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Nelson Mandela 1918-2013

A Tribute to the Life of Nelson Mandela

By Joe Richman

It was on April 20th, 1964, in a stuffy South African courtroom, that Nelson Mandela stood up and - rather than testify in his own defense - he gave a speech.

"I am prepared to die." Those are the last 5 words of the speech, and they are well known today. Less well known are the 10,693 other words in the speech. It lasted four hours.

An audio recording of the speech was made by a court stenographer on a dictabelt, a plastic recording that was never intended to preserve history. The recording was lost and forgotten for almost 4 decades, until it was discovered in the basement archive of the South African Broadcasting Corporation.

I know that basement well. It may sound odd, but I spent many happy weeks there in 2003 surrounded by stacks of reel-to-reel tapes, searching for sound to tell the history of apartheid for our series, Mandela: An Audio History. I remember one day, trying to listen to a reel of tape that was in bad shape and had no label. I kept splicing the tape back together so it would play. Soon I realized I was listening to a raw recording of the prosecutor's opening statement at Mandela's trial. It had never been broadcast before. Most people - even those who had been on trial - didn't know the tape existed. Many of the trial recordings had been erased decades earlier by the apartheid government. It was thrilling to hear the actual words. But it wasn't until somebody in the courtroom coughed that I could really hear the echo and dimensions of the room, the stillness of the afternoon, the hushed anticipation of the trial. The cough put me in that courtroom.

From that basement and many others, we collected 50 hours of archival recordings for our series Mandela: An Audio History, and we conducted many more hours of contemporary interviews. The original plan was to do a comprehensive biography of a man. But with every archival recording we found, every interview we did, the story veered slowly away from Nelson Mandela as an individual and more toward a collective history.

Mandela did the same thing in his own life.

When he uttered those now-famous words: "I am prepared to die" in 1964, he was speaking not only for his 7 co-defendants, but also for a growing movement. Mandela was appointed to become the symbol of the struggle against apartheid. In interviews after he was released in 1990, Mandela would often avoid using the first-person. He resisted talking about himself, rather than the party.

As a radio producer, I am drawn to the hidden and untold stories of history. I remember standing in that basement archive, surrounded by tapes, thinking about all the stories that might be lost on unmarked reels, and all the stories that were never recorded. So many of the people who sacrificed in real ways while fighting against apartheid have died over the last decade. Some of them may still be remembered in years to come, others will be forgotten.

Mandela was the voice for all of them.

Joe Richman is the founder of Radio Diaries and the producer of Mandela: An Audio History, along with Sue Jaye Johnson and Ben Shapiro.