6 December 2013

Thanks to Nelson Mandela for making an uninspiring speech on release from prison

Having been wondering for weeks how to mark the 1,000th post on this blog, the death of Nelson Mandela has solved my dilemma. 

The speech he made on release from prison initially stunned me by what an unimpressive example of how to inspire an audience it was. - until I realised that, had he done otherwise, it would have triggered the start of a civil war in South Africa. 

His genius was, among other things, to have understood exactly what had to be done to accommodate his (and FW de Klerks') dreams of getting rid of apartheid by holding things together long enough to allow time for the successful and peaceful reconstruction of the country. 

So, for my 1,000th post, here's what I wrote on the 20th anniversary of his release from prison:

None of the news reports on the 20th anniversary of Nelson Mandela's release from prison that I've seen have replayed any excerpts from the speech he made at City Hall in Cape Town.

This doesn't really surprise me, as it was far from being the barnstorming piece of oratory that many (including me) were expecting at the time.

Speaking into a microphone held by someone standing next to him, a bespectacled Mr Mandela clutched closely to the clip board holding his script - from which he read extremely carefully (see video below).

Given what might have happened had he done otherwise, it reminded me of the Queen's Speech as an example of the relatively rare occasions when there are very good reasons for not conveying any passion about what you are saying.

Something I posted a while back on The Queen's Speech: an exception that proves the ruler included the following thoughts about Mandela release-day speech.

Why such a 'low key' speech?

A much more surprising case was Nelson Mandela’s first speech after being released from prison in 1990. Here was a highly effective communicator, whose words at his trial 27 years earlier are to be found in most books of great speeches, and who had had the best part of three decades to prepare an inspiring and memorable text.

But it was not to be. As if modeling his performance on the Queen’s Speech, he buried his head in the script and spoke in a flat measured tone that came across as completely lacking in the kind of passion everyone was expecting from someone who had suffered so much and was held in such high regard by his audience.

Having waited for years for this historic event, anticipating something on a par with Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a dream’ speech, I remember being disappointed and surprised by what I saw and heard from the balcony of City Hall in Cape Town. It was only later that it dawned on me that this was another case where rousing rhetoric would have been completely counter-productive.

The political situation in South Africa was poised on a knife-edge and his release from prison had only happened at all because the apartheid regime was crumbling. It was a moment when anything more inspiring from Mandela might have come across as a call to arms and could easily have prompted an immediate uprising or civil war.

But the political understanding with the minority white government was that the African National Congress would keep the lid on things for long enough to enable a settlement to be negotiated.* As when the Queen opens parliament, Mr Mandela knew exactly what he was doing, how to do it and that he could not have done otherwise.

(* On which it's interesting to note that, at the end of this clip, the reporter actually comments on Mr Mandela's concern for keeping things orderly among the crowd).


The sight of freedom looming on the horizon should encourage us to redouble our efforts.

It is only through disciplined mass action that our victory can be assured. We call on our white compatriots to join us in the shaping of a new South Africa. The freedom movement is a political home for you too. We call on the international community to continue the campaign to isolate the apartheid regime. To lift sanctions now would be to run the risk of aborting the process towards the complete eradication of apartheid.

Our march to freedom is irreversible. We must not allow fear to stand in our way. Universal suffrage on a common voters' roll in a united democratic and non-racial South Africa is the only way to peace and racial harmony.

In conclusion I wish to quote my own words during my trial in 1964. They are as true today as they were then. I wrote:

'I have fought against white domination and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. 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.'