The recent death of Nelson Mandela has occasioned an extraordinary outpouring of public media comment, much of which accords weakly with the existing historical scholarship. In his career, Mandela made two very big decisions: the first, in 1960, was to embark on the armed struggle in South Africa; the second, in the mid-1980s, was to enter into a process of political negotiations with the apartheid government. This talk focusses on Mandela's first decision, and suggests that the ANC's decision to embark on revolutionary change might have delayed rather than hastened achievement of a political solution.
My talk focusses on the year 1960-1 when Umkhonto we Sizwe, the armed wing of the ANC, was formed. Much of the historiography of this period has represented the decision as unavoidable in the wake of the Sharpeville Massacre of 1960. In doing so, the relentless tempo of events over the course of 1960-1 is tidied up and telescoped into a narrative arc so as to occlude other possibilities. My talk seeks to integrate two increasingly divergent historiographies - one African nationalist, the other Afrikaner nationalist - which mirror each other to the extent that neither sees any alternative to armed resistance (in the case of the former) and state crackdown (in the case of the latter). By reading both across and against the grain of these historiographic traditions, I shall point to other possible outcomes. In particular, I highlight the political fluidity of this moment and ask whether there were any serious prospects of some form of `national convention' taking place - particularly if the prime minister had died at the hands of his attempted assassin in April 1960.