Mandela's Strategic Decision | Facing History & Ourselves

Mandela's Strategic Decision

Examine Nelson Mandela’s emotional rejection of a 1985 offer by the South African government to free him if he renounced violence and abstained from politics.
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At a Glance

reading copy


English — US


  • History
  • Democracy & Civic Engagement

By 1985, the apartheid government of South Africa was facing both a rapidly spreading black uprising and growing international opposition, including economic sanctions. The government knew that it needed a new strategy in order to maintain white rule. On January 31, 1985, the president of South Africa, P. W. Botha, made a surprising announcement in parliament: he offered Nelson Mandela his freedom, provided he “unconditionally rejected violence as a political weapon.” Ten days later came Mandela’s reply, read by his daughter Zindzi at a mass meeting of 70,000 people in Jabulani Stadium, Soweto. 1 It was a momentous occasion, as no one in South Africa had heard his words in over 20 years. Even possession of a photo of Mandela could mean imprisonment. The following is an excerpt from Mandela’s response to Botha’s offer.

I am a member of the African National Congress. I have always been a member of the African National Congress and I will remain a member of the African National Congress until the day I die. . . .

I am surprised at the conditions that the government wants to impose on me. I am not a violent man. My colleagues and I wrote in 1952 to Malan [then head of the government] asking for a round table conference to find a solution to the problems of our country, but that was ignored. When Strijdom was in power [1954–1958], we made the same offer. Again it was ignored. When Verwoerd was in power [1958–1966] we asked for a national convention for all the people in South Africa to decide on their future. This, too, was in vain.

It was only then, when all other forms of resistance were no longer open to us, that we turned to armed struggle. Let Botha show that he is different to Malan, Strijdom and Verwoerd. Let him renounce violence. Let him say that he will dismantle apartheid. Let him unban the people's organisation, the African National Congress. Let him free all who have been imprisoned, banished or exiled for their opposition to apartheid. Let him guarantee free political activity so that people may decide who will govern them.

I cherish my own freedom dearly, but I care even more for your freedom. Too many have died since I went to prison. Too many have suffered for the love of freedom. I owe it to their widows, to their orphans, to their mothers and to their fathers who have grieved and wept for them. Not only I have suffered during these long, lonely, wasted years. I am not less life-loving than you are. But I cannot sell my birthright, nor am I prepared to sell the birthright of the people to be free. I am in prison as the representative of the people and of your organisation, the African National Congress, which was banned.

What freedom am I being offered while the organisation of the people remains banned? What freedom am I being offered when I may be arrested on a pass offence? What freedom am I being offered to live my life as a family with my dear wife who remains in banishment in Brandfort? What freedom am I being offered when I must ask for permission to live in an urban area? What freedom am I being offered when I need a stamp in my pass to seek work? What freedom am I being offered when my very South African citizenship is not respected?

Only free men can negotiate. Prisoners cannot enter into contracts. . . .

I cannot and will not give any undertaking at a time when I and you, the people, are not free.

Your freedom and mine cannot be separated. I will return. 2

  • 1An excerpt of his speech read by Zindzi—and the palpable excitement of those listening to his words—can be viewed at the CBS News website.
  • 2Statement by Nelson Mandela read on his behalf by his daughter [Zindzi] at a UDF rally to celebrate Archbishop Tutu receiving the Nobel Peace Prize, Jabulani Stadium, Soweto,” Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela memorial website, accessed March 21, 2017. Reproduced by permission of the Nelson Mandela Foundation.

Additional Readings on Nelson Mandela

Connection Questions

  1. Both the government and Mandela each faced a strategic dilemma. For the government what risks did they face in freeing Mandela? What would they lose by keeping him in prison?
  2. Mandela also faced a dilemma in choosing between two alternatives, each of which had benefits and drawbacks. What were the benefits of each choice? In his speech, Mandela discussed and defined what freedom meant to him. What did he say? What do you think of Mandela’s two decisions: to stay in jail and not to reject violence as a political weapon?

How to Cite This Reading

Facing History & Ourselves, “Mandela's Strategic Decision,” last updated July 31, 2018. 

This reading contains text not authored by Facing History & Ourselves. See footnotes for source information.

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