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April 7, 2019

Sticks & Stones May Break My Bones, But My Words Will Build an Army Against Apartheid

Winner of the Spring 2019 StMU History Media Award for

Article with the Best Title

“I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons will live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to see realized. But if it needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.” 1

The world does not split between only black and white or good and bad. Shades of gray overtake our everyday lives and can make it difficult to navigate ethical dilemmas. Laws and rules do not necessarily make things clearer, nor black and white. Some rules, even those repeated throughout history, may neither be ethical nor positive for people or the societies on which these laws are imposed. If one breaks a law, one can be indicted as a criminal. However, breaking unjust laws provides the philosophical roots of civil disobedience and the motivation of freedom fighters. Nelson Mandela broke the highest law of his land and was tried for treason, not once, but twice. Yet, most recognize Nelson Mandela’s act as justified and he continues to be held in our highest regards, even winning a Nobel Peace Prize. How can one commit treason, be sentenced to life in jail, and still be one of the most beloved leaders and symbols of freedom around the world? Because Nelson Mandela fought for the freedoms of all his people, he fought against an unjust government determined to exploit and dehumanize all people of color, even the indigenous, the legitimate people of the land. Nelson Mandela did not betray the people; he committed treason against an oppressive government for all the right reasons. His world was literally divided into black and white, where white was always lawful, and Africans were always wrong. Mandela fought against laws that had no legitimacy.

On June 12, 1964, the courthouse and the streets around it were filled with those waiting to hear the verdict against Nelson Mandela and eight others during the Rivonia Trials. Judge Quartus de Wet delivered the news that these nine activists were sentenced to life in prison on the charges of conspiracy and sabotage, noting that the actions Mandela and the others committed were “in essence one of high treason” though he did not go as far as to implement the highest form of punishment in accordance with treason.2 The Rivonia Trials were supposed to end Mandela’s fight for justice for South Africa but in fact it only provided him the greatest international stage ever.

Nelson Mandela 1952 Defiance Campaign | Courtesy of

Mandela’s first arrest happened in 1952 when the African National Congress (ANC) and National Youth League was being led by Nelson Mandela. He organized a campaign called the “Campaign of Defiance against Unjust Laws,” which was the largest non-violent protest that South Africa had ever seen. The Defiance Campaign was also the first campaign to have all races included in one party in defiance of Apartheid rules by the ANC. 3 Mandela and the other leaders of the Defiance Campaign convinced hordes of volunteers to refuse carrying the books that designated their racial status and to go into the parts of the cities that were forbidden to them. Moreover, the Youth League defied curfews and violated segregation in governmental businesses, such as train stations and post offices. Despite the non-violent nature of the protests, the government became increasingly more worried about the protestors. Members of the Defiance Campaign were frequently arrested for the crimes they committed, but most were minor offenses and were short term prison sentences. This did nothing to stop the influx of volunteers. The numbers rose from 7,000 to 100,000. 4 In December 1952, Mandela was, along with nineteen others, charged for violating the Suppression of Communism Act. The government sentenced them to nine months in jail.

Four years later, in 1956, Mandela was arrested for the second time, during a raid on him home. In his autobiography, “Long Walk to Freedom,” he recalls his arrest that night, asking the arresting officer questions about overpowering him. When the officer said Mandela was playing with fire, he responded with “Playing with fire is my game.” 5” Mandela was put on trial and charged with treason, alongside 155 others, in what would become known as the “Treason Trial.” Four very long years later, the courts eventually found all defendants not guilty. The Treason Trial lasted four years for a number of reasons, mainly the number of people on trial. Defense Lawyer Israel Maisels argued that these individuals were not guilty because “Treason is a crime distinguished by the means used rather than the end” aimed for. 6

In 1960, the ANC was banned and when the trials concluded, Mandela, fearing for his life, fled to the underground, and eventually out of country, first Sudan, then other African countries and London, with a fake passport.  During his time under ground and outside the country, the banned ANC gave him permission to gather the forces necessary to create and build an army, essentially taking an organization that treated nonviolence as its core, to a different kind of organization, with a future none could ever predict. 7

