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‘Lost’ Nelson Mandela Court Recordings

‘Lost’ Nelson Mandela Court Recordings Retrieved By British Library

11th February 2001

Astonishing court recordings of the last speech that Nelson Mandela made before he was sentenced to life imprisonment can be heard for the first time thanks to the intervention of the British Library’s National Sound Archive. Nearly forty years after it was made, and on the 11th anniversary of his release from prison, Mandela’s impassioned and at times moving plea has emerged from recordings whose existence remained largely forgotten and unknown. Furthermore, the technological means to render them audible had, it was feared, also disappeared. Fortunately, the British Library had one of the last surviving machines that enabled the speech to be retrieved and after weeks of work is making them public. Speaking from the dock on 20 April 1964 during the notorious ‘Rivonia Trial’ in Pretoria’s Palace of Justice, Mandela gave a spellbinding three-hour speech in his defence. Mandela (‘Accused Number One’) was charged with acts of sabotage designed to ‘ferment violent revolution’. His defiant closing words that ‘the ideal of a free and democratic society in which all persons will live together in harmony and with equal opportunities… is an ideal for which I am prepared to die’ sent shockwaves around the world and led to worldwide condemnation of South Africa’s racial policies. Mandela escaped the death penalty, but began a life sentence at Robben Island prison in June 1964 from where he was not released until 11 February 1990. The entire Rivonia Trial, including Mandela’s famous speech, was recorded on ‘dictabelts’ but this method of sound recording has long since disappeared and the belts, stored in the National Archives of South Africa, have remained unheard until now. Recently the National Sound Archive at the British Library in London (which owns one of the few remaining dictabelt machines in the world) has been able to retrieve the sound and bring the recordings back to life.

Listen to an extract of the recording :

( 669K, RealAudio: )

Dr Rob Perks, the British Library’s Oral History Curator commented: ‘It’s extremely rare and exciting when a recording as internationally important as this comes to light after so many years. We’re pleased to have the opportunity to work with the National Archives of South Africa (and the South African Broadcasting Corporation) to make these remarkable recordings accessible to all of us for the first time. Our technicians had to go to incredible lengths to modify the surviving dictaphone equipment, changing the running speed and varying the power supply, just to get some sound at all. And the belts themselves were subjected to a slightly unusual heating process before they yielded their contents. Fortunately we are one the few places in the world that has the professional expertise to carry out this sort of tricky retrieval work What amazed us, given the age and fragility of these dictabelts, is just how good the sound quality is.’ A spokesperson for the South African Broadcasting Corporation commented: ‘It is indeed a historic moment: for the first time since the Rivonia Trials took place (November 1963 to June 1964), the world will be able to hear the moving speech that Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela delivered as "Accused Number One". The Rivonia Trial dictabelt collection (November 1963 to June 1964) is under custodianship of the National Archives of South Africa. When the SABC learnt that the Rivonia Trial dictabelt collection was inaccessible, the SABC initiated the process to find suitable dictabelt machines to ensure that this material would become audible and accessible to South Africa and the world. The SABC approached the British Library and a valuable relationship between the British Library, the National Archives of South Africa, the National Film, Video and Sound Archives and the SABC was born. The result is remarkable: for the very first time we can hear a young, dynamic Nelson Mandela, pleading for a "free and democratic society in which all persons will live together in harmony and with equal opportunities". South Africa is indebted to the British Library for the role it played in making this precious material available to the world. It is of historical significance that the National Archives of South Africa, the National Film, Video and Sound Archives, the British Library and the SABC Sound Archives could jointly succeed in restoring this material.’ For further information please contact: Greg Hayman
Press Office
British Library
96 Euston Road

Tel: +44 (0)207 412 7116, 0787 960 1932 or Val McBurney on telephone +44 (0)20 7412 7112
email The SABC Sound Archives can be contacted at: Tel: +27 11 714 2771
email for inquiries.

NOTES FOR EDITORS The Rivonia Trial, named after the suburb of Johannesburg where sixteen leaders of the African National Congress (ANC) were arrested in July 1963, began on 26 November 1963 and marked a turning point in South Africa’s history and the struggle against apartheid. Mandela and others were charged under the General Law Amendment (Sabotage) Act and the Suppression of Communism Act with 221 acts of sabotage designed to ‘ferment violent revolution’. They escaped the death penalty but were sentenced on 12 June 1964 to life imprisonment. Mandela was not released until 11 Feb 1990. The trial attracted huge international attention at the time and led to worldwide condemnation of South Africa’s racial policies. The UN Security Council condemned the trial and demanded Mandela’s release. Anthony Sampson, author of Mandela: The Authorised Biography, covered the trial for The Observer newspaper and remembers that Mandela ‘showed himself to have far greater depth as well as courage than had been expected…’ Sampson was also asked to read the handwritten speech beforehand with an international audience in mind: "that whole speech that he wrote himself for his final address was extremely carefully worked out, and extremely honest…it was clear that from the beginning Mandela and his colleagues had seen it as a great statement." The seven ‘dictabelt’ recordings featuring Mandela’s speech are a type of audio recording, developed by the Dictaphone company, which were mainly used in offices between the 1940s and the 1960s. The short broad plastic belts were capable of being flattened and posted but could not be wiped and reused. It appears that the whole Rivonia Trial was recorded on dictabelts in line with normal court procedure at the time. It is hoped that the remaining trial recordings will also be made accessible once funding is found to recover the sound, because the process of recovery by the British Library is time consuming and expensive. The BL is grateful to Adrian Tuddenham for his technical assistance. The South African Broadcasting Corporation Sound (Radio) Archives was established in 1964 after a need was identified and investigated by the SABC. The collection focus mainly on South African material and includes sport, news and actuality, music, dramas, interviews, documentaries, political speeches, oral traditions (legends) and broadcasts in all the official languages of South Africa. The earliest material dates back to the turn of the century with a recording by the Springbok rugby team’s ‘War Cry’, whilst on tour in England. The SABC Sound Archives holds a large acetate disk collection (21 000 discs), 11 000 78 r.p.m. discs (only South African labels) and 133 000 tapes. The SABC Sound Archive collection continues to grow through daily broadcasts and exchange programmes with related Audiovisual Archive services. In addition, private donors and projects aimed at the acquisition of pre-1994 material extend the collection of the SABC Sound Archives. The British Library National Sound Archive (NSA) is one of the largest sound archives in the world. Opened in 1955 as the British Institute of Recorded Sound, it became a department of the British Library in 1983 and now holds historic wax cylinders, over a million discs, 160,000 tapes, and a growing number of videos. The collections come from all over the world and cover the entire range of recorded sound: from pop, jazz, classical and world music, to oral history, drama and literature, dialect, language and wildlife sounds. They include published and unpublished recordings from the late nineteenth century to the present day, including a wide variety of BBC broadcasts. Ends Press and Public Relations
96 Euston Road, London NW1 2DB Tel +44 (0)20 7412 7111, Fax +44 (0)20 7412 7168, Email


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