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Nelson Mandela

I Am Prepared to Die

Nonfiction | Essay / Speech | Adult | Published in 1964

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Summary: “I Am Prepared to Die”

“I Am Prepared to Die” is the title given to Nelson Mandela’s 1964 defendant statement against the South African Government. The trial took place at the Palace of Justice, in the country’s capital, Pretoria, from October 9, 1963, to June 12, 1964. Mandela and other members of the African National Congress (ANC) were found guilty of sabotage against the apartheid government and received life sentences.

After the trial, Mandela would spend 27 years in prison. Most of this time was spent on the infamous Robben Island, a prison island off the coast of Cape Town, known for its brutal treatment of political prisoners and activists who spoke out against apartheid. Therefore, many thought that this would be his final address.

Apartheid refers to the historical period between 1948 and 1994, during which the South African government (The National Party) inflicted harsh, race-based separation laws that were enforced by a police state. Under these laws, Black Africans were denied most of their basic rights, including the right to vote, and had to do hard labor for the country’s white minority simply to live in poverty. The end of Apartheid, in 1994, coincides with the country’s first democratic election, in which Nelson Mandela was elected president.

In this statement, Mandela explains his reasons for resorting to sabotage against the apartheid government. At the same time, Mandela uses the speech to address many misconceptions surrounding the anti-apartheid movement and the role of violence in liberation. He specifically addresses the false narratives and fearmongering that the National Party used against him and other freedom fighters, weaponizing their struggle to frighten and misinform the public.

From the outset, Mandela strongly denies the government’s claim that he and his fellow activists have been influenced by international communist forces. Mandela clarifies that he fights for the African people simply because he is African. His pride in his African heritage is what compels him to fight for freedom. He also makes it a point to admit, early on, that he played a major role in the formation of Umkhonto we Sizwe, commonly referred to as the military wing of the ANC.

Mandela argues that Umkhonto had to be created for two reasons. Firstly, because despite the ANC’s long history of non-violent negotiation, “violence by the African people had become inevitable” (9). Umkhonto feared that if violence was not organized and controlled, it would result in terrorism and even more pain in Black communities. Secondly, it became evident that, without violence, the ANC would not “succeed in their struggle against the principle of white supremacy” (9).

Mandela cites the history of the ANC as proof that a strict commitment to nonviolence would not have achieved its aims. Founded in 1912, the ANC consistently fought for the rights of Black people in South Africa, but decade after decade, no ground had been won, and their rights and agency had severely diminished. Mandela notes the many attempts at peaceful protest that always resulted in state violence. For example, the ANC’s defiance campaign in 1949 resulted in 8500 people being jailed, even though a judge later ruled that the protest was non-violent.

In 1956, 156 leading members of the ANC were charged under the Suppression of Communism Act. This is another example of the government attempting to scare the public, accusing the ANC of attempting to replace the government with a communist one. Once again, a judge ruled the charges unfounded.

Mandela also mentions Sharpeville, a massacre that occurred in 1960, when the police killed 69 unarmed protesters. Also in 1960, a “stay-at-home” protest led to police entering Black communities with armored vehicles. These examples illustrate the police’s instigation of violence against Black activists.

Ultimately predicting an impending civil war, Umkhonto was responsible for deciding on the most strategic form of violence that would prevent further harm for being inflicted on Africans. They ultimately decided on attacking buildings rather than people. By sabotaging key infrastructure, such as railways, harbors, communications lines, and power plants, they would be able to cause economic disruption, demotivating international investment and relations. They targeted sites of political power, such as government buildings, because their fight was against the government, but they did not intend to injure or kill any person.

The first instances of sabotage occurred in 1961 in the major cities of Johannesburg, Port Elizabeth, and Durban. However, not even these actions influenced the government, who told civilians to ignore the ANC’s demands. The government resorted to making sabotage a crime punishable by death, further asserting their own violence.

In 1962, Mandela fled the country to seek international support. In this section, he details the relationships he had established with the leaders of African countries such as Tanganyika (now Tanzania), Ethiopia, Sudan, Tunisia, Algeria, Mali, Senegal, Guinea, Liberia, and Uganda. These countries offered financial support and military training to members of Umkhonto. Since sabotage was being outlawed by the threat of death, the reasoning was that the next step would be guerilla warfare.

At this point in his defense, Mandela clarifies his political stance and relations. He clarifies that the ANC should be seen as a separate entity from Umkhonto. Many of the ANC’s top members, Mandela notes, wanted no involvement with the military operation and should not be held responsible for it.

Furthermore, he repeats that, despite communist support, the ANC is not a communist party, and he is not a communist. The ANC represents a Parliament of the African people, meaning it finds its strength in accommodating many diverse African perspectives. Therefore, it would not subscribe to the singular view of communism as the party’s ideology.

Defining his own ideology, Mandela emphasizes his African heritage, saying that he is inspired by the classless ideals of his own village upbringing where the main means of production (the tribe’s land) was owned and used by everyone. He states that a degree of socialism would be useful for Africans to catch up, economically, after a history of oppression.

At the same time, Mandela stresses that he draws a lot of inspiration from the politics of the West. Mandela is fighting for democracy and for the right for Africans to vote, and he praises the democracies in the West and their judicial systems and foundations. Ultimately, Mandela reasons that “I must leave myself free to borrow the best from the West and from the East” (77). Having clarified the false narratives surrounding his political persuasion, communist influence, and involvement in terrorism, Mandela spends the final portion of his speech emphasizing the racial inequalities that are rife under apartheid.

Mandela says that, although South Africa is one of the world’s richest countries, “it is a land of extremes and remarkable contrasts” (86). The majority of Africans were impoverished and malnourished, while also forced to engage in strenuous manual labor. This strain led to severe illnesses, killing many Africans, with the highest infant mortality rate in the world and 40 people dying every day from tuberculosis alone.

Apartheid laws and policies, Mandela says, prevent Africans from changing their conditions. For example, despite their enforced poverty, Black South Africans are expected to pay much more for education than their white counterparts. Even at this higher cost, Black South Africans are given fewer resources and a lower quality education. This makes formal education highly inaccessible, whereas white South Africans enjoy educational advantages that solidify their place at the top of the social hierarchy.

Pass Laws (laws requiring all Black South Africans to always carry identification on their person), ensure a constant state of surveillance, meaning that Black South Africans live in a police state. Many were arrested under these laws, breaking their families apart. Africans lived in fear and were often victims of police harassment and violence.

After highlighting the violence and inequalities of the apartheid government, Mandela asserts the ANC’s philosophy of racial harmony. He highlights that the ANC is not seeking revenge or Black domination. Rather, they want all of the violence to end. He says, “I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities” (103). At the end of the speech, he asserts that this is a principle for which he is “prepared to die” (103).