MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

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

Over his lifetime, Mandela was a lawyer, freedom fighter, leader of the African National Congress, and finally president. Today, producer Joe Richmond of Radio Diaries takes us back to the events leading up to Nelson Mandela's 1963 trial for treason, and the pivotal moment when he became a worldwide symbol of the struggle for freedom and democracy.

(Soundbite of song)

Unidentified Group: (Singing) We come from far away places to the golden city. We bless our parents miles and miles away.

President NELSON MANDELA (South Africa): My name is Nelson Mandela. I remember when I arrived in Johannesburg. The fear of the power of the white men inhibited us a great deal. And the government was becoming very tough...

(Soundbite of applause)

Prime Minister D.F. MALAN (South Africa) I consider apartheid - that's the separation policy - to be South Africa's last chance to remain a white man's country.

(Soundbite of applause)

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

(Soundbite of siren)

(Soundbite of news broadcast)

Unidentified Man #1: The governor general has proclaimed a state of emergency in about 80...

(Soundbite of news broadcast)

Mr. WALTER CRONKITE: It was Monday, March 21st, 1960. Several hundred natives gathered peaceably to protest the Pass Laws. Police mounted on tanks opened fire. Sixty-nine natives were killed. Some of the dead were children, women and elderly men.

(Soundbite of news broadcast)

Unidentified Man #2: The demonstrations against the government by Africans continue on an increasing scale, despite the decree of a state of emergency, and the arrest of hundreds of leaders of the opposition. The outside world watches and shares the anxiety of a troubled land.

(Soundbite of music)

President MANDELA: It was felt that somebody should go underground and lead the movement. I accepted the challenge.

Mr. AHMED KATHRADA (Political Activist): My name is Ahmed Kathrada. I was a political activist with Mandela. The circumstances of that period demanded a special type of person. It demanded a person like Mandela, and he carried on his work underground. But one of the things he had is a beard, so it was well-known in fliers, on photographs, this man with his beard. It was a very nice little beard. And when he went underground, we thought the first thing he had to do is to shave off his beard. He wouldn't. He just refused. The only disguise he agreed to, he'd put on a cap and he'd wear overalls because now and then he acted as a chauffeur.

(Soundbite of news broadcast)

Unidentified Man #3: I went to see a 42-year-old African lawyer, Nelson Mandela, the most dynamic leader in South Africa today. The police were hunting for him at that time, but African nationalists had arranged for me to meet him at his hideout. This is Mandela's first television interview. I asked him what it was that the African really wanted.

President MANDELA: The Africans require the franchise on the basis of one man, one vote. They want political independence.

Unidentified Man #3: Now, if Dr. Verwoerd's government doesn't give you the kind of concessions that you want sometime soon, is there any likelihood of violence?

President MANDELA: There are many people who feel that it is useless and futile for us to continue talking peace and non-violence against the government whose reply is only savage attacks on an unarmed and defenseless people. And I think the time has come for...

I had made a statement where I called for armed struggle. Naturally, there was a great deal of resistance, but I believed that the government had left us with no other alternative.

(Soundbite of news broadcast)

Unidentified Man #4: At the end of 1961, the bombing campaign started. Its targets: power supplies, post offices, telephone booths and pass offices - objects, not people. The aim was to shock the government into negotiating.

Mr. KATHRADA: We were branded terrorists by the whole Western world. I mean they'd have nothing to do with us. Well, as somebody has said: one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter.

Unidentified Man #5: As far as the government of South Africa is concerned, the breakdown of law and order in South Africa will not be tolerated under any circumstances whatsoever.

Ms. Amina Cachalia (Activist): Mandela, he had addressed a meeting in Durban, he was coming back and the police stopped him. And they asked him what was his name, and he said David. And they said, you're under arrest, Mr. Mandela.

(Soundbite of news broadcast)

(Soundbite of protest)

Unidentified Man #6: Remarkable demonstration by a crowd of several hundred outside the courthouse in Pretoria. Nelson Mandela, leader and founder of the sabotage movement Spear of the Nation, and a leading member of African National Congress, accused, with the others, of plotting sabotage to overthrow the South African government by force.

Mr. KATHRADA: There were eight of us in the trial. And the first day, the lawyer said, Chaps, prepare for the worst.

(Soundbite of trial)

Unidentified Man #7: Firstly, the state alleges the planned purpose thereof was to bring about chaos, disorder and turmoil in a battle to be waged against the white man in this country.