Nelson Mandela 1962 | Courtesy of BBC

Mandela’s return to South Africa would lead to his third, and final, arrest, but not his last trial. Within days of returning, on August 5, 1962, on a drive to a meeting, Mandela was pulled over ending his seventeen months of unrestricted freedom he enjoyed outside of the country. 8 He was arrested and charged with five years imprisonment upon reentering South Africa for leaving and returning to the country without the proper paperwork and inciting violence. It was in this trial that Mandela fully realized who he could be in this fight for justice. He realized that he was “the symbol of justice in the court of the oppressor, the representative of the great ideals of freedom, fairness, and democracy in a society that dishonored those virtues. [He] realized then and there that [he] could carry on the fight even within the fortress of the enemy.”9

This leads us back to where we started: The Rivonia Trials, which ended in twenty seven years of Nelson Mandela’s life in prison before becoming the first black Head of State for South Africa. In 1948, Apartheid became the system of governance and norms imposed on South Africans. Apartheid refers to total racial segregation, keeping white apart from all people of color. Under Apartheid, the minority led white government of South Africa divided the population in “whites”, “coloreds,” and “blacks.”  Under Apartheid, many laws were passed that further segregated the country, like the Bantu Authorities Act in 1951, which designated areas where blacks were forced to resettled. 10 After spending 27 years in jails, and surviving from tuberculosis, Mandela’s fight had only but started. He strongly opposed De Klerk while working and negotiating with him to set up the rules for the first truly democratic elections in 1994. Unsurprisingly, the ANC and its presidential candidate, Mandela, won the election and proceeded to a peaceful tradition of power.  Apartheid had been ended by parliament a few years earlier in order to pave the way for more democratization. Mandela purposefully did not seek reelection and went on to serve with the UN as a Special Envoy to help negotiate peace in other areas of the Africa Continent. While Mandela passed on December 5th, 2013, we should heed his words of advice that one cannot rest too long at the top of the hill for our freedom comes with many responsibilities and neither is our walk yet completed.

“I have walked that long road to freedom. I have tried not to falter; I have made missteps along the way. But I have discovered the secret that after climbing a great hill, one only finds that there are many more hills to climb. I have taken a moment here to rest, to steal a view of the glorious vista that surrounds me, to look back on the distance I have come.11

“But I can rest only for a moment, for with freedom come responsibilities, and I dare not linger, for my long walk is not yet ended. 12


  1. Nelson Mandela, Speech at Rivonia Trial, April 20 1964, The Telegraph, .
  2. The State vs. Nelson Mandela and Others, Supreme Court of South Africa (June 12, 1964).
  3. Sahoboss, “Defiance Campaign 1952,” South African History Online, March 19, 2018
  4. Marcia Amidon Lusted, “Peaceful Protest,” Cobblestone 29, no. 4: 40, 2008.
  5. Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom, (Randburg: Macdonald Purnell, 1994):23.
  6. Hisotircal Papers, The Treason Trial, Original Transcript, University of Witwatersrand and Johannesburg, .
  7. “Timeline,” Nelson Mandela Foundation, Accessed April 08, 2019
  8. Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom, (Randburg: Macdonald Purnell, 1994):49.
  9. Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom, (Randburg: Macdonald Purnell, 1994):49.
  10. Salem Press Encyclopedia Research Starters, 2014, s.v. “Apartheid,” by Lucas, Emma T.
  11. Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom, (Randburg: Macdonald Purnell, 1994).
  12. Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom, (Randburg: Macdonald Purnell, 1994).

Tags from the story

African National Congress ANC


Nelson Mandela

Rivonia Trials

South Africa

South African Apartheid

Recent Comments

Kaleb Werku

Wow, I can never imagine enduring all of this and still be confident and hopeful about the future. It requires remarkable resilience to lead an organization against an oppressive government. I have nothing but admiration for Nelson Mandela for everything he did for not only South Africa but for the whole world. In addition, the quotes added to the article made me think of the challenges I have experienced.



