Nelson Mandela Inauguration Speech Analysis

All inaugural addresses use tools of rhetoric. Nelson Mandela gave an inaugural address. Therefore, Mandela’s inaugural address uses tools of rhetoric. As stated by Campbell and Jamieson, “inauguration is a right of passage, and therefore creates a need for the newly elected president to make a public address – these addresses have a synthetic core in which certain rhetorical elements … are fused into an indivisible whole” (1990). This paper will discuss the often subtle but effective tools of rhetoric used in inaugural addresses, focusing on former South African President Nelson Mandela’s, in particular.

I will argue that the creation of unity is the overriding rhetorical purpose of the inaugural address as a genre, which is synonymous with Burke’s theory of identification To begin with, I will provide some background information on the inaugural address as a rhetorical genre. Following this, I will discuss the positions of the author and audience (the rhetorical situation), and relate these positions to Aristotle’s concept of ethos and pathos; I will go on to analyze the appeals and tropes exercised by Mandela in his inaugural address; all of these rhetorical elements, I will argue, construct unity and persuade the people of South Africa to take their first steps towards reunification.

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The inaugural address can be considered a rhetorical genre, as it is a recognizable kind of speech with “similar forms that share substantive, stylistic, and situational characteristics” (Tarvin, 2008). The inaugural address is ceremonial and traditional in nature, and can be characterized by Aristotelian theorists as epideictic oratory, which is oratory that takes place on special occasions; the author “celebrates the event for an audience of … fellow citizens by appealing to common values and cultural traditions” (Killingsworth, 2005).

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The speech symbolizes a change in government, and is the newly elected President’s first official public address. Corbett and Connors have observed that “inaugural addresses usually deal in broad, undeveloped generalizations. Principles, policies, and promises are enunciated without elaboration” (1999), while Sigelman points out that presidents “typically use the occasion to commemorate the nation’s past, to envision its future, and to try to set the tone for [following] years” (1996). Campbell and Jamieson define five key elements that distinguish the inaugural address as a genre.

The presidential inaugural: “unifies the audience by reconstituting its members as the people, who can witness and ratify the ceremony; rehearses communal values drawn from the past; sets forth the political principles that will govern the new administration; and demonstrates through enactment that the president appreciates the requirements and limitations of executive functions. Finally, each of these ends must be achieved … while urging contemplation not action, focusing on the present while incorporating past and future, and praising the institution of presidency and the values and form of the government of which it is a part (Campbell and Jamieson, 1990). Note that unification of the audience (which is synonymous with Burke’s theory of identification) constitutes the “most fundamental [element] that demarcate[s] the inaugural address as a rhetorical genre” (Sigelman, 1996), which is the overriding argument of this paper. I would also like to point out the three main positions in any piece of rhetoric, as stated by Killingsworth (2005): the position of the author (Mandela, for the purpose of this essay), the position of the audience (immediate and secondary audiences), and the position of value to which the author refers (the unity of whites and blacks).

The author’s rhetorical goal is to move the audience towards his position via a shared position of values, which results in the alignment of the three positions (author, audience, and value). Therefore, Mandela’s rhetorical goal is to move his immediate and secondary audience of both supporters and critics towards his position as the newly elected black President of South Africa by the shared goal of unification of all races within the nation. Put another way, Kenneth Burke, in his work “A Rhetoric of Motives”, describes the basic function of rhetoric as the “use of words by human agents to form attitudes or induce actions in other human agents” (1969). In order to align attitudes of author, audience, and value, or in order to form attitudes to induce action in other human agents, the first consideration in the construction of the speech must be the audience. Before I discuss audience though, I will talk about the position of Mandela – the author of the inaugural address in question.

Corbett and Connors (1999) point out that when doing a rhetorical analysis, one must always consider the special situation that faces the speaker. Nelson Mandela was elected as the first black president in South Africa on May 10th, 1994; this election was particularly significant because it was the first ever multi-racial, democratic election in the country’s history. It also signaled the end of the apartheid (from the Afrikaans word for “apartness” or “separateness”), which was both a slogan and a social and political policy of racial segregations and discrimination, enforced by the White National party from 1948 until Mandela’s election. However, racial segregation has characterized South Africa since white settlers arrived in 1652, before apartheid. Furthermore, Mandela spent 27 years as a political prisoner in South Africa for his role as a freedom fighter and leader of the African National Congress (ANC), and his significant contribution to anti-apartheid activities.

