The Arrest of Nelson Mandela and the Concept of Freedom of Speech

The Arrest of Nelson Mandela and the Concept of Freedom of Speech
Helena S.

On August 5th, 1962, South Africa’s most wanted anti-apartheid activist and the man known as the “father of Modern South Africa”, Nelson Mandela, was arrested and served 27 years of jail. He was charged with organizing an illegal strike and for illegal immigration (Simpson). Mandela was an activist who spoke against the minority government and apartheid, a system of racial segregation in South Africa at the time. He served the African National Congress (ANC) party and later the South African Communist Party (SACP). Nelson Mandela stood trial four times, charged with sabotage, treason, violent conspiracy, not abiding by the apartheid laws, illegally leaving the country, and violating the suppression of the communist act. To better understand this arrest, it is best to paint a timeline (Simpson).

Image of Nelson Mandela taken by Azher Saloojee.

On the 21st of March 1960, 60 peaceful protestors were killed by the police at Sharpeville, with Mandela, alongside thousands of others, being detained during the country’s state of emergency, days later, on the 30th of March. The ANC and the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) were banned on April 8th of the same year and, the following year, on March 29th, Mandela and others were charged with high treason. On the 11th of January of 1962, he left the country illegally, without a passport and proper documentation, to begin organizing a new armed wing that would later engage in guerrilla warfare against the minority government and gather support. This branch would be called Umkhonto we Sizwe, meaning Spear of the Nation. Mandela was arrested for the first time on August 5th, 1962, at a roadblock near Howick, Kwazulu-Natal. The following year on October 29th, he was charged with 193 acts of sabotage. Nelson Mandela decided to independently defend himself in court, delivering his famous “Speech from the Dock”, on the 20th of the April of 1964, stating that he is “prepared to die” for the sake of a democratic South Africa ("Trials and prisons"). In the end, Mandela and seven others were sentenced to life imprisonment on June 12th, 1964, and he stayed in prison for 27 years until being released on February 11th, 1990 ("Nelson Mandela"). On the time leading to his parole, he led the ANC in its negotiations with the minority government to end the apartheid and establish a multiracial government. In 1993, Nelson Mandela and de Klerk jointly won the Nobel Peace Prize, followed by ANC winning the electoral majority in South Africa’s first free elections in 1994, electing Mandela as the country’s president. He retired in 1999 but remained a global advocate for peace and social justice until his death in December of 2013.

His arrest was also an issue of freedom of speech, and it brought global attention to this matter. To what extent should freedom of speech be exercised? Some argue that hate speech and any form of negative or socially unacceptable commentary should not be permitted to have a voice. On the other hand, some claim regardless of how bad the intentions and meaning of someone’s words are, freedom of speech should be at any human’s disposal, and restricting to individual nations is immoral (Gerber).


The population´s rights to advocate their beliefs are being taken from them in their homeland, a global occurrence. An autocracy is a system of government where absolute power is in the hands of one person whose decisions are not subjected to external legal restraints, not regularized mechanism of popular control. Within autocracies, the violation of freedom of speech is quotidian. Examples of past autocratic states are Germany, ruled by Adolf Hitler: Cuba, by Fidel Castro: Japan, by Hirohito: and China, by Mao Zedong. Recently, many Member States have seemingly been declining towards the path of authoritative government, suggesting the potential of restricted rights and freedoms. For 16 consecutive years, there has been a decline in global freedom, including 60 countries that fit this evaluation. Today, around 38% of the world’s population resides in nations that are “Not Free” (Repucci and Slipowitz). The first step to bringing back a voice to these people and eradicating the autocratic states is spreading awareness and promote democracy.




Works Cited

"Freedom of opinion and expression : resolution / adopted by the Human Rights Council on 16 July 2020." United Nations Digital Library, 16 July 2020, Accessed 5 Nov. 2022.

Gerber, Scott D., S.G. "The Politics of Free Speech." Cambridge University Press, 4 June 2004, Accessed 13 Oct. 2022.

"Nelson Mandela released from prison." History, A&E Television Networks, 9 Feb. 2021, Accessed 13 Oct. 2022.

Repucci, Sarah, S.R., and Amy Slipowitz, A.S. "The Global Expansion of Authoritarian Rule." Freedom House, Accessed 13 Oct. 2022.

Simpson, Chula, C.S. "Date with history: the arrest of Nelson Mandela." Chatham House, 3 Aug. 2022,'s%20arrest%20near%20Howick,a%20year%20and%20a%20half. Accessed 13 Oct. 2022.

"Trials and prisons chronology." Nelson Mandela Foundation, Accessed 13 Oct. 2022.