‘...an ideal for which I am prepared to die.’

By: Mark Gentili - Sudbury Northern Life

 | Dec 09, 2013 - 2:01 PM |
That quote in its entirety is pretty famous in the annals of 20th century speeches, but I’m not sure how many people know where it comes from.

They are the final nine words of Nelson Mandela’s speech from the dock in June 1964, just before he was handed a 30-year prison term for sabotage against South Africa’s apartheid regime. His crime, really, was demanding equality in a country where, at the time, 70 per cent of the population legally could not vote.

That was the ideal he was talking about.

Guys like Mandela just don’t come along every day. Given the status of native Africans in the country; given the apartheid government’s system of reserve communities in less-than-ideal locations; given schools funded at less than a quarter of their white counterparts and laws designed to curtail any political voice at all — Mandela had a right to be angry.

Inhumanity should anger all of us. Thankfully, it angers most of us, at least.

And he and his compatriots knew their people were angry, too. But they were worried that anger would lead to violence, and that violence would destroy any chance of a peaceful South Africa.

Because that’s all they wanted. They just wanted everyone in the country to have an equal stake, an equal shot and equal voice, but they wanted that voice to speak for a nation, not a skin colour.

Mandela was specific about this in that 1964 speech. Colour wasn’t the issue. That was just the excuse. Equality was the issue. Dignity was the issue.

This was the ideal he was talking about. It’s the ideal the world’s most successful nations are founded upon.

Mandela’s lifelong struggle for peace and equality for South Africa is part of his legacy. But there is another part of that legacy that must also be acknowledged.

In that 1964 speech from the dock, he was specific about his agonizing decision that, after 50 years of non-violent action, the movement had to start pushing back. Mandela and his fellow decision makers heard the rising call for violence and they believed it could no longer be stopped.

They were afraid it would escalate, people’s feelings of frustration were reaching a fever pitch. So, leaders of the movement decided, Mandela argues, the only logical option was to channel the anger and keep it at a simmer, rather than let it boil out of control and into, possibly, civil war.

“This conclusion was not easily arrived at. It was only when all else had failed, when all channels of peaceful protest had been barred to us, that the decision was made to embark on violent forms of political struggle.”

Strange as it may seem, his admission that violence was condoned and channelled for political purposes doesn’t make Mandela that unusual among the ranks of famous 20th century peacemakers, human beings being what we are. Unfortunately, Gandhi, I think, was the oddball.

Mandela does stand close to Gandhi in a way though. Both were leaders who let their words guide their actions and both have become media darlings.

From about the mid 1980s to his release in 1990, Mandela and the movement to end apartheid was trendy. From songs and sitcom plots, to the world press and global leaders, everybody chimed in.

In retrospect, that didn’t cheapen it. Because, unlike so many other distractions pop culture turns its screen-addled gaze upon, this one actually mattered. And still does.

Human beings being what they are, Mandela did something high-minded and courageous — he dedicated his life to bettering the lives of others, in the name of an ideal. And he was willing to die for it. Last week, he did.

Above all else, Mandela was a great man, a pragmatist and a visionary, whose actions bettered the lives of millions. And the world is a poorer place for his passing.

Mark Gentili is the managing editor of Northern Life.
Mark Gentili

Mark Gentili

Staff Writer


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