Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Nelson Mandela's Epitaph, in His

My Lord, I am the First Accused." Those were Nelson Mandela's opening words as he stood in the dock in the Palace of Justice in Pretoria, South Africa, on the morning of April 20, 1964—nearly half a century before his death December 5 at the age of 95. Mandela and eight other defendants had been charged with violating the Sabotage Act and the Suppression of Communism Act, accused of plotting violence against the apartheid government with the aim of overthrowing it. By fomenting "chaos, turmoil, and disorder," the prosecutor explained, the accused hoped to achieve "liberation from the so-called yoke of the white man's domination." Mandela, who was already serving a five-year sentence for organizing a strike and leaving the country without a passport, assumed that they would be sent to the gallows.
With the verdict all but certain, Mandela and his codefendants decided to turn their trial into an indictment of the apartheid state. When he had been asked for his plea, Mandela replied, "The government should be in the dock, not me. I plead not guilty." Yet the lengthy statement he prepared to open his defense was not an attempt to prove his innocence—in fact, he readily admitted to many of the charges made against him. He instead took the opportunity to forcefully promote his cause. But he also knew that he was offering a doomed man's final words, in essence, a self-written epitaph.
Mandela took two weeks to write the speech. A white lawyer who reviewed a draft exclaimed, "If Mandela reads this in court they will take him straight out to the back of the courthouse and string him up." Mandela's own lawyer urged him to cut out the final paragraph, but Mandela held firm. "I felt we were likely to hang no matter what we said, so we might as well say what we truly believed," Mandela recalled in his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom. The final lines of Mandela's 60-page, 176-minute statement have since become its most famous:

During my lifetime I have dedicated my life to this struggle of the African people. 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 will live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal for which I hope to live for and to see realized. But, My Lord, if it needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.

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