The Big Question: what was the greatest speech? For Gillian Slovo, it came when Nelson Mandela was in the dock in 1964
From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, July/August 2013
It’s always tempting to fast forward to this speech’s dramatic finale: "I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people..." The words, spoken in a hushed Pretoria court room, are painstakingly pronounced, each phrase separated from the next. "I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities." The rustling of a turning page, then the sentence that still sends shivers down my spine: "It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die."
Nelson Mandela’s final phrase is no meaningless throwaway. He and his nine co-accused were standing trial for multiple counts of sabotage. If found guilty, they faced possible execution. And there was no doubt that they’d be found guilty. In his speech, delivered on behalf of himself and his fellow defendants, Mandela did not mince his words. "I do not, however, deny", he said, "that I planned sabotage." One of the accused later told me, "As he offered himself up to die, I thought, hold on a minute: he means us as well!"
With the eyes of the world watching the trial, they were sentenced not to death but to life without the possibility of parole.
Aside from its final lines, this is not an obviously passionate speech. It’s a careful setting out of the lived reality of apartheid, and an explanation of why, after decades of peaceful protest, the ANC took up arms. Time is spent rebutting the charge that he was misled by communists or foreigners. "I have always regarded myself, in the first place, as an African patriot," he says, before admitting an attraction to a classless society alongside a respect for British democracy.
That April day, Mandela did not know that the tide of history would eventually turn, that he would be released, that he would become president of the new South Africa. That’s what makes his 1964 speech so powerful: the Mandela who was prepared to use violence and then to die for freedom was the same Mandela who emerged to lead his country into peace. His convictions were unshakable. The white man, he says, in the run-up to his rousing conclusion, fears democracy. "But this fear cannot be allowed to stand in the way of the only solution which will guarantee racial harmony and freedom for all." This is what he said in 1964, and this is what he proved 30 years later.
Gillian Slovo is a playwright and the author of 12 novels, including "Ice Road". Born in South Africa, she is now president of English PEN
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