Mandela speechwriter recounts life’s work

Last Thursday, Dr. Garrey Michael Dennie visited the College to give a talk about his experiences writing speeches for South African leaders including the revolutionary former South African president Nelson Mandela during apartheid. Students of Caribbean Ancestry (SOCA) and the Black Student Union hosted Dennie’s lecture as a part of SOCA Heritage Week. After his talk, Dennie sat down with the Record to discuss how he and Mandela’s other speechwriters crafted a language to reflect the currents of liberation at a turbulent time in South Africa.

Dennie’s journey to writing speeches for dissenters of apartheid began with his graduate study at Johns Hopkins. In 1989, when Dennie was studying the politics of African history for a Ph.D at the university, he and his classmate Carolyn Hamilton traveled to South Africa to conduct research.

“My dissertation began as an effort to look at that issue to see how funerals became places of [political] struggle between upholders of apartheid and dissenters of apartheid,” Dennie said. Though he knew Hamilton, a white South African, was involved with the resistance movement, Dennie did not know she was a member of the African National Congress (ANC). “I did not know that she was engaged in the struggle,” he said.

Apartheid was a series of policies enforcing the segregation of blacks and whites in South Africa for much of the twentieth century. “Apartheid was a system of racial oppression, a racial system of separation,” he said. The South African government crafted an “entire fabric of legislation spelling out what blacks could and couldn’t do.” Imprisonment and persecution met resistors of apartheid. “This is why Mandela was jailed in 1962. This is why Walter Sisulu was jailed,” Dennie said.

The struggle against apartheid manifested in a multitude of ways and Dennie sees his speeches as feeding into that fight. “I arrived in South Africa at a moment when I could be a part of this process by speechwriting,” he said.

Through Hamilton, Dennie gained access to the resistance movement. “When I arrived in South Africa in late 1989, the South African government was in the process of releasing Walter Sisulu,” Dennie said. Sisulu, second in standing to only Nelson Mandela in the ANC, had been jailed for 25 years on Robben Island. When Sisulu was “called upon to deliver an address for the Conference for a Democratic Future [in Dec. 1989],” Hamilton was asked to write the speech. She enlisted Dennie to help her. “When Sisulu was released from prison, the ANC leadership in exile in Zambia sent him a speech to deliver,” Dennie said, though neither he nor Hamilton knew at the time. Sisulu chose to deliver Hamilton and Dennie’s address. “In his view, [ours] was a better speech,” Dennie said.

Dennie and Hamilton’s speech set a tone that was both firm and compelling. “It was a very important speech because it set out in a very public fashion the conditions which the ANC and allied organizations demanded to be met,” Dennie said. In the speech, Dennie and Hamilton called for “a programme that will challenge the apartheid state,” specifically calling for the freeing of Mandela and political prisoners. The speech called out Prime Minister F.W. de Klerk by name and challenged him and his colleagues to “feel the power of unity and action with the people of South Africa, instead of against them.”

Dennie and Hamilton continued to write speeches for Sisulu. Their speeches were so well regarded that, after Mandela was released from prison, they were asked to write several addresses for him. In comparing the speeches he and Hamilton wrote for Mandela with the leader’s earlier orations, Dennie sees a difference in emphasis.

“Our speeches tended to historicize the struggle and place a tremendous weight on the trajectory of the struggle, to valorize the history,” he said. “When you look at the speeches we [wrote], we set out to interpret the history of the struggle. History is the means for presenting the struggle.”

Dennie and Hamilton had a great degree of freedom in crafting the language of their speeches for Sisulu and Mandela. “We had tremendous liberty in shaping the language of resistance that left Mandela’s lips,” Dennie said.

Though they worked closely with both Sisulu and Mandela to tailor the speeches to the men, Dennie and Hamilton exercised powerful influence over the wording of the leaders’ public expression. “Only once did Mandela not read a speech we gave him,” Dennie recalled. The speech, an address to a rally in Bloemfontein on Feb. 20, 1990, included a direct call to remove Minister of Defense Magnus Malan from his post in its last lines. “Mandela at the time didn’t want to push the president. At the time he held back from going that far,” Dennie said. Two months later, Mandela included the demand to dismiss Malan when he gave the same speech at a different event.

Dennie and Hamilton tried to craft a “language that reflected the struggle” against apartheid. The call of justice emboldened Dennie and Hamilton to push back against the apartheid state in speechwriting, even when it endangered them.

“We were without fear of crossing any red lines,” Dennie said. “If you are making a case on behalf of those who are being slaughtered, what line is there to be crossed? If you are writing on behalf of the oppressed and they know that and your language reflects that, there is nothing to fear.”

  • Lerato Balang

    I am South African, i was an under-grad student at the University of the Witwatersrand when Proffesor Dennie was a Research Fellow at the same University. It was an honour knowing him and sometimes being privy to the speeches he was writting, the energy he invested in writting those speeches was amazing.