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Remembering Nelson Mandela's Pivotal Moment

Nelson Mandela turned 90 years old Friday. The Nobel Peace Prize laureate and former South African president spent the day quietly, surrounded by family and friends, in his home village of Qunu in the Eastern Cape region.

Over the course of his lifetime Mandela was a lawyer, freedom fighter, leader of the African National Congress and finally president.

Mandela's speech during his 1963-64 treason trial marked a pivotal moment when he became a worldwide symbol of the struggle for freedom and democracy.

"We began to feel that the time had come to actually challenge the power such as the government of South Africa with all its army and police force and jails," Mandela recalls.

Amid increasing demonstrations against the South African government, a state of emergency and the arrest of hundreds of opposition leaders, Mandela soon found himself in a leadership role.

Accepting The Challenge

"It was felt that somebody should go underground and lead the movement. I accepted the challenge," he said in an interview in 1990.

In calling for armed struggle, Mandela said he "believed the government had left us with no other alternative." The government branded the anti-apartheid movement terrorists and declared the breakdown of law and order intolerable.

Mandela and other members of the African National Congress were put on trial for treason. The defendants decided to use the trial to make a case that the government, not they, should be facing charges.

'I Am Prepared To Die'

On April 20, 1964, Mandela stood in a packed courtroom and gave the speech that co-defendant Denis Goldberg called "a moment of history."

"I have cherished the idea of a democratic and free society in which all persons will live together in harmony and with equal opportunity," Mandela said. "It is an ideal for which I hope to live for. But, my Lord, if it needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die."

Mandela was sentenced to life in prison. He was released from prison in 1990, after serving 27 years. He served as South Africa's president from 1994 to 1999.

This story was produced by Joe Richman of Radio Diaries, with help from Ben Shapiro and Deborah George. It was adapted from the radio documentary Mandela: An Audio History.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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