From Mandela to Barghouti: Nonviolent Lessons for Democracy and Divestment

Background for MRTI’s recommendations from Tilton, Boesak, Zunes, and Wall

chris-iosso Carousel
Author Chris Iosso

Reflecting back on the past year, it can be easy to become discouraged, for 2013 has been a year of great violence and bloodshed. 2013 brought us tragedies from the Boston marathon bombings to the Bangladesh factory collapse, from the escalating violence and use of chemical weapons in Syria to the terrorist attack on the Westgate mall in Kenya. Violence has continued in Egypt and broken out Thailand, and bloodshed has escalated across the continent of Africa, from Mali to the Central African Republic to U.S. drone strikes in Niger and Somalia. And as 2013 came to a close, the world lost Nelson Mandela, a one-time liberation fighter who had become a hero of nonviolence and an effective politician.

The juxtaposition of Mandela’s passing with escalating violence across the globe has caused many to wonder if perhaps, as Tony Karon, Senior Executive Producer of Al Jazeera America asserts, “the era of visionaries is over.”

In the weeks following the death of Nelson Mandela, Unbound published an interview with mission co-worker Doug Tilton that illustrates a key yet oft-minimized part of the South African story: the church’s role in establishing justice in South Africa through the witness of BDS: boycott, divestment, and sanctions. The church’s commitment to justice in South Africa was a hard fought struggle, for it was a commitment to all South Africans – the Black majority and the white minority. For many of us who opposed apartheid from afar, it was a struggle that we had a stake in, not simply because our country (the US) supported the white regime, but because, for those of us of white Calvinist background, the Afrikaners were people “like us.” The way they interpreted “our” shared faith reflected on us as well.[1]

Mandela: Nonviolence and Pragmatism

Mandela, of course, was not a Calvinist Christian. Whatever the nature of his personal faith, he was a Methodist by background. Methodist Bishop Peter Storey writes of his long friendship with Mandela, which began with his brief service as a chaplain on the Robben prison island:

Peter Storey

The Mandela I knew became beloved by me, not so much for the grand gestures, although he was a master at political theatre, but for the lesser known acts that revealed a truly human genius for Ubuntu – the awareness that his life was inextricably bound up with the lives of all his fellow human beings, especially his enemies. He was the great includer; nothing was too much trouble if he could cajole or charm another opponent into friendship.

This [was a] man who would not bend an inch in his determination to win freedom for his people, nor to be humiliated by the cruelty of his prison guards, yet who said to his comrades as soon as they arrived on the island, ‘Chaps, these Afrikaners may be brutal, but they are human beings. We need to understand them and touch the human being inside them, and win them.’

Political scientist Stephen Zunes addresses the utilitarian logic of Mandela’s change from the African National Congress sabotage campaign, for which he was arrested as a violent “terrorist” and onetime Communist, and the man who emerged from prison to lead a nonviolent transition. Zunes points to the role of the churches and the leadership not only of Desmond Tutu, but also of Allan Boesak. We could point to others, such as Byers Naude, an Afrikaner minister banned for supporting outside economic pressure to oppose apartheid. Zunes writes:

Stephen Zunes

While, on principle, Mandela refused to renounce violence from his prison cell as long as the far more violent apartheid regime refused to do the same, he also recognized the limits of guerrilla warfare in a country where the regime had all the advantages when it came to armed conflict. However morally justifiable armed struggle may have been in the face of such brutality, it simply was not working. Indeed, in the final years of his imprisonment, he – like other ANC leaders – recognized that it was the growing waves of strikes and boycotts, the establishment of parallel institutions, and other forms of unarmed resistance by the United Democratic Front (UDF) and the ANC’s political wing, that would eventually free South Africa from white minority rule.

…By the mid to late 1980s, however, thanks to massive nonviolent protests in these countries by anti-apartheid activists, most industrialized nations imposed sanctions on the apartheid regime. Labor unions, church groups, students, and leftist organizations in solidarity with the resistance movement in South Africa’s townships made business as usual with the apartheid government impossible. [2]

In essence, this is to say that people like Doug Tilton – and the many people of faith who participated in the BDS movement – persevered and were effective.

Mandela’s approach to violence and nonviolence was not ideological, but pragmatic. Allan Boesak, a former anti-apartheid leader and South African Reformed minister, noted that while Mandela did not lead the movement away from armed resistance, “Mandela was a great leader because he recognized that the movement had become a civil insurrection, a largely nonviolent struggle. A great leader is one who recognizes where the movement is and leads them accordingly, not one who says, ‘Do it my way!’”

One account of Allan Boesak’s own understanding of Mandela comes in his short essay, “The One Who Links Us to All Who Suffer“:

Mandela might be the revered ‘father of the nation,’ the first democratically elected president of a free South Africa. He might have seen the dawn after the long night of oppression, and he has indeed seen power wrested from the hands of the apartheid oppressor. But with clarity of mind and integrity of heart he knows his people are not yet free from hunger, fear and the indignity of an unfulfilled life.

Boesak puts Mandela’s insistence on human dignity in the line from Albert Luthuli, to Robert Sobukwe, to Stephen Biko, to the Freedom Charter. We could add to this list the acts of the churches; the Call for Prayer against unjust rule, the Kairos document, the Belhar Confession (being considered again as a new confession of the PCUSA), the declaration by the World Alliance (now Communion) of Reformed Churches that apartheid was a matter of status confessionis, a reason to exclude churches that refused to renounce that false theology of exclusion. Boesak concludes his reflection:

Allan Boesak

…Old hatreds do not pass of their own volition. They have to be challenged and overcome by the power of love and the resilience of reconciliation.

