Mandela’s ‘Speech from the Dock’ – 50 years on


17 April 2014

The Nelson Mandela Foundation has released a rare photograph of Nelson Mandela to mark the 50th anniversary of his famous Rivonia Trial speech, in which he declared that he was prepared to die for a free South Africa.

On 20 April 1964 – 50 years ago – Mandela, the lawyer, delivered a long and reasoned explanation of his position. Despite his powerful words, the apartheid court went on to find Mandela and his fellow trialists – Walter Sisulu, Ahmed Kathrada, Govan Mbeki, Denis Goldberg, Raymond Mhlaba, Andrew Mlangeni and Elias Motsoaledi – guilty of sabotage and sentenced them to life imprisonment.

The so-called “Speech from the Dock” ended with arguably the most famous and oft-quoted words of all his speeches:

    “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.”

Mandela quoted the same words on 11 February 1990, when he spoke from the balcony of Cape Town’s City Hall within hours of his release from prison.

The photograph by Lionel Shapiro – a university student at the time – shows Mandela and his comrades in a police van being transported to prison. One can see clenched fists of two of the seven prisoners emerging from the bars of the van.

Shapiro contacted the foundation about his “rare photographs” shortly after Mandela’s death in December 2013.

“I was terribly excited and terribly sad. I almost cried when I saw them,” the foundation’s archivist, Lucia Raadschelders, said.

According to the foundation, a recent innovation has allowed them to hear the playback of the actual “dictabelt” audio recording of Mandela’s speech in court. It shows it took Mandela just under three hours (176 minutes) to deliver his prepared speech, and highlights a few variations from what he prepared.

The Nelson Mandela Foundation has a typescript of the speech, which Mandela autographed and gave to a comrade as a gift.

SAinfo reporter