CAMBRIDGE, MASS. — CREDIT for the release of South African anti-apartheid leader Nelson Mandela should go to the South African majority who protested nonviolently for so long, Patrick Lekota says. ``It is the masses who were willing to go to jail and be shot, not [South African President Frederik] de Klerk, that the world should be patting on the shoulder,'' says Mr. Lekota, general-secretary of the United Democratic Front and former prison colleague of Mr. Mandela.
His audience needed no convincing. The 160 academic, defense, church, and foundation leaders gathered at a Cambridge hotel were attending a weekend conference on nonviolent sanctions in conflict and defense sponsored by the Albert Einstein Institution.
News of Mandela's release triggered cheers and a standing ovation here. Most saw the government's decision as the latest in a string of at least partial victories for a mode of protest often dismissed as weak or utopian.
Those present basked in the communal glow of a renewed conviction that nonviolent struggle is not just the peculiar choice of a Mahatma Gandhi or a Martin Luther King but an effective and growing form of popular protest.
The evidence ranges from the dramatic political changes in Eastern Europe to the effect the Chinese student demonstrations had in staving off for a time the march of armed forces into Beijing. The two-year-old Palestinian intifadah in the Israeli-occupied territories - which consists of many more nonviolent forms of protest than stone-throwing - and the recent turn of events in South Africa point to a growing respect for the use of ``people power.''
In Eastern Europe in 1989 the people ``decided to dissolve the government and elect another,'' says Johan Jorgen Holst, director of the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs. ``The power of the revolution did not grow out of the barrels of the guns, but from the spontaneous determination of the citizens.''
Gene Sharp, director of the Program on Nonviolent Sanctions at Harvard University's Center for International Affairs, savored the special moment: ``The situation could still be reversed, but it looks as if we are about to turn a major corner in our history ... The genie is out of the bottle.''
Nonviolence as effective weapon
Mr. Sharp, who is president of the Einstein Institution, has written several books on the effectiveness of nonviolent struggle. He contends the results are potentially far greater than those from so-called armed struggle. He considers nonviolence, a word he deplores as implying the ``absence'' of something, a form of armed struggle in which the weapons are psychological, economic, and social. These deserve to be chosen not for altruistic or religious reasons, he says, but because they are pragmatic and get results.
Though not without risk, nonviolent sanctions require a willingness to be stubborn in the face of unreasonable demands, Sharp says. Their strength lies in the realization that the source of any oppressor's political power is in the cooperation and obedience of the people. Tyrants and kings, he says, ``were not born with secret police forces by their bedsides.''
Sharp says nonviolent strategy includes thousands possibilities from rent boycotts to work slowdowns and must be carefully tailored to circumstances.
China's peaceful demonstration
Activist leaders at the conference stressed that the decision to choose a nonviolent form of struggle is seldom made easily or finally. Li Lu, a Columbia University student on China's list of most wanted criminals for his role in the Beijing protests, said one of the most critical moments of reassessment occurred at the endwhen the armed forces were closing in on the few thousand students left in Tiananmen Square.
The students had access to guns. One of the hunger strikers, who said that all students would likely die if one shot were fired, stressed that the students were the future of China and must not be sacrificed. In the ensuing moments, Mr. Li and others picked up the guns. ``It was a totally peaceful demonstration to the end,'' he recalls. ``People say it's because students did not use violence that they didn't succeed. I don't agree. ... The movement became a real people's movement.''
Mr. Lekota, whose anti-apartheid UDF is committed to nonviolence, says he often has been tempted to shift to armed tactics. ``Nonviolent forms of action require a tremendous amount of discipline and training.''
Mubarak Awad, founder of the Center for the Study of Non-Violence in Jerusalem and deported by Israel in 1988 on charges of helping foment the intifadah, admits it has been difficult for Palestinians to accept the concept of nonviolence. He would prefer to see greater use of a symbol such as the illegal Palestinian flag rather than the stones which began as a symbol but are sometimes now used ``as guns.''
However, he says the largely nonviolent nature of the movement, including the less publicized boycotts of food and taxes, has been key in the Palestine Liberation Organization decision to seek a two-state solution in the Middle East. The effect of nonviolence, he says, has been to strengthen the Palestinians' sense of identity. In the process they tend to see themselves and their opponents more clearly as genuine human beings, he says.