All of these factors established some doubts in Mandela, especially in the minds of white South Africans. Mandela “had to address the very legitimate needs of black South African people while preventing the flight of white South Africans and foreign capital from the nation … [and his inaugural address] needed to [rhetorically] establish the ground from which progress would grow” (Sheckels, 2001). Because of these varying circumstances, the inaugural address might be “an occasion when a powerful ethical appeal would have to be exerted if the confidence and initiatives of the people were to be aroused” (Corbett and Connors, 1999). However, while these factors established doubts in some, they also contributed to Mandela’s ethos, which is defined by Aristotle as the character or credibility of the rhetor. Aristotle claims “It is necessary not only to look at the argument, that it may be demonstrative and persuasive but also [for the speaker] to construct a view of himself as a certain kind of person” (Aristotle in Borchers, 2006). As stated in Killingsworth, “authors demonstrate their character … in every utterance” (2005).

A person who possesses “practical wisdom, virtue, and good will … is necessarily persuasive to the hearers” (Borchers, 2006). Mandela possesses considerable ethos as a result of his personal identity and regional history; his involvement with the ANC, the political party whose aim was to defend the rights and freedoms of African people, and the time he served as a political prisoner demonstrate his dedication to the construction of a democratic nation. One author notes that Mandela serves as a “representative of the African people at large” (Sheckels, 2001). The public’s knowledge of Mandela’s past allows him to establish ethos, which in turn helps him deliver a rhetorically successful inaugural address, which serves in the construction of unity between all people of South Africa. Additionally, as one author points out, ethos “may take several forms – a powerful leader like the President will often have the ethos of credibility that comes from authority” (Tuman, 2010).

While Mandela uses his past to construct ethos, he also gains ethos as South Africa’s newly elected President. Because it was the first ever democratic election, in which his party won 62% of the votes, Mandela gains authority over past South African Presidents; his call to office represents the wants and needs of all people in South Africa, while his predecessors’ did not. Mandela’s accumulated ethos contributes to the persuasive power of his inaugural address, in which he makes his first official attempt as President to establish unity through speech. Next I will discuss the position of the audience. When constructing a speech, the author must first consider who his specific audience is: “consideration of audience drives the creation of an effective persuasive message” (Tuman, 2010). When writing his inaugural speech, which is a form of oral rhetoric, Mandela had to consider both an immediate audience, as well as a secondary audience who would watch the speech through the medium of TV and listen to it on the radio.

The audience consisted not only of South Africans, but of people across the world interested and inspired by this monumental moment in history. Furthermore, Mandela had to consider both listeners who were his supporters and listeners who were his adversaries. Corbett and Connors claim that “the larger and more heterogeneous the audience is, the more difficult it is to adjust the discourse to fit the audience. In his content and his style, the President must strike some common denominator – but [one] that does not fall below the dignity that the occasion demands” (Killingsworth, 2005). One such way that Mandela adjusts his discourse to fit his audience is his choice in diction. While he does engage in the use of tropes and rhetorical appeals, he also uses fairly common language throughout. This is especially important in his situation, as many of his black listeners were denied education by the whites, and thus had limited vocabularies.

While Mandela wanted to reach out to the educated citizens and international guests, he also had to ensure that his less educated listeners were able to grasp his words and thus be affected by the emotionality of his address and persuaded to unite. When analyzing Mandela’s Inaugural address in consideration of audience, we may also note his opening line: “Your Majesties, Your Highnesses, Distinguished Guests, Comrades, and Friends.” Here he acknowledges both the “distinguished international guests,” as well as the people of South Africa: “Comrades and Friends.” Recognizing members of the international and internal audience is a tradition of inaugural addresses with rhetorical value. Kennedy, for example, followed this tradition when he began his inaugural address: “Vice President Johnson, Mr. Speaker, Mr. Chief Justice, President Eisenhower, Vice President Nixon, President Truman, Reverend Clergy, Fellow Citizens,” as did Roosevelt when he began: “Mr. Chief Justice, Mr. Vice President, My Friends” (Wolfarth, 1961).

Additionally, we may note that it is traditional for inaugural addresses to “abound with unity appeals” (Wolfarth, 1961), which unite the president to the citizens of the country for which he reigns. President Jefferson, for example, addressed “Friends and Fellow-Citizens” in his opening line; Pierce opened with “My countrymen;” while Lincoln saluted his “Fellow-Citizens of the United States” in the first lines of his second inaugural address (Wolfarth, 1961). An address containing official salutations as well as unity appeals causes all audiences to identify with the President. We may also note additional unity appeals throughout Mandela’s inaugural address. There is a pervasive use of personal pronouns, such as “we,” “us,” and “our,” along with “symbolically potent terms that embody a sense of collectivity” (Sigelman, 1996), such as “South Africa/Africans” “homeland,” “people,” and “country,” all of which connote community and contribute to the construction of unity. Mandela begins 15 out of 30 sections (as designated in the index) with “we” or “our,” and they constitute 59 of the 893 words in the address (6.6%).

