Sample Analysis of Nelson Mandela’s Release Speech

Analysis of Nelson Mandela’s Release Speech


For over 27 years, prison had been Nelson Mandela’s home. He was incarcerated as a political prisoner for fighting against apartheid and calling for freedom for all South Africans, black or white. When he was finally released from Victor Verster Prison on 11th February 1990, Mandela addressed a mammoth crowd and millions of South Africans around the country and the global community in Cape Town. His speech had to resonate with the sufferings of South Africans especially blacks since apartheid had not been banned and racial violence was a common vice along the streets. South Africa’s economy was performing poorly due to the numerous sanctions and trade embargoes put in place by many countries which were against apartheid. Most importantly, Mandela struck a reconciliatory note calling for unity of purpose amongst all South Africans and formation of an inclusive government that mirrors the racial mix of the country. After close to three decades in incarceration, Mandela had to intricately weave his negative emotions including anger with passion for change to send a message of reconciliation and forward thinking while thanking the numerous individuals and institutions including the African National Congress (ANC) for their support.

This essay is a rhetorical analysis of this landmark speech which set the tone for the racial relations, negotiations to end apartheid, democracy, political settlements and economic development in the country for years to come. Towards this end, the analysis will focus on the use of pathos, logos, ethos and figures of speech to appeal to the audience and reinforce his message of unity while also motivating and inspiring his audience.



Rhetorical Analysis: Ethos, Logos, Pathos and Figures of Speech

The delivery of the speech was intentionally authoritative and slow to capture the attention of his audience. Such delivery was in line with the thesis and purpose of the speech. He not only wanted to thank fellow comrades, South Africans and the global community for supporting the cause for which he stood and was ready to die for, he sought to appeal to all South Africans to intentionally unite and form unified front against racial discrimination represented by apartheid. These objectives were achieved using rhetorical techniques from the onset of the speech and ensuring that the global audiences were sympathetic and supportive of his legitimate cause, as supported by many South Africans and the ANC, free the country of apartheid.

One of the keys to delivering a great speech is capturing the attention of the audience at the opening of the speech (Zarefdky, 2008). He achieved this by establishing a connection with the crowd and the moment. By opening his speech through recognizing the diversity of individuals present and far beyond the borders and alluding to his African identity, he establishes credibility. He further establishes credibility by speaking the local language which many people identify with. He recognizes fellow Africans including Oliver Tambo, the then serving President of African National Congress who was recovering in a clinic in Switzerland but was represented by his wife. He acknowledges several sub-audiences including youths, religious leaders, mothers, students and working class for their effort in fighting racial oppression (Mandela n.d). By extending his recognition of the international support and comrades who helped in fighting for racial equality, freedom and his release, Mandela identifies the importance of the events that preceded his release and the task ahead.

Known as ethos, this approach focuses on the character of the speaker and as Crowley and Hawhee (2003) notes, it highlights more than the behavior of the speaker; it puts the reputation of the speaker into the spotlight (Zarefdky, 2008). This allows Mandela to portray himself as a loyal, humble individual with high sense of gratitude. He shows this character throughout the speech as he describes himself as a “humble servant”. This figure of servitude is aptly symbolized by the almost three decades he spent in jail for his belief in freedom and racial equality. This line resonates well with the audience, local or global; who are fully aware of his predicament and his release from incarceration was the reason for delivering this speech. He further asserts that he is indeed a “loyal and disciplined member of the African National Congress.” He was “therefore in full agreement with all of its objectives, strategies and tactics” (Mandela n.d)

As a true believer in unity, Mandela presses upon the crowd and most importantly, the country’s leadership to embrace a concerted and unified leadership in tackling the problems facing the country. From the onset, he notes that his life was in the united hands of all South Africans. He believes the people has the authority and can unite to direct the lives of leaders like him despite the authority they hold. He also acknowledges efforts made by President Fredrick De Klerk “to normalize the situation.” However, while he believed the country is on the right track, he asserted that a normalized situation should “[allow] for free political activity” will “allow [leaders] to consult [their] people in order to obtain a mandate” (Mandela n.d).

Throughout the speech, Mandela comes out as a calm and logical person. Despite being incarcerated for 27 years, in his speech Mandela avoids the temptation of anger and badmouthing the white dominated government for oppressing him and fellow comrades some of whom died fighting for the rights of black Africans. The opening of his speech truly captivates these qualities. He asserts “I greet you all in the name of peace, democracy and freedom for all.” (Mandela n.d). The wordings of this sentence are intentional and their meanings far reaching. The sentence states his life objective and cause: peace, democracy and racial equality. These are ideals that, in the final part of his speech, he reminds the audience as he stated during his 1964 trial: he hopes “to live for and to achieve” and die for if necessary. He reassures the audience and especially his oppressors that he is peace loving and hence forgiving. This message is a call to his audience to forgive and forge a way forward united in order to win the hearts of those who were skeptical of their intentions. Therefore, by focusing on his ethos, Mandela portrays himself as loyal, knowledgeable and loyal; a servant of the people whose life is in the hands of the people. He is calm and logical in an otherwise tense moment. He could be easily swayed by the euphoria and even the throngs of people before him made up mostly of black majority who had been oppressed by the white dominated government t.

