Remembering Nelson Mandela's Pivotal Moment

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Nelson Mandela speaks in an undated photo. i

Nelson Mandela, seen in an undated photo, was sentenced in 1964 to life in prison for treason. He was released in 1990, after serving 27 years. Courtesy Mayibuye/Robben Island hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy Mayibuye/Robben Island
Nelson Mandela speaks in an undated photo.

Nelson Mandela, seen in an undated photo, was sentenced in 1964 to life in prison for treason. He was released in 1990, after serving 27 years.

Courtesy Mayibuye/Robben Island

From 'Radio Diaries'

South Africa Today

When apartheid ended 14 years ago, South Africa's emergent democracy was hailed as a miracle. However, today the country is confronting some harsh realities, including a bitter leadership battle and a growing divide between haves and have-nots.

Nelson Mandela turned 90 years old Friday. The Nobel Peace Prize laureate and former South African president spent the day quietly, surrounded by family and friends, in his home village of Qunu in the Eastern Cape region.

Over the course of his lifetime Mandela was a lawyer, freedom fighter, leader of the African National Congress and finally president.

Mandela's speech during his 1963-64 treason trial marked a pivotal moment when he became a worldwide symbol of the struggle for freedom and democracy.

"We began to feel that the time had come to actually challenge the power such as the government of South Africa with all its army and police force and jails," Mandela recalls.

Amid increasing demonstrations against the South African government, a state of emergency and the arrest of hundreds of opposition leaders, Mandela soon found himself in a leadership role.

Accepting The Challenge

"It was felt that somebody should go underground and lead the movement. I accepted the challenge," he said in an interview in 1990.

In calling for armed struggle, Mandela said he "believed the government had left us with no other alternative." The government branded the anti-apartheid movement terrorists and declared the breakdown of law and order intolerable.

Mandela and other members of the African National Congress were put on trial for treason. The defendants decided to use the trial to make a case that the government, not they, should be facing charges.

'I Am Prepared To Die'

On April 20, 1964, Mandela stood in a packed courtroom and gave the speech that co-defendant Denis Goldberg called "a moment of history."

"I have cherished the idea of a democratic and free society in which all persons will live together in harmony and with equal opportunity," Mandela said. "It is an ideal for which I hope to live for. But, my Lord, if it needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die."

Mandela was sentenced to life in prison. He was released from prison in 1990, after serving 27 years. He served as South Africa's president from 1994 to 1999.

This story was produced by Joe Richman of Radio Diaries, with help from Ben Shapiro and Deborah George. It was adapted from the radio documentary Mandela: An Audio History.

Mandela: An Audio History

Photo courtesy Mayibuye/Robben Island

In April 1994, the world watched as millions of South Africans, most of them jubilant but many wary, cast their ballots in that nation's first multiracial election. The outcome: Nelson Mandela became president of a new South Africa.

Mandela's journey from freedom fighter to president capped a dramatic half-century-long struggle against white rule and the institution of apartheid. This five-part series, originally produced in 2004, marked the 10th anniversary of South Africa's first free election.

Produced for NPR by Joe Richman of Radio Diaries and Sue Johnson, Mandela: An Audio History tells the story of the struggle against apartheid through rare sound recordings of Mandela himself, as well as those who fought with and against him.

In This Series:

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Part 1: The Birth of Apartheid (1944-1960)

In the 1940s, Nelson Mandela was one of thousands of blacks who flocked to Johannesburg in search of work. At that time, a new political party came into power promoting a new idea: the separation of whites and blacks. Apartheid was born and along with it, a half-century-long struggle to achieve democracy in South Africa. (Transcript)

Part 2: The Underground Movement (1960-1964)

In 1960, with the African National Congress banned, resistance to apartheid went underground. Faced with an intensified government crackdown, Mandela launched Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) — a military wing of the ANC — and the armed struggle began. Two years later, Mandela was arrested and sentenced for high treason. He and eight others were sentenced to life in prison. (Transcript)

Part 3: Robben Island (1964-1976)

As Mandela and other political leaders languished in prison, the government crackdown appeared to have crushed the resistance movement. But on June 16, 1976, a student uprising in Soweto sparked a new generation of activism. (Transcript)

Part 4: State of Emergency (1976-1990)

Guerilla soldiers on the border, unrest in the townships, striking workers and a wave of international attention were making South Africa's system of apartheid untenable. Something had to give — and it did on Feb. 2, 1990, when South African President F.W. de Klerk announced he would lift a 30-year ban on the ANC and free Mandela after 27 years in prison. (Transcript)

Part 5: Democracy (1990-1994)

On April 27, 1994, Nelson Mandela was elected South Africa's first black president. But that triumph didn't come easily. The four years between Mandela's release and the transition to democracy were some of the most volatile and painful in the country's history. (Transcript)

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