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Nelson Mandela’s ‘I am prepared to die’ speech fifty years on


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.

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