Remembering ‘the day Nelson Mandela became Nelson Mandela’

A picture taken on February 11, 1990 shows Nelson Mandela (C) and his then-wife Winnie raising their fists and saluting cheering crowd upon Mandela's release from the Victor Verster prison near Paarl. Rolihlahla Dalibhunga Mandela, affectionately known by his clan name 'Madiba', became commander-in-chief of Umkhonto weSizwe (Spear of the Nation), the armed underground wing of the African National Congress, in 1961, and the following year underwent military training in Algeria and Ethiopia. After more than a year underground, Mandela was captured by police and sentenced in 1964 to life in prison during the Rivonia trial, where he delivered a speech that was to become the manifesto of the anti-apartheid movement. Mandela started his prison years in the notorious Robben Island Prison, a maximum security prison on a small island 7Km off the coast near Cape Town. In April 1984 he was transferred to Pollsmoor Prison in Cape Town and in December 1988 he was moved the Victor Verster Prison near Paarl. While in prison, Mandela flatly rejected offers made by his jailers for remission of sentence in exchange for accepting the bantustan policy by recognising the independence of the Transkei and agreeing to settle there. Again in the 'eighties Mandela rejected an offer of release on condition that he renounce violence. Prisoners cannot enter into contracts. Only free men can negotiate, he said, according to ANC reports. AFP PHOTO FILES / ALEXANDER JOE (Photo credit should read ALEXANDER JOE/AFP/Getty Images)

Credit: Alexander Joe/AFP/Getty Images

Sunday marks the 50th anniversary of Nelson Mandela’s statement to the South African Supreme Court at his trial on charges of sabotage. Like other famous speeches it now has a shorthand reference — it’s the “an ideal for which I am prepared to die” speech.

In it Mandela spelled out why he and others had turned to sabotage after years of failed efforts to win change. The effect of his widely publicized response to charges of  conspiring to “foment violent revolution” was so momentous that one historian calls it “The day Nelson Mandela became Nelson Mandela.”

During my lifetime I have dedicated my life to this struggle of the African people. 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 will live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal for which I hope to live for and to see realised. But, My Lord, if it needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.

The outcome of the trial is well known. Mandela his seven co-defendants –Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki, Raymond Mhlaba, Elias Motsoaledi, Ahmed Kathrada and Denis Goldberg — were sentenced to life imprisonment. The speech was Mandela’s last public statement for 27 years.

Listen to a documentary on the speech in the light of the anniversary and Mandela’s death from WNYC’s Radio Diaries.