RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
And I'm David Greene. Good morning.
Nelson Mandela continues to lie very ill in a Pretoria hospital, though it is now said he's responding to treatment.
MONTAGNE: Many around the world are following Mandela's condition. But long before he became the father of the new South Africa, Nelson Mandela was a freedom fighter who used his diaries to contemplate the armed struggle against apartheid. Fifty years ago today, South African police stumbled upon those journals during a raid.
GREENE: That chance event forged Mandela's place in history and changed the course of the nation in ways no one expected.
From Johannesburg, NPR's Gregory Warner tells the story.
GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: When Nelson Mandela was arrested in 1962 and sentenced to five years for the crimes of leaving the country without a passport and incitement, he sent out an urgent message through his lawyers to have all his diaries and his writings destroyed. He knew their discovery could get him hanged. But none of his compatriots on the outside wanted to be the one to light the match.
Without informing Mandela, they decided to hide the papers instead. And the task of hiding them was entrusted to a South African and Israeli activist and abstract painter named Arthur Goldreich. Goldreich might have been reluctant to let the papers stray too far, because the hiding spot he chose was behind the kitchen on the farm in Johannesburg that he and other activists were using for their underground anti-apartheid meetings.
NICHOLAS WOLPE: This was where Arthur Goldreich hid the papers of Nelson Mandela.
WARNER: Nicholas Wolpe has turned this farm - called Liliesleaf - into a heritage site and museum. He shows me the exact coal shed where the diaries were hidden, and hidden in such a way that anyone who looked inside this shed would see a suspicious-looking hump.
WOLPE: And the coal had a slight, I would say, like, a 45-degree angle.
WARNER: Basically, it was like a really bad hiding job.
WOLPE: Effectively, it was.
WARNER: The raid, when it came, was on July 11th, 1963. Police arrested Goldreich and other comrades of Mandela, and found the diaries.
Denis Goldberg was arrested in the same raid.
DENIS GOLDBERG: We were arrogant, you know. We were so superior intellectually to these dumb Afrikaaners police. We used to sing songs about how stupid they were.
WARNER: That arrogance that gave them the courage to challenge the powerful South African state made them incautious until it was too late. Nelson Mandela's writings - contemplating armed struggle against the regime - proved to be damning evidence in the Rivonia Trial of 1963. Mandela and his comrades were accused of treason and other charges that carried the death penalty.
GOLDBERG: And yes, we didn't destroy Nelson Mandela's documents. And those documents, produced in court, made Nelson Mandela famous. This wasn't a hot-headed leader. This was a thinking man.
WARNER: The government tried to use Mandela's words to paint him as a terrorist. The trial forced Mandela to articulate a public defense of the principles that, up till then, he'd mostly been working out in his private writings.
Ahmed Kathrada was also tried. He served nearly as much prison time as Mandela. He says that courtroom strategy was ironed out early on.
AHMED KATHRADA: We must make it a political trial. In other words, if there's genuine evidence, you don't dispute it. But you don't apologize. You don't ask for mercy. You proclaim your political beliefs, and if there's a death sentence, you're not appealing.
WARNER: That strategy found its ultimate expression in Mandela's closing speech on the witness stand.
(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)
NELSON MANDELA: 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 for which I hope to live for. But my lord, if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.
WARNER: In the end, Mandela's words did more damage to the apartheid regime than guns or grenades. The United Nations condemned the trial. Countries imposed sanctions. By the time Mandela and his colleagues were sentenced to life in prison, he was on his way to becoming an icon.
Gregory Warner, NPR News, Johannesburg. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.