Nelson Mandela's First TV Interview, May 1961

A 42-year-old Mandela spoke from hiding with a British reporter in the aftermath of a government crackdown. 
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The year was 1961. Nelson Mandela was already a wanted man.

Apartheid would not end for 33 years. Mandela would not be removed from the U.S. terrorist watch list for 47 years. And Mandela would live 52 more years, becoming the head of his nation, and one of the most respected leaders in the world.

But in May 1961, Mandela was only an increasingly powerful opposition leader hiding from the government in the aftermath of a peaceful campaign for non-cooperation with the government, which South African authorities responded to by arresting 10,000 people and mobilizing the military.

A reporter with the British television network ITN, Brian Widlake, arranged to meet with Mandela. It was Mandela's first TV interview, and he took the opportunity to declare that methods beyond non-violence and non-cooperation would be considered by the ANC.

But first, Mandela laid out his group's simple demand. "The Africans require the franchise on the basis of one man, one vote. They want political independence," he told Widlake, who responds with a question about whether Mandela wants to boot the Europeans out of South Africa. "We have made it very clear in our policy that South Africa is a country of many races," Mandela responds. "There is room for all the various races in this country."

Then the reporter asks, "Are there many educated Africans in South Africa?" Which was a way of questioning whether Africans could truly "want" political independence without schooling, as Mandela recognizes in his answer (throughout the interview, the reporter asks coded questions and Mandela gives decoded answers). 

"We have a large number of Africans who are educated and are taking part in the political struggle of the African people. The question of education has nothing to do with the question of the vote. On numerous occasions, it has been proven in history that people can enjoy the vote even if they have no education or quality of education. And I think it is a good thing," Mandela said. "You don't have to have education to want certain fundamental rights. You have got aspirations, you have got claims. It has nothing to do with education."

Finally, Widlake asks about the "possibility of violence," by which he meant African-on-European violence, as European-on-African violence was a constant repressive force.

Mandela gave the following considered response. 

There are many people who feel that the reaction of the government to our stay at home, ordering a general mobilization and arming the white community, arresting ten thousand Africans, the show of force throughout the country. Notwithstanding our clear declaration that this campaign is being run on peaceful and non-violent lines close a chapter as far as our methods of political struggle are concerned. There are many people who feel that it is useful and futile for us to continue talking peace and nonviolence against the government whose reply is only savage attacks on an unarmed and defenseless people. And I think the time has come for us to consider, in the light of our experiences in this stay-at-home, whether the methods we have applied so far are adequate. 

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com, where he also oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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