Nelson Mandela’s recent illness got me thinking about the apartheid years in South Africa. Amnesty International didn’t recognise him as a prisoner of conscience because they only support those who have neither used nor advocated the use of force. From what I have been told, the ANC did initially target government installations, but not people like the IRA did, or more recently, the attacks on the Twin Towers. However their actions went against one of Amnesty's basic tenets because violence as a weapon is wrong, whether against physical objects or individuals.
This precept then leads to the question: should a hero be someone who has always rejected aggression? I don’t condone violence but have lived in the safety of the UK for most of my life. How do any of us know what kind of people we would be if we had been brought up in the brutality of South Africa’s apartheid regime? It would test even the most decent of people. Mandela said, "At the beginning of June 1961, after a long and anxious assessment of the South African situation, I, and some colleagues, came to the conclusion that as violence in this country was inevitable, it would be unrealistic and wrong for African leaders to continue preaching peace and non-violence at a time when the government met our peaceful demands with force.”
Which brings me to Steve Biko who was also a political activist, killed in 1977 by the police, even though he used non-violent means to spread his message. It was he who coined the term, “Black is beautiful.” He was also one of the first leaders to tell blacks to start thinking of themselves as humans not slaves. Trained as a doctor, at the time of his death he had a wife and three children for which he left a letter that stated in one part: “I've devoted my life to see equality for blacks, and at the same time, I've denied the needs of my family. Please understand that I take these actions, not out of selfishness or arrogance, but to preserve a South Africa worth living in for blacks and whites.” Twenty-eight years separated the birth of Biko (1946) and Mandela (1918). In the 1960s, when Biko was a young adult and Mandela was imprisoned on Robben Island, more blacks in Africa were given an education to meet the start of the country's white brain drain. I don’t know the individual characteristics of either man but I can’t help feeling that the better educated and enlightened black African made it easier for Biko to act peacefully.
As for the civil war in Sri Lanka, while I was researching my novel I came across Rajini Thirinagama, a doctor who was initially sucked into working for, then taking a lead role with the Tamil Tigers. She later denounced armed struggle and the LTTE after realising they were terrorists like the government; but she paid for it with her life when she was shot dead on the way home in 1989, aged 35 and a mother of two young girls. Like Biko she died while fighting for the rights and freedom of others.
It takes strength not to retaliate with violence against people who are savage towards you, so it would be easy to choose Biko over Mandela and Thirinagama as a hero. However, Thirinagama renounced bloodshed and should be recognised for her courage in publishing a book about violence in Jaffna, The Broken Palmyra, knowing that it would inevitably lead to her death. Similarly, under Mandela, the world has seen the power of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which when used correctly can bring about change for the better. Each of the three protagonists played a part in their country’s move towards justice and apart from Mandela’s global fame, it is hard to say that any one was or is more heroic than the other.