I’m pretty sure I remember seeing this speech live, as the great man delivered it, in Cape Town on 11 February 1990. But if I’m honest I reckon I just really want to have seen it as it happened. On 20 April 1964, when Nelson Mandela was imprisoned, he delivered a long speech from the dock in Johannesburg. It is a defence of his motives and an evisceration of the regime he and his fellow countrymen lived under: A regime that would take his freedom for over quarter of a century. In that peroration he promotes the cause of democracy and warns against both white and black domination, saying it “is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”
He uses the same words to finish the speech he delivered on his release. Of course it helps, if that’s the right word, that you have been imprisoned for years, achieved legendary status and had plenty of time to plan what you are going to say on your release. But it’s a very assertive way to finish a speech. Essentially it’s a warning to whites that they need to keep on moving forward or they might just have to deal with him all over again, and to blacks that they need to keep the head on their path to freedom or he will hold them accountable. The Truth and Reconcilliation Committee have a lot to thank this speech for.
And if the peroration is powerful there is, contained in the main body of the text, quite a bit of belligerence. (Of course it’s all delivered in that now distinctive, lyrical, slightly amused drawl. This helps immensely.) “It must be added that Mr de Klerk is himself a man of integrity, who is acutely aware of the dangers of a public figure not honouring his undertakings.”, “Our struggle has reached a decisive moment. We call on our people to seize this moment.” “We have waited too long for our freedom! We can no longer wait. Now is the time to intensify the struggle on all fronts.” (My italics.) There are resonances of Dr Martin Luther King here. This is no patsy; this is not a man who will concede a backward step; this is someone they can put right back into prison if there is any back-sliding.
How do you get away with this fiery rhetoric? Lots of reasons, and of course many of them are not specifically to do with this short address. But it is how he starts that allows him the latitude for what comes next, and draws much of the sting out of the more confrontational, the less compromising, phrases. “Friends, Comrades and fellow South Africans. I greet you all in the name of peace, democracy and freedom for all. I stand here before you not as a prophet but as a humble servant of you, the people. Your tireless and heroic sacrifices have made it possible for me to be here today. I therefore place the remaining years of my life in your hands…”
Typing those lines now, as I look at them in my old, dog-eared copy of the Penguin Book of 20th century speeches, brings tears to my eyes. At the end of this passage on my heavily annotated copy are written in biro the words, “what a man”. I do not know whether I wrote those words while looking through this terrific book on the best oratory from the last century. Maybe I did, or perhaps it was noted by me as I listened to the critique of a delegate on a Master Class who chose these remarks as a study, but “what a man” just about sums it up.
Too often the big speech has too much of the first person about it; too much grandstanding and posturing; too many big, empty words. This one doesn’t.
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