The repetition of the word “we” at the beginning of subsequent sentences is a rhetorical trope called ‘anaphora;’ by using this rhetorical technique, Mandela subtly emphasizes the importance of unity As one author explains, the strategic use of personal pronouns is “one fairly subtle means of transmitting a feeling of unity” (Sigelman, 1996). Appeals to unity follow in Burke’s theory of identification as a means of persuasion or cooperation. By addressing “Comrades and Friends” and using the words “we” and “us” throughout the speech, Mandela is uniting the audience with himself, as well as each other – a “powerful, yet subtle, type of identification … The word ‘we’ reinforces the idea that all of the [listening] community is united in its efforts to accomplish [certain] goals” (Borchers, 2006). The rhetorician who appeals to an audience to the point where identification takes place has accomplished the purpose of his rhetoric (Burke, 1969). Mandela’s use of personal pronouns and terms that embody collectivity construct unity, which is the overriding purpose of both his inaugural address, as well as his Presidency in general.

Mandela’s inaugural address also employs pathos, which is an appeal to the emotions of one’s audience that serves as a persuasive power. Aristotle argued that a speaker must understand the emotions of one’s audience in order to be persuasive (Borchers, 2006); that is, he must understand his audience’s state of mind, against whom their emotions are directed, and for what sorts of reasons people feel the way they do, in order to connect emotionally with them. Mandela’s inauguration was an emotional day for the people of South Africa and the world, because it represented a shift towards democracy, equality, and freedom for all people. One author notes that “Mandela’s first presidential address before the newly constituted South African Parliament lifted South Africa from the realm of imaginary democracy into a state of actual democratic practice and was a self-referential act of bringing opposing parties together.

The [inauguration] speech was the first example of reconstruction and development after apartheid … in words – and words alone – [Mandela’s] speech reconstitute[d] the nation” (Salazar, 2002). We can see Mandela’s use of pathos throughout his inauguration speech. For example, he refers to the past as an “extraordinary human disaster” (3); he enlists his fellow South Africans to “produce an actual South African reality that will reinforce humanity’s belief in justice, strengthen its confidence in the nobility of the human soul and sustain all our hopes for a glorious life for all” (4); he discusses “the depth of the pain we all carried in our hearts as we saw our country tear itself apart in a terrible conflict … saw it spurned, outlawed and isolated by the peoples of the world” (9); and he refers to his win as “a common victory for justice, for peace, for human dignity” (11) and his opponents as “blood-thirsty forces which still refuse to see the light” (14).

Mandela then makes an emotional pledge: “we pledge ourselves to liberate all our people from the continuing bondage of poverty, deprivation, suffering, gender, and other discrimination … we shall build a society in which all South Africans, both black and white, will be able to walk tall, without any fear in their hearts” (16-18). He then dedicates “this day to all the heroes and heroines … who sacrificed … and surrendered their lives so that we could be free” (20). The rhetorical use of pathos is thick throughout Mandela’s inaugural address. Mandela’s appeals to unity also contribute to the pathos of the speech by inspiring the listeners to join together as one, rather than opposing entities. Mandela concludes with a promise: “never, never and never again shall it be that this beautiful land will again experience the oppression … and suffer the indignity of being the skunk of the world./ Let freedom reign” (28-29). It is also important to note Mandela’s use of what rhetorical scholars have called ‘ideographs,’ which are defined as “high-level abstraction[s] that encapsulate or summarize the definitive principles or ideals of a political culture” (Parry-Giles & Hogan, 2010).

I would like to add that the use of ideographs employs Aristotle’s concept of pathos, as the words are often emotionally laden. Examples of ideographs used in Mandela’s inaugural address include: “liberty” (2); “nobility” (4); “justice” (4, 11, 26); “peace” (11, 26); “human dignity” (11, 18); “freedom” (17, 21, 29); and “hope” (1, 18). Freedom is the most significant ideograph in the speech, as Mandela was a ‘freedom-fighter’ and was ‘freed’ from prison in 1990, which was a major step towards ‘freedom’ for all South Africans. Ideographs, claim rhetorical scholars, “have the potential to unify diverse audiences around vaguely shared sets of meaning” (Parry-Giles & Hogan, 2010). Yet again we are presented with appeals to unity in Mandela’s inaugural address. As discussed, Mandela’s speech provides evidence that he understands his audience’s state of mind (a mixture of apprehension and optimism), against whom their emotions are directed (Mandela himself, as well as the apartheid), and for what sorts of reasons people feel the way they do (change, fear, history, etc.).