11:20 pm

Kelsey Sanchez

This article is very interesting due to explaining the story of Nelson Mandela, who showed the importance of justice. The fact that he was put into prison for something not true, Nelson came back stronger and aware of the actions he was going to take. I personally love the last quote in the conclusion, which explains how with freedom come responsibilities. He showed that even if we were to be put in different positions, where they could possibly hurt us the most, we can impact and improve the results of what was once started.



11:20 pm

Rosa Robledo Martinez

Speechless! This article was so amzing, it not only explained what Nelson Mandela was trying to fight for, but it also showed his background information. It’s crazy to think that years ago before we were born, many of our ancestors exprienced discrimination. Nelson Mandela didn’t fear losing his freedom behind bars, he just cared that people around the world get their human rights and freedom that we all deserve. I really enjoyed reading this article, because I didn’t really comprehend what Nelson’s story was and why he fought so hard. But after the reading I undertsan that he wanted everyone to not just be considered equal , but to be viewed equal. Nelson Mandela didn’t allow failure to win although he spent most of his life behind bars , he got his people their freedom.



11:20 pm

Analisa Cervantes

I have heard of Nelson Mandela and his fight to peacefully end apartheid. What I never knew was that he had been arrested more than once. He is an inspiration to us all. I find it amazing that he never gave up even though it resulted in him being arrested and serving time thrice. The two quotes at the beginning and end of the article really set up the mood and tone of the article.



11:20 pm

Courtney Pena

I remember learning about Nelson Mandela and Apartheid in my high school history class. Due to the Rivonia Trials, Nelson Mandela was sentenced to twenty-seven years in prison. I saw a movie on Nelson Mandela in my history class and it showed him seeing his daughter for the first time since he was in prison and the scene was interpreted as emotional. However, Nelson Mandela got released from prison and was eventually able to see his family. He even became the first African head of State for South Africa which made history.



11:20 pm

Mauro Bustamante

Many of our ancestors experienced discrimination. Nelson Mandela didn’t fear losing his freedom behind bars, he just cared that people around the world get their human rights and freedom that we all deserve. He is historical figure and one of the most greatest influencers and game-changers of society. Nelson was able to see the bigger picture in our country moving forward and I think that his story was important to tell. This was an inspiring article because it goes into details about everything that he went through, an fighting for what he believed in.



11:20 pm

Nelly Perez

Nelson Mandela was a strong leader. He won the Nobel Peace Prize and spent twenty seven years in prison. It’s unbelievable to go through a punishment like that for wanting to fight for what was right. He was an influence on the youth to defy the curfews that were given.



11:20 pm

Edith Santos Sevilla

I have heard of Nelson Mandela, but never really learned his story. He is very inspiring and it shows that he really fought for that he believed in. It can be seen as described in the article that even after he was arrested he never gave up on his dream. While I was reading the article I was remembering American history and the discrimination that it was also faced here. It is sad how even in Africa people of color were not treated with respect. Reading that he was committed for treason along with over hundred people it is mind blowing, it took four years of trial and they were found not guilty, which is only fair. All in all, the article was well written and very informative about Nelson Mendel story and the discrimination he faced.



11:20 pm

Hector Membreno

This was my first time reading the full story of Nelson Mandela and I am sad at the struggles he went through but not so surprised. When someone is making so much progress in changing the normal way of thinking the people in power will try and suppress them, such as South Africa government tried to suppress Mandela by sending him to prison 3 times but Mandela showed that when you truly believe and stand for something such things could never suppress the fire that was set inside of him.



11:20 pm

Sydney Hardeman

Nelson Mandela is an inspiration. His fight against apartheid in South Africa is one that every student should learn about. After being arrested multiple times, he continued his fight and never gave up in what he believed. The quote from Mandela at the end of the article is one of my favorites, as he talks about his “long road to freedom.” He understood that the fight against apartheid was a marathon and not a sprint. This just shows that racism is an issue not just in the United States, but across the world.



11:20 pm

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