Mr. GEORGE BIZOS (Defense Attorney): They were called terrorists. We knew that there was no hope of getting an acquittal. The question was, what do we do with the trial?

President MANDELA: Our approach was one of defiance, because we said, it is the government that is a criminal and that should be standing in the dock to face a trial. We are not guilty.

(Soundbite of trial)

Unidentified Man #7: That, my Lord, is the case for the state.

Mr. KATHRADA: When the defense case started, Mandela, he was going to be the first defense witness, and the prosecution had prepared extensively to cross-examine Mandela and break him down. And they all got a shock when our lawyers announced that Mandela will not give evidence but he'll make a statement from the dock.

Mr. BIZOS: The courtroom was absolutely packed. He stood up and he proceeded to deliver this speech.

(Soundbite of trial)

President MANDELA: I have dedicated my life to this struggle of the African people. I know this sounds like revolution to the white in this country, because the majority of voters will be Africans. This makes the white men fear democracy.

Mr. KATHRADA: It was a four-hour speech.

(Soundbite of trial)

President MANDELA: And I have...

Mr. KATHRADA: But that last bit where he said, these are the ideals for which I am prepared to die, just that last bit...

Mr. DENNIS GOLDBERG (Co-Defendant): I knew what he was going to say, because we had all seen the speech. Everybody had made comments about it. And I knew that he was going say, in effect, hang me if you dare to, Mr. Judge. But only when he said it...

(Soundbite of trial)

President MANDELA: I have cherished the idea 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. But, my lord, if it needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.

Mr. GOLDBERG: There was dead silence. Nobody said anything. Even the judge didn't know what to say. I knew it was a moment of history. He emerged then as a great leader.

(Soundbite of trial)

Justice NICOLAAS de WET (South African Chief Justice): Very well, the court will then adjourn.

President MANDELA: The possibility of a death sentence, of course, worried me. And I remember we adjourned for lunch. It was a very hot day and a friendly Afrikaner warder asked me the question: Mandela, what do you think is going to happen to you in this case? I said to him, Ah, they are going to hang us. Now, I was really expecting some word of encouragement from him. And I thought he was going to say, Ah man, you see, that can never happen. But he became serious and then he said, I think you're right, they're going to hang you.

(Soundbite of news broadcast)

Unidentified Man #8: The next day, armed policed massed an even greater force as Mr. Justice de Wet was passing sentence.

(Soundbite of trial)

Justice de WET: I am by no means convinced that the motives of the accused were as altruistic as they wish the court to believe.

Mr. KATHRADA: When they said, stand up for your sentence, we thought, well, here it comes.

(Soundbite of trial)

Justice de WET: I have decided not to impose the supreme penalty, which in a case like this would usually be the proper penalty for the crime. That is the only leniency I can show. The sentence in the case of all the accused will be one of life imprisonment.

Mr. GOLDBERG: And we laughed. We turned to each other and laughed because we expected to be hanged.

(Soundbite of protest)

(Soundbite of news broadcast)

Unidentified Man #9: At the back entrance to the Pretoria Court, large crowds gather to watch the accused being driven away to start their life sentences.

Unidentified Man #10: There have been growing protests from all over the world today of the sentence of life imprisonment passed in South Africa on Friday on this man, Nelson Mandela.

Mr. GOLDBERG: Nelson Mandela did become the symbol of the struggle for liberation in South Africa. People could identify with Nelson Mandela: Nelson Mandela the lawyer, Nelson Mandela the hero, Nelson Mandela the handsome man. But it was the response to his Rivonia Trial speech, called throughout the world the I Am Prepared To Die Speech, which kind of somersaulted him and the African National Congress and the need to put an end to apartheid into the world consciousness.

President MANDELA: As we were being flown to Robben Island, one tried to accept the reality that we may, in fact, spend years in prison. But we believed very strongly that we would not die in jail. We would return. But we stayed there for 27 years.

(Soundbite of music)

NORRIS: Nelson Mandela was released from prison in 1990. He served as South Africa's president from 1994 to 1999. The voices you heard today were Nelson Mandela, fellow defendants Ahmed Kathrada and Dennis Goldberg, their lawyer George Bizos and activist Amina Cachalia.

Our 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." There's more about that documentary and the life of Nelson Mandela at npr.org.

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