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

Player utilities

Listen to the story.

Aaron Schachter: I'm Aaron Schachter in for Marco Werman and this is The World, a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI and WGBH in Boston. When Nelson Mandela was on trial for treason in 1964, he gave a speech in the courtroom. It's the one where Mandela said he was prepared to die for the ideal of a democratic South Africa. That was 50 years ago this Sunday. It's one of the most famous speeches of the 20th century, though not that many people heard it at the time. It was recorded but not for posterity. Joe Richman, is producer of the series "Mandela: An Audio History" and he told me the story of how Mandela's speech in that courtroom was preserved. Joe Richman: It was recorded on dictabelt, which was used not to preserve history but just for court transcripts at the time. It was kept a box in the South African Department of Justice for 30 years and by law that had to be turned over after 30 years and it just so happened that 30 years was 1994, the year that Mandela was elected and the transition happened. So this box went to the national archive and then some people who really cared about it managed to find these dictabelt recordings. The trick then of course was how do you play them? There was one dictabelt machine left in South Africa at the time and they managed to figure out that this was Mandela's speech and then the machine broke quickly. So they had to figure out how to actually transfer and digitize these recordings. They ended up working with a British library which had one of the few machines left in the world and it was quite a technical feat just to make something that people could actually hear. Schachter: You keep throwing around this word "dictabelt," as if anyone knows what that is. Richman: Oh, you're not familiar with a dictabelt recording? Schachter: No, never had one of those at home. Explain what the tapes look like. Richman: They're blue, these plastic belts that then could be flattened to play. It was made by the dictaphone company and it was used in the '40's, '50's, in offices, just for taking notes. Many trials at the time were recorded on these things but they were never meant to actually preserve history. Schachter: When did you hear about these particular tapes? Richman: I was living in South Africa in 2003-2004, working on the series "Mandela: An Audio History," and for that series we gathered an insane amount of archival materials. So we were combing every archive there was, especially in the SABC, the South African Broadcasting Corporation's archive basement and that's where I first came across the actual speech. It had been digitized a few years earlier but I had never heard it. What's interesting about this speech is everyone knows those last five words: "I am prepared to die." But there are 10,693 other words in this speech. It was three hours long, four hours long with all the breaks. You don't just hear Mandela's words. You hear the coughs and the dimensions of the place and it brings you back to that moment. Schachter: Let's play a little bit of a tape from earlier in the speech. [Recording of Nelson Mandela] Schachter: Joe, this is something of an odd statement to be making in a courtroom where Mandela is fighting for his life. What are we listening to there? Richman: Exactly. He's starting off with his bio. It was a very risky thing. People thought that what he should do is stand up and make his defense. He purposefully decided not to make any defense but to make this speech from the dock. Even his comrades, the 7 other co-defendants at the time, they were arguing that at least if he's going to do this, he shouldn't use those last five words that he did, "I am prepared to die." But Mandela, as "Accused #1" as he was known, was representing all of them and he was the one that stood up and in many ways this speech was what made him Nelson Mandela. [Recording of Nelson Mandela] Richman: I knew this speech well from the transcript but to actually hear it, as I said, not just hear the words but to hear the dimensions of the courtroom and the coughs and the shuffle and the sounds that bring you back to that moment, it's just amazing. He sounds totally different, I don't know about to you, but it's just not only is his voice different but his demeanor is different. In this speech in the dock, he's making this statement to the world. Schachter: Joe, this is not the kind of thing you admit to an archive tape geek such as yourself, but I actually find the speech more powerful reading it than listening to him speak because it's kind of slow, methodical. As you say, it took three hours to put across and as I read it, it's just a bit more powerful. Richman: I think that's really interesting because I know exactly what you're saying. The thing that people don't always talk about with Mandela is that he actually wasn't a great speaker. He was an incredibly charismatic man but not a charismatic speaker. I think, for me, what's so powerful about this speech is partly the words in the speech but it's more the scene. As a radio producer, that's what I get out of this audio. I'm brought back there and I'm picturing it and I'm picturing the courtroom and him standing there in this moment when they really seriously thought that they were going to face the death sentence. Him standing up there and holding court, literally, for more than three hours, I feel so lucky that we can go back and hear it. Schachter: Joe Richman is the founder of Radio Diaries. We have a link to his podcast, "Mandela: An Audio History," at PRI.org.