Conflict & Justice

Why hearing Mandela's Rivonia speech is so powerful. It's not just the words, it's the sounds behind them

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Credit: public domain

Nelson Mandela, as a young man, before he gave his famous Rivonia speech

When Nelson Mandela was on trial for treason in 1964, he made a speech in the courtroom. Instead of testifying in his own defense, Mandela spoke from the dock for more than three hours.

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That speech, which later came to be known as the Rivonia speech, is one of the most famous speeches of the 20th century. In many ways, it’s what made him Nelson Mandela.  

At the very end, Mandela, who was facing a possible death sentence along with seven co-defendants, said, "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 live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die."

It's those last five words that people remember. Yet relatively few people heard the speech when Mandela delivered it in the courtroom in Pretoria, 50 years ago, on April 20, 1964.

It was recorded -- but not for posterity. A court stenographer captured the trial proceedings on a dictaphone, and the recordings were stored in a box in the South Africa’s Department of Justice.

In 1994, the recordings were released to the country's National Archives, the year that Nelson Mandela was elected South Africa's first black president. (He had been released from prison in 1990, after serving 26 years in Robben Island prison.)

However, the recordings didn't become publically available for nearly another decade, because they were on dictabelts -- clear blue plastic loops that could only be played on a dictaphone. At the time, South Africa only had one of those machines left.

"Then the machine broke," says Joe Richman, founder of “Radio Diaries” and the producer of the series, Mandela: An Audio History.

South Africa eventually began working with curators and audio engineers at the British Library, which owned one of the rare dictabelt machines, and they were able to transfer the sound to reel-to-reel tape.

Joe Richman says he first came upon the recordings in 2003-2004, in the basement of the South African Broadcasting Corp. (SABC), when he was gathering archival material for his audio history of Mandela.

"What's interesting about the speech is that everyone knows those five words, 'I am prepared to die.' But there are 10,693 other words in the speech,” Richman says. “It was three-to-four hours long with all of the breaks. You don't just hear the words; you hear the coughs, the shuffles, you hear the dimensions of the room."

Richman says it’s that sound that drew him in so completely.

"I'm a total archive tape geek, and there's nothing I love more than hearing these dusty old recordings. I knew the speech well from the transcripts, but to actually hear it -- not just the words, but the dimensions of the courtroom -- brings you back to that moment."

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