Mandela in Imbali

2008-05-29 00:00

ToDAY sees the unveiling of a monument in front of the Arya Samaj Hall on the grounds of Zibukezulu School in Imbali to commemorate the landmark speech given in the hall by Nelson Mandela in 1961.

The monument, created by local sculptor Gert Swart, was commissioned to form part of the Sunday Times Heritage project created in 2006 to mark its 100th year of publication. The sculpture is in the form of a voter’s cross and is made out of corten steel. “It’s an anti-corrosive steel that will rust to a 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,” says Swart. “But the main factor for me is that the hall needs to be exposed, the sculpture is a signpost to what happened.”

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 for the sound and possibly had tape recorders in operation in the hall’s projection room, which was locked.” 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.

“By nightfall a lean-tent had been attached to the Plessislaer Hall to cope with the overflow crowd. As the night wore on some of the crowd rolled themselves up in blankets against the cold night air and slept, while those in the hall kept themselves awake by singing chants and dancing periodically through the night.”

In his autobiography Long Walk to Freedom Mandela vividly recalled the event: “When I walked out on stage on Saturday evening ... in front of this loyal and enthusiastic audience, 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 a national convention in which all South Africans, black and white, Indian and coloured, would sit down in brotherhood and create a constitution that mirrored the aspirations of the country as a whole. I called for unity and said we would be invincible if we spoke with one voice.”

According to an anonymous Drum magazine reporter, Mandela’s speech “left its mark on all the talk that followed”, not least the Special Branch. “I was sitting next to a man who was busy taking notes while Mandela was speaking. Suddenly the man turned to me and remarked: ‘This is like a State of the Nation address by an American President.’ The man was from the Special Branch, but he seemed to have summed things up well.”

The Natal Witness reported that a resolution passed at the conference demanded a convention be called by the government “not later than May 31, 1961 — the day on which the Nationalists intend to declare a republic — to decide on ‘a new non-racial democratic constitution for South Africa’.”

Another resolution stated: “Should the minority government ignore this demand of the representatives of the united will of the African people, we undertake to stage country-wide demonstrations on the eve of the proclamation of the republic in protest against this undemocratic act.”

In his speech, Mandela stated that it was clear that a republic would bring more intense application of the racial policies which had earned South Africa the condemnation of the whole world.

Mandela said that “a few weeks ago the prime minister of the country made a promise to the nation that he would try hard and earnestly to remain in the Commonwealth. What happened? The progressive and democratic nations of the Commonwealth refused to accept South Africa unless he repudiated the evil policy of apartheid.

“In demanding a national convention, Mr Mandela stated: ‘We have always held the view that no constitution or form of government decided without the participation of the African people who form the absolute majority can enjoy moral validity or merit support, either in South Africa or beyond its borders.”

In Long Walk to Freedom Mandela records how after the conference he sent prime minister Hendrik Verwoerd “a letter in which I formally enjoined him to call a national constitutional convention. I warned him that if he failed to call it we would stage the country’s most massive three-day strike ever, beginning on May 29. ‘We have no illusions about the counter-measures your government might take,’ I wrote. ‘During the last 12 months we have gone through a period of grim dictatorship.’ I also issued a press statement affirming that the strike was a peaceful and a non-violent stay-at-home [strike]. Verwoerd did not reply, except to describe my letter in Parliament as arrogant.’ The government instead began to mount one of the most intimidating displays of force ever assembled in the country’s history.”

On August 5, 1962, Mandela was arrested outside Howick. In 1994, Mandela 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 Mandela and the late Mahatma Gandhi.

• Check the website

Check this link for the two front page stories published by the Natal Witness on March 27, 1961, dealing with Nelson Mandela’s speech at the All-In Africa conference and the speech by Alan Paton.

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