Raymond Suttner, What did it mean when Mandela said he was willing to die? What does it mean for us in our own lives?

Possibly the closing words of Nelson Mandela’s statement from the dock as ‘accused number one’ in the Rivonia trial are amongst the most quoted in political history.

‘The ANC has spent half a century fighting against racialism.  Their struggle is a truly national one.  It is a struggle of the African people, inspired by their own suffering and their own experience. It is a struggle for the right to live.

‘During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. 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 for which I am prepared to die.’

Without pretending to do full justice, I want to unpack some of the meanings that we can draw from this statement.  In the first place, Mandela refers to the struggle as being ‘truly national’.  But simultaneously he stresses that it is the struggle ‘of the African people, inspired by their own suffering and their own experience. It is a struggle for the right to live.’

I know there are some people who are uncomfortable with any emphasis on the African character of the struggle, seeing it as an opening for narrow chauvinistic nationalism.  But it is important to acknowledge the necessity of this characterisation for even if we are all Africans in the sense of owing allegiance to Africa and feeling that South Africa is our home, the struggle against apartheid was in the first place a struggle to rid South Africa of the yoke that apartheid cast over the lives of black people and in particular the African majority, that is, that section of the population carrying passes and consigned to bantustans. 

 Mandela makes it clear, however, that he sees the struggle as not only redressing the grievances of black people or Africans but also ensuring that the outcome is not black domination. 

 He wanted to live and see these ideals realised but he indicated that if needs be he was prepared to die to achieve this.  Let us be clear that when Mandela made this statement the death penalty was a real possibility facing the accused.  In other words, Mandela came from a very different generation from those who entered the ANC after 1990 when danger had passed, to a large extent and quite different prospects could open up if one entered leadership.

 But this notion of service and sacrifice needs probing.  Chief Albert Luthuli had advocated the gospel of service, devoting oneself to serving the community and the oppressed, without thought of reward.


Mandela makes it clear that willingness to sacrifice also meant preparedness to sacrifice.  One cannot say one is prepared to die without visualising what it entails in carrying out such an undertaking.  Both Mahatma Gandhi and Luthuli also prepared themselves for the possibility of death, placing a lot of weight on vows and other undertakings to face whatever the future may hold.  To be ready to carry out one’s undertakings in extreme situations entails more than political understanding or belief in a cause.  It also means unifying one’s thinking and one’s psychological or spiritual willingness to make this integral to one’s life and possible death.


Amongst the legacies of Mandela is this ethical core, this sense that acting on  beliefs was not merely enunciation of ideas, but preparation for and willingness to endure hardships of an extreme kind.  It is possible that some who read this will say, that is for Mandela not for us ordinary mortals. But all of us, in our everyday lives confront difficult decisions and we have to decide whether or not we act in accordance with the beliefs we claim to cherish.  It is this unifying of thinking and acting that we need to try to incorporate into our personal and political life.





See also Raymond Suttner, (Mis)understanding Mandela, on this blogsite

One thought on “Raymond Suttner, What did it mean when Mandela said he was willing to die? What does it mean for us in our own lives?

  1. May we emulate his example of selflessness and courage even in the face of calamity. I was inspired when he said on the same ocassion “In our search for a political formula…..we shall borrow the best from east and west…..”

    We shall be like Mandela, we shall refine and enrich where he may have erred as a fallible man. Out of his life should come out a new brand of emancipatory “Isms”, let me lead from the front, ‘Mthukwaneism” is an emancipatory vision concious of our past and confident of the future, and shall seek to borrow from all corners of the globe and its currents to foster a just humane and democratic socialist tommorrow.

    Douglas Mthukwane
    Freelance Writer

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