“I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination.”

These words by Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela start what has arguably become the most famous of all his words throughout his life – the last paragraph of his speech from the dock at the Rivonia Trial for sabotage.

He made the speech on 20 April 1964 at the start of the defence case. Speaking from the dock allowed him not to be cross-examined but to make a political speech intended as much for the ears of the world as it was for the court.

He continued: “I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities.” By all persons living together in harmony he meant all – no matter their skin colour, their social standing or creed.

It took him three hours to read the speech in Pretoria’s Palace of Justice but the drama came in the last line which announced he would give his life for non-racialism.

“It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

Putting his life on the line for a non-racial democracy was not Madiba playing lip-service to an ideal. It was the culmination of, by then, his 20 years in politics in a country riven apart by statutory racism. Apart from a brief period as an Africanist he was convinced that non-racialism was the only solution for a peaceful and prosperous South Africa.

The speech was so much more than being ‘prepared to die’. He used it to spell out the wounds inflicted by colonialism. He recalled the glorious battles “in defence of our fatherland” by Dingane and Bambatha, Hintsa and Makana, Moshoeshoe and others.

He spoke of the African National Congress formed against the devastating Native Lands Act which ultimately succeeded in, stealing 87 percent of the land for the whites. Non-violent action and protests against apartheid laws got activists nowhere against an increasingly iron-fisted regime and in 1961 Umkhonto weSizwe was formed to force change.

Mandela’s speech focused on the damage caused to the majority of South Africans by white supremacy; the breakdown of dignity caused by racism; the breakdown of family life caused by the Pass Laws; poverty caused by a myriad of racist laws; and inferior education dooming children to a life of servitude.

Mandela said in 1964: “The ANC has spent half a century fighting against racialism. When it triumphs as it certainly must, it will not change that policy.”

As it happened, Mandela and his seven colleagues didn’t have to die for non-racialism. He, Ahmed Kathrada, Walter Sisulu, Raymond Mhlaba, Denis Goldberg, Govan Mbeki, Andrew Mlangeni and Elias Motsoaledi continued to fight for it throughout their imprisonment and beyond.

We believe that Mandela and all those who participated in the “talks-about-talks” and then the multi-party negotiations hammered out the best possible deal under the circumstances for all South Africans. No party or liberation movement was strong enough to impose anything on the other without fierce debate, contestation and, most importantly, compromise. The most significant achievement of his era was the agreement on universal franchise for all South Africans over the age of 18 years in a united South Africa.

Today, 22 years after that momentous occasion when all South Africans of different hues and different means queued patiently to cast their vote – many for the first time in their lives – South Africa is still a fractured society. More importantly, democracy has not ushered in a concomitant economic equalisation of wealth and access. Levels of inequality remain exceptionally high. Our living and social spaces are still not integrated and racism and xenophobia periodically still raise their ugly heads.

The ideals of Mandela and his generation are more pertinent than ever before. Non-racialism does not ask us to be colour-blind as some claim but it asks us to strive for a future where South Africa truly belongs to all who live in it. The path to that future will encounter many setbacks, obstacles and sacrifices, but it is crucial that we keep moving along it.

The work for a non-racial society did not begin and end with Nelson Mandela. Continuous efforts must be made by politicians and ordinary people alike. As Mandela said in his last State of the Nation address in 1999: “The foundation has been laid – the building is in progress. With a new generation of leaders and a people that rolls up its sleeves in partnerships for change, we can and shall build the country of our dreams!”

* Razia Saleh and Sahm Venter are Board Members of the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation and are, respectively Senior Archivist and Senior Researcher of the Nelson Mandela Foundation. They write in their personal capacities.

Their input is part of a selection of opinion pieces being written during Anti-Racism Week (March 14-21). Visit for more information. 



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