Remembering ‘the day Nelson Mandela became Nelson Mandela’

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.