04/17/2014 10:22 am ET Updated Jun 17, 2014

Listen: 50 Years On, Mandela's Fateful Words That Media Too Easily Forget


The media just love anniversaries. But I'm wondering how many mass media outlets will pick up on a confluence of two such commemorations this coming week -- a 50th and a 20th -- which mark separate major events in the long life of a recently departed global giant.

Nelson Mandela, who died late last year at age 95, was nearly 46 when exactly 50 years ago this Sunday he stood in a courtroom to defend himself against terrorism charges, using powerful words that have resounded throughout the world for decades.

Those words did not prevent him from being sentenced to life in prison, but they may possibly have spared him the expected death penalty. Fast forward three decades and we see Mandela finally freed, and triumphantly elected, on April 27, 1994, as the first black leader of South Africa.

There seems much less to celebrate now as that country approaches another presidential election next month, when the current incumbent Jacob Zuma, like his predecessor Thabo Mbeki, will (undoubtedly) gain a second term in office. Mandela, by significant contrast with both his successors, made it clear from very early on -- and kept his promise -- that he would be stepping down after just one term. Unhappy comparisons are obviously made, as his successors have presided over black rule characterized by increasing corruption and the abandonment of high principle.

It's worth recalling attentively those reverberating Mandela words from the 1960s. They do spell out so clearly the principles of democracy, including the sometimes vexing question of majority rule versus minority rights, to which Mandela adhered throughout his time in prison, and to which his African National Congress has always professed allegiance (sometime unpopularly so, at times in its long history).

Mandela said the following from the prisoner's dock in 1964 -- much later to dramatically repeated it word for word in the first speech he made after being released from prison:

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 will live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal for which I hope to live and to see realized. But, my lord, if it needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.

["My Lord" was of, course, an honorific reference to the presiding judge -- a quaint inheritance from ancient British legal procedure. Some things don't change much; overseas viewers and listeners to extracts from the current Oscar Pistorius murder trial might be baffled by the occasional "My Lady", dropped in for the benefit of Judge Thokozile Masipa. She's a former journalist who became the second female black judge in the Johannesburg region's High Court.]

There is some remarkable audio, complete with creaking courtroom furniture, of Mandela's original courtroom statement, thanks to smart new technology and assiduous work at the British Museum, whose staff managed to reconstruct his words from a dilapidated "Dictaphone" tape made of thick plastic that 1960s South African courts customarily used.

Fifty years after they were first expressed, it's also worth revisiting some other crucial ideas contained in that defendant's speech -- especially those addressing the perennial dilemma for fighters against injustice. The question of violence or non-violence as the means to achieve the final aim of justice took up a substantial amount of Mandela's lengthy address from the prisoner's dock -- but the media have never quoted it as frequently as his peroration about being prepared to face execution.

Media commentators have signally avoided it in the months following his death. Far too many writers seem to have forgotten -- if they ever knew, or had bothered to look it up -- that Mandela's actual position in the ANC was as the militarily-trained chief of its armed wing, Umkhonto We Sizwe (literally, "Spear of the Nation"). Almost in lock-step they have preferred to hail Mandela -- to mention just one especially simple-minded sobriquet -- as the "Icon of Peaceful Resistance".

On that vexed question of peaceful action versus violence against an unjust authority, Mandela said in court that non-violent approaches had only resulted in bloody suppression by the apartheid authorities, and that a switch by the ANC to armed struggle had become an inescapable necessity:

Because the soil of South Africa is already drenched with the blood of innocent Africans ... we felt it our duty to make preparations as a long-term undertaking to use force in order to defend ourselves against force ... The fight which held out prospects best for us and the least risk of life to both sides was guerrilla warfare.

I happened to have lunch late last week sitting next to Rick Stengel the ghostwriter, (though that's an inadequate label for his very substantive labors) of Mandela's autobiography Long Walk to Freedom. Stengel has nowadays moved on from his longtime regular job of editing TIME magazine to being a diplomat at the U.S. State Department. We didn't discuss how he is enjoying government service -- but he did speak incisively about Mandela the freedom-fighter.

Citing Mandela himself, he stressed the difference for leaders between applying principles and adopting tactics. Mandela was huge admirer of Mahatma Ghandi, who, of course, battled oppression in South Africa even before his did so in his homeland of India. But Mandela spelled out an critical difference between himself and his partial role-model.

"For Ghandi," the careful editor Stengel recalled Mandela as saying, "non-violence was a principle. For me it was a tactic."


Read more of David Tereshchuk's media industry insights at his regular column, The Media Beat, with accompanying video and audio. Listen also to The Media Beat podcasts on demand from Connecticut's NPR station WHDD, and at iTunes.