Nelson Mandela’s ‘I Am Prepared To Die’ speech fifty years on

April 20, 2014, marks the fiftieth anniversary of Nelson Mandela's speech from the dock at Rivonia. What is the legacy of that trial? What does it mean for South Africans and for all those who struggle today?

Awol Allo
22 April 2014
man holding mandela picture

Robben Island prison guide Kolekile Mhlana. Image: Demotix / Miriam Mannak. All rights reserved

April 20, 2014 marks the fiftieth anniversary of Nelson Mandela’s ‘I am prepared to die’ speech. On this day, fifty years ago, a black man stood in a white man’s court, a court that did not acknowledge or recognise his claims to a life of meaning and purpose, to deliver a robust, uniquely transformative critique of violence and injustice. In this address, Mandela used words and phrases capable of re-inventing the political universe: touchstone phrases that resist what Apartheid affirms; reveal what it hides; and amplify what it silences. No one thought this encounter between a black man and a white man’s court could lay the foundations not only for a radical possibility but also for a new way of life in South Africa.

The government carefully choreographed the trial to generate certain lessons: to discredit and delegitimize the liberation movement and its political ideologies in the eyes of white South Africans and the international community. The prosecution did everything at its disposal to depict the defendants as terrorist-communists, asking for the death penalty. Led by the legendary Afrikaans lawyer, Bram Fischer, however, the accused became accusers, as George Bizos once noted, putting Apartheid itself on trial.

With incredible powers of precision and foresight, Nelson Mandela spelled out the political, legal, and ethical crisis that permitted a racist social order to judge and punish those fighting for a free and democratic society. Standing in a space that embodies this racist power, a hegemonic space that rationalizes, affirms and secures white culture and its value system, Mandela found words to register the grievances and injustices that the hegemonic language of law is incapable of hearing or representing. Using prophetic languages that belong to many ages, Mandela appealed to the voices of reason, to the ‘deepest conscience of humanity,’ giving meaning and purpose to millions of lives deprived of their just place in the world.

In all his three trials – the Treason Trial, the Incitement Trial, and the Rivonia Trial – we find trenchant criticisms of legal domination; reflective criticisms that appeal to the law beyond legality, and to a universal justice beyond Apartheid’s justice. In these trials, we find strategic knowledge of law and the legal discourse crucial for opening up space for critique and resistance. There are touchstone phrases that generate and present compelling stories – stories that transcend time and space and reflect the human condition.

‘I am a black man in a white man’s court’

In his 1962 incitement trial, Mandela told the Apartheid court that he was a ‘black man in a white man’s court.’ Through a meticulous excavation of the contradictions internal to Apartheid’s legal order, Mandela exposed the dirty linen underneath Apartheid’s grandiose façade of legality.

Mandela the lawyer was so articulate that even the judge appointed to secure the system could not resist the appealing power of his speech and did not silence him. Indeed, it was in this trial that the judge was compelled to concede the colour of Apartheid justice: ‘There is only one court today and that is a white man’s court.’

In the courtroom, he is calm, yielding and respectful. Using this space as a political platform, a site of visibility and voice, he poses ethico-legal conundrums that cannot be ignored nor absorbed without exposing the inherent contradictions of the system. He says, ‘Broadly speaking, Africans and whites in this country have no common standard of fairness, morality, and ethics . . . In their relationship with us, South African whites regard it as fair to pursue policies which have outraged the conscience of mankind.”

This appeal to ethics and morality, to reason and conscience, or to the law of laws or the justice to come is a common thread that runs through all his trials. It is a testament to his belief in the transformative power of arguments and stories in struggles for visibility and audibility.

‘I am prepared to die’ – from the dock at Pretoria

The Rivonia Trial is a momentous legal event rightly recognized as ‘the trial that changed South Africa.’ One of the most momentous legal events of the twentieth century, the historical significance of the Rivonia Trial is recognized by UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register. Mandela saw the trial as a transformative opportunity that offered him visibility and a hearing, a space from which to spread stories of such significance and consequence that eventually they would change South Africa.

In a concise account of the political programme of the ANC, a statement that served as a framework of meaning for the defense, Mandela made fundamental constitutional claims that Apartheid can neither absorb nor explain within its logic of representation. It was a distinctive kind of claim that proclaims certain values; a speech act that made a specific demand on the world it speaks about. Presenting himself as the accuser, Mandela stages a discursive affirmation of the acts and motives of the accused. As James Boyd White notes, these were ‘acts of hope’ that reconstituted a new republic and redefined black subjectivity as resistant and defiant.

An appealing paradox runs throughout the Rivonia speech: it is a speech that is at once transgressive and transformative. It is an act of self-definition that at once claims and resists authority. It affirms disobedience and justifies it as a mark of the highest respect for Law. Speaking as a man of the law who belongs to a tradition respectful of law, Mandela defends law-breaking as the necessary condition under which true law can renew its promise of justice and redeem the dignity and humanity of blacks in South Africa.

Such reflections illuminated the structures and analytic categories power deploys to dissimulate the shock of daily violence. They cast a light on the submerged violence of dispossession and exclusion; returning it to an arena of visibility where laws and court processes lose their disguise as neutral and apolitical. Most importantly, they unlocked inaccessible meanings, activated reason, and enabled understanding.

But ‘the black pimpernel’, as Mandela was sometimes referred to, was not the depoliticized saintly figure recent media coverage seems to suggest. He was a freedom fighter; the great liberator who embodies the ‘ideal of a democratic and free society.’ Freedom and democracy are the ideals he hoped to achieve and live by, ‘but if needs be, it [was] an ideal for which [he was] prepared to die.’ This, then, is not an innocent apolitical figure but a revolutionary who demonstrated how non-violence, as a principle for liberation, reaches its limits.


Mandela the lawyer leaves behind an immense legacy to disciples of the cause in Africa. A sharp litigator by training who knew the nuts-and-bolts of legal practice, Mandela turned his trial from a moment of resistance into an appeal to humanity, to address the universal justice that ‘resides in the deepest conscience of humanity.’ It is this appeal to the “unfailing sentiment of justice”, to the conscience of ordinary men and women, which laid the foundation for the worldwide movement that led to the demise of that pernicious regime. Those who live under conditions of oppression and inequality must take Mandela’s ‘living speech’ seriously. In his laws of reflection and the light it reflects, one finds a timeless lesson.

Fifty years on, Rivonia and Liliesleaf Farm, the Johannesburg suburb where the accused were arrested while planning a transition from the old ANC tradition of non-violence to active resistance, is now recognized as a ‘place of liberation’ and houses a state-of-the-art resource centre. As Dennis Goldberg put it, ‘Rivonia, Liliesleaf Farm, is an icon of that struggle for freedom.’ The event of the trial, the performance of resistance and repression by the trial actors, is a cultural artifact that will be commemorated as an event ‘that changed South Africa.’ But fifty years after that momentous event, and twenty years into democracy, South Africa is struggling to realize the ideals that underpinned its long walk to freedom and justice.

Farewell, Madiba!

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