Using a simple speech design, Mandela transitions into important issues he believed were affecting the country, key among them apartheid. Using logos, Mandela supports his objection to apartheid. He holds that apartheid must be ended for it has no place in the future of his society. He believes that it “has to be ended…in order to build peace and security” (Mandela n.d). To drive his point home, he cites examples of the effects of apartheid that fully resonates with the audience. Issues such as homelessness and poor performance of the country’s economy are examples he cites which many South Africans had witnessed. He uses these evidences to call for a concerted effort towards normalization of country’s political system.

The main body of Mandela’s speech was very solid with very pointed arguments while also channeling a path for the future of his country. He clearly outlines and proposes key areas that need to be addressed in order for the country to move forward together. One important step towards a better future is putting an end to the curfew that came into effect when the government declared a state of emergency across many sections of the country. True to the character he had displayed earlier of unity, reconciliation and forgiveness, he held that, like his fellow comrades, apartheid must be ended through a negotiated process. He also held that all those held as prisoners, political leaders or not, must be freed in order for the country to move forward. He also suggested that the trade sanctions imposed by other countries on South Africa should be maintained to push the government to negotiate on ending apartheid which is the reason why the sanctions were imposed. This logical as lifting of sanctions without an end to apartheid would be self-defeating.

His use of logos overlaps with the use of rhetorical praxis. Mandela planned, articulated and delivered his main points by deliberately using these evidences known by the audience to highlight what can and must be done in order to liberate South Africa from the clutches of racial discrimination and economic oppression. He also uses such evidence to showcase to South Africans and the global community what such positive deliberate actions can bring in terms of unifying the country and spurring economic development. His evidence is accurate, sufficient, relevant and sufficient. This is known as STAR argumentative technique (Ramage, Bean & Johnson, 2007).

The sufficiency of his evidence extends beyond the experiences of fellow South Africans. Mandela was a living testimony of the negative effects of apartheid. He makes reference to his 1964 trial which was the beginning of his predicaments. By alluding to his character and his intentions, Mandela reinforces sufficiency of his evidence. He is a forgiving man who, with unwavering conviction and with the support of many local and global communities, he managed to fight for a cause he believed in. He is not swayed by emotions and the urge to incite the crowd to turn against the oppressors. Rather, he struck a conciliatory tone that recognized the magnitude of the task ahead and significance of a better future for the country.

His ideas for a better future and the arguments were presented in a simple and concise manner that allowed the audiences to easily follow. By exercising caution, Mandela ensured that he positively appealed to the emotions of the audience using evidences that they easily relate to. The measured approach ensured that his evidence, including his trial several years before, were not inflamed and contaminated by negative emotions. Therefore, he opted for only relevant evidence that would have the maximum impact in sending the intended message to the audience. Significantly, this balancing act ensured that he also met the expectations of the audience which had been oppressed and waited for him for 27 years to be freed and lead their quest for freedom.

To ensure an emotional impact of his landmark speech and connect with his audience, Mandela uses pathos or fiery emotion. He intentionally used emotionally packed phrases that resonated with the audience. He notes that many people have been faced with “difficult circumstances” including “unrelenting persecution” by the pro-apartheid supporters. However, faced with such challenges, they did not give up as they held “the flag of liberty high…even during the darkest days in the history of [the country]”. Many South Africans were fighting for liberty. The global audiences which stood with them were also pushing for liberty. Therefore, this phrase resonated well with the audiences both at home and abroad. In the eyes of Mandela, their actions were “the pride of [their] movement” and therefore, all those who stood up against apartheid in the face of these difficulties were “great heroes.” Dead or alive, the South Africans who fought for apartheid have always been celebrated as heroes and such recognition by Mandela, a hero in his own right, appealed to the millions across the country.

However, he does not just complement the audience; he stirs their emotions. By making such imagery references such as “sacrificing life and limbs in the pursuit of the noble cause of our struggle” (Mandela n.d), Mandela sought to positively influence especially their perception of their struggle. Their struggle was dignified and therefore they should view it with a sense of pride even in the face of physical and emotional pain. He sought to instill a sense of pride and patriotism while leading them away from the temptation of revenge and hatred towards the oppressors. Mandela therefore expertly navigated a delicate matter which high chances of drawing negative emotions and actions. In the end, he urges the supporters and followers to own their experiences and view their scars and losses with pride for it was noble cause that they suffered for. He sought to channel the negative emotions into a positive force to drive them forward.

