At the beginning of 1961, the South African Government issued a warrant for Nelson Mandela’s arrest.

 Now a fugitive from justice, he was forced to go underground to continue his activities for the African National Congress (ANC). Perhaps this was just as well since he was undergoing a profound change in his thinking about the policies and activities of the ANC. He was about to attempt to persuade the organization to abandon its fifty-year policy of non-violence, modeled after Gandhi’s success in India, to one of militant resistance against the government. This is well documented in his autobiography Long Walk to Freedom.

           Mandela was a meticulous lawyer, accustomed to keeping records of all his activities on behalf of the ANC. He even kept a diary of his day-to-day professional activities. What was not known was that he also kept a personal diary, in which he recorded and revealed many of his inner thoughts and feelings.

His personal diary only came to light after the death of his son Makgatho in 2005. The diary was found by his grandchildren amongst Makgatho’s personal belongings.

The last entry in his personal diary is dated June 20, 1961, and records his rational and decision for convincing the ANC to abandon its policy of non-violence.

          Some historical background will help the reader understand this entry.

When the ANC was founded in 1912, its leaders believed in two things: the fairness of the British government and the non-violence strategies of Mahatma Gandhi. For the next fifty years, the ANC used letters, personal appeals, manifestoes, strikes and stay-at-home campaigns to try to gain rights and freedoms for Africans. To no avail. In fact, the SA Government increased the laws and regulations governing Africans, to strengthen its policy of Apartheid.

On March 21, 1960, Government police were attempting to remove 150 families from a township called Sharpsville. Africans protested, nonviolently, but the police deliberately opened fire on the civilians. Sixty-nine men, women and children were killed and more that 200 were injured. The incident became known as the Sharpsville Massacre. Mandela has stated in his autobiography that this was the beginning of his conviction that the nonviolence strategy had lost its usefulness.

Similar incidents and the increasing violence of the police and military under the presidency of Hendrik Verwoerd into 1961 convinced Mandela that violence was the only alternative left for the ANC.

In June 1961, Mandela met with the National Executive Committee of the ANC at a secret meeting in Durban. In a marathon meeting and debate, he eventually got permission to form a militant organ, called The Spear of the Nation, to undertake strikes against the government. The following entry in his personal diary, dated June 20, 1961, reveals some of Mandela’s thoughts and fears about the new policy.


June 20, 1961

Yesterday I argued, begged and pleaded with the Executive Committee for a change in direction for the ANC. I am acutely aware of how momentous a decision this is for us…but the government has left us no alternative. I now have permission to form an underground army as an arm of the ANC. At the outset we will strike at the instruments and institutions of the government such as telephone services, railroads, and police stations. We will not target people.

All of this is new to me. I am not a soldier, and I have never fired a gun at anyone. I will have to find and recruit peoples with experience in explosives, guerilla warfare, and logistics. How does one create, arm, and maintain a secret army? Much to learn and to do.

It is essential that we inform the public of this new direction. The brutality and increasing frequency of the government’s attacks on townships and homelands have left the public demoralized and feeling helpless. They must know that they/we will no longer sit idly by and suffer this oppression but will hit back.

I have drafted a letter* which I will release to the newspapers on the 26th. In it, I explain our new direction and entreat the public, Africans, Whites, Indians and Coloreds to join us in this resistance movement.


*The letter was sent to all the leading newspapers in South Africa on June 26, 1961. Copy below.


I am informed that a warrant has been issued for my arrest and that the police are looking for me. The National Action Council has given full and serious consideration to this question…and they have advised me not to surrender myself.  I have accepted this advice and will not give myself up to a Government I do not recognize.  Any serious politician will realize that under present day conditions in the country, to seek for cheap martyrdom by handing myself to the police is naïve and criminal….

          I have chosen this course which is more difficult and which entails more risk and hardship than sitting in gaol. I have had to separate myself from my dear wife and children, from my mother and sisters to live as an outlaw in my own land.  I have had to close my business, to abandon my profession, and live in poverty, as many of my people are doing…I shall fight the Government side by side with you, inch by inch, and mile by mile, until victory is won.

  What are you going to do? Will you come along with us, or are you going to co-operate with the Government in its efforts to suppress the claims and aspirations of your own people? Are you going to remain silent and neutral in a matter of life and death to my people, to our people? For my part I have made my choice. I will not leave South Africa, nor will I surrender. Only through hardship, sacrifice and militant action can freedom be won. The struggle is my life. I will continue fighting for freedom until the end of my days.


Authors Note: Nelson Mandela was arrested, tried and, on June 13, 1964, sentenced to life in prison. He was released twenty-seven years later on February 11, 1990.


Don Conway is an award-winning Architect and Writer (two golds and a silver medal from a national writing competition) also a Loeb Fellow at Harvard University. Says he is working hard on book number four.