They show how the recent 6th and 7th Pan-African congresses have shown the strains between becoming a forum for either governments or dissidents, with the concern that dissidents were being sidelined out of diplomatic politeness and by the fact that governments or ruling parties were funding and hosting the meetings. But in their usual style, the authors, while noting the distance from the ideal scenario, still consider something better than nothing. Sutherland considers opportunities for African-Americans and Africans to meet, discuss ideas, and for the former to experience Africa first-hand, to be greatly valuable experiences.



 The Future

Gail Presbey
is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at University of Detroit Mercy.


17

  The authors also describe what they consider to be further signs of a possible resurgence in nonviolence in Africa, such as the International Conscientious Objector conference held in Chad in 1996, the 1998 International Peace Research Association conference in Durban, and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa. They conclude by discussing the need for a version of Gandhi's "soul force", but in their version, the African American understanding of "soul" would come to the fore. By "soul force", they mean, »breathing genuine warmth and human feeling into Western materialism and Eastern asceticism«. They explain that the notion of "soul" does not have to be understood in a religious sense, but rather as the very source of human strength, creatively used for lasting social change. Let's hope that the authors' hopes are realized, and that through the dialogue that they envision, involving activists of all stripes, that mutual education is furthered so as to work out a plan to realize a more fully just and free future for Africa.


Notes


 1   

Pan Africanist Congress. 



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