Figures of speech feature prominently in Mandela’s speech. In his greetings and salutations, he uses anaphora by repeatedly, in successive sentences, using the phrase “I salute”. Banks (n.d) notes that such repeated use phrases and sometimes words to begin successive sentences specially appeals to the audience. In Mandela’s case, it gives him credibility by defining his identity and character thereby enabling him to appeal to his audience at the onset of his speech. He identifies with all those who have participated in the struggle, locally and abroad. This highlights his loyalty to the struggle and to those who have helped him before he was released from prison. At the end of his anaphora, he notes that “I am convinced that your pain and suffering was far greater than my own.” Therefore, the anaphora used helps in bringing out the ethos in the speech.

One of the outstanding qualities of the speech is its direct approach in addressing the audience (Morgan, 2003). Nelson Mandela directly addressed the various sub-audiences present at the venue and those spread across the world. In his opening of the speech, his salutation and greetings are addressed directly to specific sub-audiences including students and foreign governments and various institutions who fought against apartheid. He acknowledged the sufferings of many South Africans who lost limbs and made sacrifices for the sake of freedom. He acknowledged those who lost their loved one and most importantly, he poignantly states that their lives were not more important than his. Mandela directly addressed his “white compatriots” especially those who were present including F.W. De Klerk whom he acknowledged had made significant steps towards ending apartheid. However, he pointed out the key areas that must be addressed for the country to move forward. This direct reference showed that Mandela was fully aware of the various sub-audiences of the speech. It allowed him to connect and interact directly with them (Morgan, 2003).

Mandela also used metaphors in addressing the crowd. He referred to the youths as young lions. With their energy, he acknowledged, they have revitalized their fight for freedom. The time when they oppressed and put into prison is referred to as “dark days of history”. These indirect allusions not only helped him to connect with the audience but also ensured the effectiveness in driving the message home (Morgan, 2003). It emotionally charged the audience and inspired and motivated them to fight and press even further in their struggle for political, social and economic freedom.

The fist has, for many years, been associated with power, freedom and unity especially by the ANC and the freedom fighters in South America. By holding a fist and raising it up, Mandela sought to empower and unity South Africans in their quest for freedom. It showed that together, they were stronger and could overcome any challenge they faced. This is why he held it up high for a while before beginning the speech.

The demeanor of the speaker is very critical in how they relate with the audience during speech delivery. Nelson Mandela had an iconic and charming smile which endeared him to many and showed his forgiving and endearing nature. The smile he had at the beginning of the speech showed warmth and displayed his welcoming personality. It sent a resounding message that even after 27 years behind bars with hard labor, his joy and happiness were still intact. He smiled at everyone in the audience including the pro-apartheid sympathizers who were skeptical of his intentions. It showed that he had embraced everything he had gone through with shoulders high and a smile on his face.


One of the most significant speeches ever delivered by Nelson Mandela was immediately after his release from 27 years in jail for fighting for an end to apartheid and racial discrimination for all South Africans. Delivered before a crowd of people in Cape Town, the speech was symbolic in the past and future life of Mandela as it further defined his personality while also highlighting the struggles of many South Africans during the apartheid era. He came out as a uniting and forgiving figure who was ready to forge ahead through unity of purpose. Mandela delivered the speech at a time when the country was still battling racial segregation, oppression and harsh economic times. At personal level, the challenge was even greater for he had just been released from incarceration for close to three decades. Delivering the right message and for the message to achieve the desired effect under such circumstances was challenging. However, Mandela rose to the occasion strategically and intentionally used rhetorical tools and figures of speech to appeal to his audience.

By employing a simple speech design laced with a direct approach and logos, pathos, ethos and figures of speech, Mandela managed to strike equilibrium among the various emotions at play. By first defining his character and personality, he had the credibility foothold that allowed him to weave through the delicate issues that he addressed without stroking negative emotions through inflammatory statements. He ensured that he connected with audiences by using logical examples to highlight issues that they identified with and also addressing them directly. He uses a reconciliatory tone which added a negotiation appeal to the speech. He identified the issue of conflict, suggested the way forward. However, he also identified the players and acknowledged their perceptions. His suggestions and targets are contextualized and based on evidence.

The speech is a great read and offers insights into speech writing including the various components of a speech and how to make speeches captivating and appealing to the audience from the audience. The speech showcased Nelson Mandela as a great orator who expertly combined his interpersonal skills including body language with figurative speeches and rhetorical tools to appeal to a bi-partisan audience and address a very contentious and critical issue that had for many years divided the country along racial lines.


Morgan, N. (2003). Opening options: How to grab your audience’s attention. Harvard Communication Letter, July, 1-4.

Ramage, J.D., Bean, J.C., & Johnson, J. (2007). Writing arguments: A rhetoric with readings (7th ed). NY: Longman.

Banks, W. P. (n.d.) A short handbook on rhetorical analysis. Retrieved September 30, 2009 from

Crowley, S., & Hawhee, D. (2003). Ancient rhetorics for contemporary students. NY: Longman.

Zarefdky, D. (2008). Knowledge claims in rhetorical criticism. Journal of Communication 58, 629-640.

Mandela, N. “Nelson Mandela`s Address to a rally in Cape Town on his release from prison.” African National Congress. Retrieved from