The lines of tribe will not dissolve on their own: they have to be overcome by our belief in and work for our common humanity. In turn, that common humanity will only reveal itself in the undoing of injustice and the doing of justice, the embrace of our diversity in dignity and respect and our common concern for the wellbeing of the Earth.

A new era of peace will be not be ushered in on the wings of historical inevitabilities, but through the hard work for the ending of war, aggression, terror and the idolatrous worship of violence as the solution to all our problems. It is work we shall do together, and not give up ‘until justice and peace embrace.’

Pragmatism and Vision

How does this fine example of peaceful change from South Africa relate to the blood being shed today in Syria, or to the economic sanctions that, despite negotiations, are still in place on Iran? [3] At first the lesson of the Arab Awakening was a nonviolent one, but is it now back to violence and torture? Have we – political leaders and citizens alike –moved on from honoring and deifying Mandela after his death back to the perpetual enemy-making of business as usual?


In essence, this is to say that people like Doug Tilton – and the many people of faith who participated in the BDS movement – persevered and were effective.

Let us point again to Stephen Zunes, who argues (with Jack DuVall) that Syria still presents some possibilities for decreasing violence, partly in relation to the chemical weapons agreement and the US suspension of assistance to rebel groups who themselves include terrorist groups. The struggle in Syria, he argues, was not wrong to attempt nonviolence but to have done so before the broader population understood the approach—as they had come to in South Africa during Mandela’s long imprisonment. Now the parties in the proxy war, including the foreign fighters and neighbors like Iran, need to deal with a very grim situation and millions of refugees. Can we imagine overcoming enough of our own hostility against Iran to allow them to the Syria peace talks? [4]

Barghouti NBC
Marwan Barghouti
Photo Credit:

Which takes us to Marwan Barghouti, a leader of the Palestinian Liberation Organization imprisoned 11 years ago, convicted by Israel of being part of the violent Second Intifada. Among the thousands of prisoners held by Israel, he is viewed as the closest analogue to Mandela, a leader whose release would signal an Israeli willingness to allow a genuine Palestinian state. James M. Wall writes of how one of Mandela’s old prison colleagues—and many others—are calling for his release. Wall’s article contains a place where one can express support for Barghouti’s release if one sees that as a wise peace initiative.

Unbound has pointed to the unique situation of the Holy Land a number of times, as the Christian community there is in real danger of extinction, partly due to the support of US Christians for Israeli policies that prevent family unification and citizenship rights. But Barghouti and most Palestinians are not Christians; our General Assembly concerns have always been also for the larger people who have been dispossessed. The temptation in Israel and Palestine – just like the temptation in South Africa – is to trust only people “like us,” whether we consider them the Israelis or the Palestinians; Christian, Jew, or Muslim.

According to Israeli commentator, Chemi Shalev, a blogger for the Haaretz newspaper, Israeli leaders wanted mainly to duck the Mandela observances—the analogy between apartheid and the occupation was seen as too obvious, especially if the current peace talks fail. Shalev believes that “Israel inches closer to ‘tipping point’ of South Africa-style boycott campaign.” [5] Recent decisions by European businesses to end relationships with Israeli companies and banks increase the reality of nonviolent economic pressure.


The temptation in Israel and Palestine – just like the temptation in South Africa – is to trust only people “like us,” whether we consider them the Israelis or the Palestinians; Christian, Jew, or Muslim.

imgres-2This afternoon, the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board approved the Committee on Mission Responsibility Through Investment (MRTI) of the Presbyterian Church (USA)’s announcement that it will recommend that the 221st General Assembly divest from three corporations involved in “non-peaceful pursuits” in Israel/Palestine: Caterpillar, Motorola Solutions, and Hewlett Packard; the recommendation will now go on to the 221st Assembly. A similar overture came before the last General Assembly (2012) and lost by a narrow 2-vote margin. It remains to be seen what will happen this summer, as the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is once again called upon to join the mounting “South Africa-style boycott campaign” of which Shalev speaks. Then, for each commissioner, it will be a question of how best to stand for human dignity and freedom, resisting the temptation to hear truth from and seek justice only for people “like us.”

A new era of peace, as Boesak says, will not come with magical inevitability. It will require remembering the lessons of South Africa and struggles since, striving to mobilize moral pressure to prevent violence from justifying more violence. It means engaging in tried and true strategies even as we seek new directions from the Spirit. It means being both pragmatic and visionary, like Mandela, and perhaps like Barghouti, if he ever gets the chance…


[1] A somewhat similar logic prompted US Presbyterian support for reconciliation in Northern Ireland, with many of “us” sharing both ethnic and religious kinship.
[2] Zunes has a longer academic account of the role on nonviolence in the transformation of S. Africa in the Journal of Modern African Studies.
[3] With regard to the enormous agita around Iran’s possible future possession of even one nuclear weapon, there are at least 17,000 actually existing nuclear weapons which the Non-Proliferation Treaty supposedly commits nuclear states to disarm in a mutually verifiable process.
[4] With regard to Iran, Zunes writes on the groups in Congress, Democratic and Republican, who invite war with Iran regardless of it’s actual behavior – to keep that country weak so that the US’ primary allies can continue to do what they want in the region. Zunes and others warn that a policy of continuous hostility may backfire, first on democratic elements in Iran, and then in all the areas where Iranian agreement would be helpful: with Iraq, with Syria, with Afghanistan, with Russia, and with Palestine, just to name a few.
[5] The article referenced is fire-walled and available only to subscribers.

Header Photo Credit: France Magazine.

For more on Mandela, South Africa, and the PC(USA)’s role through boycott, sanctions, and divestment, check out our interview with mission co-worker Doug Tilton or this article by Eva Stimson.

Previous Story

Putting 'Movement' Back into the Interfaith Movement

Next Story

Brokenness and Blessing in the Bayou: The Real-Life Impact of Climate Change