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A legacy in speeches: Remembering Nelson Mandela 10 years after his death

Anti-apartheid activist Nelson Mandela delivers a policy statement in Johannesburg, South Africa, on Jan. 8, 1994. Mandela called on all South Africans to pledge themselves to peace. Later that year, Mandela became South Africa's first Black president.
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Anti-apartheid activist Nelson Mandela delivers a policy statement in Johannesburg, South Africa, on Jan. 8, 1994. Mandela called on all South Africans to pledge themselves to peace. Later that year, Mandela became South Africa's first Black president.

Former South African President Nelson Mandela actively protested apartheid for most of his life, and he is known for being one of the world's most famous political prisoners.

His anti-apartheid activism never faltered: He delivered speeches, wrote letters while imprisoned and, after his release, negotiated with South African government officials to end apartheid in the 1990s.

Here are excerpts from some of his most memorable speeches.

1964: Rivonia Trial

On April 20, 1964, Mandela stands on trial in Pretoria, South Africa.

He has been charged with sabotage and conspiracy to overthrow the state.

At 45 years old, Mandela is a part of the African National Congress (ANC), a group advocating for Black rights. The ANC is considered the oldest liberation movement in Africa, and Mandela is a member of its armed wing.

As part of the ANC, Mandela has led protests and workers strikes, and now he's on trial. Mandela stands before the Supreme Court of South Africa during the Rivonia Trial and delivers an impassioned speech about a brutal system of legalized racism that's tearing his country apart.


When the National Party assumed power in 1948, it marked the beginning of legalized racism in South Africa — apartheid. In addition to restrictions on where nonwhite South Africans could live and work, apartheid also made political protest against the government illegal.

Mandela talks for nearly four hours about the harsh restrictions of living under apartheid.

Even as he faces life in prison, Mandela continues his cause for social justice in front of the court.

This speech establishes Nelson Mandela as the voice of the anti-apartheid movement, with the most memorable line at the end:

Less than two months after his speech, Mandela and 19 others are convicted. Most of them are sent to Robben Island prison near Cape Town.

Mandela is sentenced to life and becomes one of the world's most famous political prisoners. For years, he's kept in a tiny, 7-by-9-foot jail cell.

He does hard labor by day — crushing stones into gravel in a limestone quarry. And he spends time studying philosophy and political theory. Mandela writes letters about civil disobedience and pursues a University of London degree via correspondence.

Meanwhile, violence continues to escalate across South Africa — the nation's economy and reputation suffer. The United Nations leads the call for sanctions against the country. With the passing of the U.S. Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act in 1986, many multinational companies leave South Africa.

The white government does not allow photos of Mandela or recordings of his voice, yet his stature continues to grow while he remains behind bars. Protests against apartheid and Mandela's imprisonment are held across the world, in South Africa, the U.K. and the United States. The apartheid system faces increasing international criticism, and South Africa grows more and more isolated.

1990: Cape Town's City Hall

On Feb. 11, 1990, after years-long government negotiations and spending time in two additional prisons, Mandela is released after 27 years.

Just hours after he is free, Mandela delivers his first public address at Cape Town's City Hall.

On Feb. 11, 1990, in Cape Town, South Africa, Mandela delivers his first public speech since his release from person. Behind him is his then-wife, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela.
Walter Dhladhla/AFP / Getty Images
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Getty Images
On Feb. 11, 1990, in Cape Town, South Africa, Mandela delivers his first public speech since his release from prison. Behind him is his then-wife, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela.

Mandela greets the packed crowd of over 100,000 Black South Africans: "Comrades and fellow South Africans, I greet you all in the name of peace, democracy and freedom. I stand here before you not as a prophet but as a humble servant of you the people."

At age 71, Mandela's hair is graying, and he's wearing his wife's large glasses because he accidentally left his own at the prison.

It has been almost three decades since he has delivered a speech like this, but his cause for his country remains the same.

In addition to Mandela and his fellow ANC prisoners' release, the white government announces a package of reforms that include lifting the ban on the African National Congress and other Black groups.

Mandela leads the negotiations with the government to end apartheid.

1994: South Africa's presidential inauguration

Decades of activism, protests, boycotts and economic pressures dismantle the brutal apartheid regime in the early 1990s. For his negotiation efforts to end apartheid, Mandela shares the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize with National Party President F.W. de Klerk.

In 1994, South Africa holds its first democratic election.

The African National Congress wins over 62% of the vote.

Nelson Mandela is elected president of South Africa, the country's first Black president.

Nelson Mandela takes the oath during his presidential inauguration on May 10, 1994, in Pretoria. He is South Africa's first Black president.
Walter Dhladhla/AFP / Getty Images
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Getty Images
Nelson Mandela takes the oath during his presidential inauguration on May 10, 1994, in Pretoria. He is South Africa's first Black president.

During his inaugural address, Mandela promises continued progress for the country.

Mandela supports social and economic equality and restores the country's international standing.

1999: Final presidential address to South Africa's Parliament

Mandela serves as president forfive years.

In his final presidential address to the South African Parliament, in March 1999, Mandela reflects on his country's fight for racial justice and reconciliation.

His fellow lawmakers give Mandela a standing ovation and serenade him with chants of "Nelson Mandela."

South African President Nelson Mandela smiles as he receives a standing ovation after making his final address to Parliament on March 26, 1999.
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South African President Nelson Mandela smiles as he receives a standing ovation after making his final address to Parliament on March 26, 1999.

He decides not to run for a second term but supports the prosperity of the nation through the Nelson Mandela Foundation.

On Dec. 5, 2013 — 10 years ago today — Nelson Mandela died from a prolonged lung infection.

Mourners around the world paid their respects. Mandela's memorial service was held on Dec. 10 in a soccer stadium in Johannesburg. More than 50,000 people gatheredin the pouring rain.

People around the world still turn to Mandela's message of self-sacrifice and hope.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ashley Montgomery
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