Johannesburg - Fifty years ago, Nelson Mandela stood up in the Palace of Justice in Pretoria and told the world he was prepared to die for his dream of a democratic, non-racial South Africa.
Sunday marks the anniversary of the “Speech from the Dock” at the Rivonia trial. As the country prepares to celebrate the 20th year of democracy, those involved with the trial look back on the iconic speech and the effect it had on the nation.
It was April 20, 1964 when Bram Fischer surprised the court by announcing that Mandela, the first of 11 accused, would read from the defendant’s dock, rather than take the witness stand and face cross-examination.
In a nearly three-hour-long testimony, he told of the transition of the ANC from non-violent resistance to acts of sabotage, not to commit murder, but as a means necessary to stop state oppression of the African people.
During this speech, Mandela delivered his famous passage which ended with the words “I am prepared to die.”
Ron Anderson, who covered the trial for The Star, received a copy of the speech shortly before it was given. On his way to deliver it to the newsroom of The Pretoria News, The Star’s sister paper, Anderson said he already knew he had witnessed an important moment for South Africa. “I remember walking across Church Square, holding the speech, and I said to myself: ‘I’m holding a bit of history’,” he said. “This is truly a momentous speech.”
At the time, Mandela’s words spread throughout South Africa. The full text of the speech appeared in the Rand Daily Mail. Children hid it in the covers of their school books as it became the guiding force for young people struggling against apartheid laws, said George Bizos SC, a lawyer for the accused and a friend of Mandela.
Speaking from the dock is a tactic that can no longer be used. Bizos recalled others charged with political crimes wanting to use the same tactics as Mandela to clear their names. The practice was eventually outlawed by the apartheid government.
During the trial, the accused’s counsel decided that Mandela should speak from the dock so he could testify uninterrupted and inform the world of the ANC’s legitimate demands for a fair and equal government.
His speech was still relevant today, Bizos said. As illegitimate regimes arose in various countries, freedom fighters could remember Mandela’s words when he said it was the government, not the accused, who should be on trial.
“The speech was published around the world,” Bizos said. “It had a tremendous effect and it was a guide to all freedom-loving people, not only in South Africa, but elsewhere.”
The Nelson Mandela Foundation has released a rare photo of Mandela leaving the trial inside a police van on the day he was sentenced to life in prison. It was taken on June 2, 1964 by a university student who came forward with the photo shortly after Mandela’s death.
The Liliesleaf Farm, where many ANC leaders were arrested before the Rivonia Trial, is holding a celebration on Sunday.
The event is hosted by Liliesleaf Trust founder Nicholas Wolpe, son of Harold Wolpe, a co-accused in the trial who escaped from prison in 1963. Andrew Mlangeni, another accused of the Rivonia trial and inmate of Robben Island, will speak at the event.
“Mandela threw a challenge to the apartheid state, saying we dare you to hang us for what we believe in,” Wolpe said.