Nelson Mandela's legacy

Mourners gather Friday outside the Johannesburg home of former South African President Nelson Mandela following the announcement of his death. (Dean Hutton / Bloomberg / December 6, 2013)

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — Nelson Mandela, South Africa’s first black president, is a giant in the world of liberation heroes, up there with Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.

But unlike Gandhi, who said that nonviolence and truth were inseparable, and King, who famously declared that violence was immoral, Mandela embraced armed struggle to end the racist system of apartheid.

To many South Africans, particularly within the African National Congress, Mandela was a great man partly because of his willingness to use violence, not in spite of it.

Many believe apartheid would have endured much longer if he hadn’t rebelled and overturned the ANC’s long-standing nonviolence policy.

PHOTOS: Nelson Mandela through the years

As a young man, Mandela’s favorite sport wasn’t a team sport like soccer, with strict limits on contact. Boxing was what thrilled him. As a young politician, his rhetoric was angry, uncompromising and inspiring. His aim was to incite revolt.

In the early 1950s, the ANC and the South African Indian Congress launched a nonviolent operation of strikes and protests called the Defiance Campaign against the unjust laws of apartheid.

By 1953, Mandela had decided that it wasn’t working. He felt that the ANC’s leaders — old-fashioned, traditional figures such as the party’s president, Albert Luthuli — were out of touch with reality.

In September of that year, he made a speech in the Johannesburg suburb of Sophiatown that was to be later famously known as the “No Easy Walk to Freedom” address.

FULL COVERAGE: Anti-apartheid icon Nelson Mandela dies

In the speech, Mandela said the ANC had to come up with new plans for political struggle.

“You can see that there is no easy walk to freedom anywhere, and many of us will have to pass through the valley of the shadow again and again before we reach the mountaintops of our desires.

“Dangers and difficulties have not deterred us in the past. They will not frighten us now. But we must be prepared for them like men in business who do not waste energy in vain talk and idle action.”

In 1956, during a trial at which 156 ANC leaders and activists, including Mandela, were charged with treason, he told the court that he supported nonviolence as a principle — not true at the time; he supported it only as a tactic — because he knew he and others could be convicted if he said otherwise. The trial dragged on until 1961, but Mandela and the others were acquitted.

The Sharpeville massacre in 1960, when South African police killed 69 protesters, was the last straw for Mandela and other proponents of armed struggle.

Mandela carried the day at a series of all-night meetings with ANC leaders in mid-1961 to set up the ANC’s underground military wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe, or Spear of the Nation.

PHOTOS: The world reacts to Nelson Mandela's death

Mandela’s opponents said that if the ANC embarked on violence, the regime would massacre more civilians. Moses Kotane, secretary-general of the South African Communist Party, argued that continued nonviolence could work if activists were more imaginative.

Mandela met with Kotane for a full day to try to change his mind. He argued that South African activists had to consider an armed revolution because angry young men and women outside the ANC were ready to take up arms, and if the ANC did not lead them it would become irrelevant.

Finally Mandela believed he had won Luthuli’s blessing to form Umkhonto we Sizwe and embark on violence. But the timing was terrible. In October, the Norwegian Nobel Committee announced that it was bestowing the previous year’s unawarded Peace Prize on Luthuli, an enormous symbolic victory for the ANC. Luthuli backtracked and again espoused nonviolent methods of resistance against apartheid.