Marking the site of a landmark speech

2008-07-17 00:00

A SCULPTURE in the form of a voter’s cross now stands in front of the Arya Samaj Hall on the grounds of the Zibukezulu School in Imbali to commemorate the landmark speech that Nelson Mandela gave in the hall in 1961.

The monument, created by local sculptor Gert Swart out of corten steel, was commissioned as part of the Sunday Times Heritage project in 2006.

“It’s an anti-corrosive steel that will rust to certain degree and end up a lovely rust colour,” says Swart. “It has a hard feeling about it — which speaks to the time when saracens and buffels went into the townships.”

The wording on the plaque, supplied by the Sunday Times, succinctly describes what happened on March 25, 1961: “Here, in what was once known as the Plessislaer Arya Samaj Hall, Nelson Mandela made a surprise appearance at the historic All-in-Africa conference and delivered his first public speech in five years. It was also to be his last as a free man for another 29 years.

A bearded Mandela told the 1 400 strong delegates, representing 145 social and political organisations, that ‘one man, one vote is the key to the future’. He called for economic sanctions against the apartheid government and warned of mass action.

It was at this conference that the liberation call, Amandla Ngawethu! (power to the people) became popular.”

The initial venue for the conference, the Local Health Commission Hall in Edendale, had been changed at the last minute, according to the Natal Witness “following allegations that the Special Branch had wired the hall … and possibly had tape recorders in operation”.

Arrangements were made for a new venue and “shortly before 4 pm, during a heavy drizzle, the crowd marched to the Plessislaer Indian Hall, which had been obtained at the last moment through the service of the Natal Indian Congress.”

In his autobiography Long Walk to Freedom, Mandela recalled the event: “When I walked out on stage on Saturday evening ... it had been nearly five years since I had been free to give a speech on a public platform. I was met with a joyous reaction. I had almost forgotten the intensity of the experience of addressing a crowd.

“In my speech I called for … unity, and said we would be invincible if we spoke with one voice.”

On August 5, 1962, Mandela was arrested outside Howick. In 1994 he identified the site of his arrest — some 10 kilometres north of Howick on the R103, where a plinth now marks the site.

Mandela returned to the hall on April 25, 1997, when the Freedom of Pietermaritzburg was awarded to the then President Nelson Mandela and the late Mahatma Gandhi.

• See also www.sundaytimes.co.za/heritage.

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