Thus, he was able to connect emotionally with his audience, which is Aristotle’s understanding of Pathos. I will continue my analysis of Mandela’s speech with consideration of appeals he makes to place and race. Killingsworth points out that “appeals to race … often work together with appeals to place” (2005). In Mandela’s inauguration speech he says: “Each one of us is as intimately attached to the soil of this beautiful country as are the famous jacaranda trees of Pretoria and the mimosa trees of the bushveld. /Each time one of us touches the soil of this land, we feel a sense of personal renewal. The national mood changes as the seasons change. /We are moved by a sense of joy and exhilaration when  grass turns green and the flowers bloom. /That spiritual and physical oneness we all share with this common homeland ….” (6-9). This claim on the land can be thought of as an identification of race with place, or in terms of Kenneth Burke’s dramatism, a ratio between agent and scene, who and where (Killingsworth, 2005). When white settlers arrived in South Africa in the 1600s, they began displacing indigenous black inhabitants from their homeland, pushing them onto “less desirable terrain where water was comparatively scarce, grazing poor and agricultural conditions harsh” (Horrell, 1973).

Apartheid made the separation of blacks with their homeland even more acute with the implementation of designated group areas, in which blacks were relocated to slums and townships, separate from whites. Hook, in Killingsworth, claims that “collective black self-recovery can only take place when we begin to renew our relationship to the earth, when we remember the way of our ancestors” (2005). Mandela’s appeals to race and place in his inaugural address advocate collective self-recovery, and, as a byproduct, unity. Burke notes that “rhetors who feature the scene see the world as relatively permanent … [and] rhetors who features the agent see people as rational and capable of making choices” (Borchers, 153). By featuring both scene and agent, it is evident that Mandela sees the physical geography of South Africa as unchanging, and also sees that the people who inhabit South Africa have the power to choose to unite on that shared territory.

Unity is the underlying theme of Mandela’s inaugural address as well as his presidency: the unity of white and black people; the dissolution of apartheid and its associated segregation; the reunification of native South Africans with their homeland; and the unification of South Africa with the rest of the free democratic world. “When [Mandela] took up the reins of power in 1994, the world was holding its breath, expecting the racial tensions splitting the country to explode into a blood bath. Instead, the world witnessed a miracle. Mandela’s achievement is colossal” (Davis, 1997). Mandela’s inaugural address served as an instrument of reunification and produced an atmosphere of stability from which the new system of government could go forward.


Your Majesties, Your Highnesses, Distinguished Guests, Comrades and Friends:

Today, all of us do, by our presence here, and by our celebrations in other parts of our country and the world, confer glory and hope to newborn liberty. Out of the experience of an extraordinary human disaster that lasted too long, must be born a society of which all humanity will be proud. Our daily deeds as ordinary South Africans must produce an actual South African reality that will reinforce humanity’s belief in justice, strengthen its confidence in the nobility of the human soul and sustain all our hopes for a glorious life for all. All this we owe both to ourselves and to the peoples of the world who are so well represented here today. To my compatriots, I have no hesitation in saying that each one of us is as intimately attached to the soil of this beautiful country as are the famous jacaranda trees of Pretoria and the mimosa trees of the bushveld. Each time one of us touches the soil of this land, we feel a sense of personal renewal.

The national mood changes as the seasons change. We are moved by a sense of joy and exhilaration when the grass turns green and the flowers bloom. That spiritual and physical oneness we all share with this common homeland explains the depth of the pain we all carried in our hearts as we saw our country tear itself apart in a terrible conflict, and as we saw it spurned, outlawed and isolated by the peoples of the world, precisely because it has become the universal base of the pernicious ideology and practice of racism and racial oppression. We, the people of South Africa, feel fulfilled that humanity has taken us back into its bosom, that we, who were outlaws not so long ago, have today been given the rare privilege to be host to the nations of the world on our own soil. We thank all our distinguished international guests for having come to take possession with the people of our country of what is, after all, a common victory for justice, for peace, for human dignity.

We trust that you will continue to stand by us as we tackle the challenges of building peace, prosperity, non-sexism, non-racialism and democracy. We deeply appreciate the role that the masses of our people and their political mass democratic, religious, women, youth, business, traditional and other leaders have played to bring about this conclusion. Not least among them is my Second Deputy President, the Honorable F.W. de Klerk. We would also like to pay tribute to our security forces, in all their ranks, for the distinguished role they have played in securing our first democratic elections and the transition  democracy, from blood-thirsty forces which still refuse to see the light. The time for the healing of the wounds has  The moment to bridge the chasms that divide us has  The time to build is upon us.

We have, at last, achieved our political emancipation. We pledge ourselves to liberate all our people from the continuing bondage of poverty, deprivation, suffering, gender and other discrimination. We succeeded to take our last steps to freedom in conditions of relative peace. We commit ourselves to the construction of a complete, just and lasting peace. We have triumphed in the effort to implant hope in the breasts of the millions of our people. We enter into a covenant that we shall build the society in which all South Africans, both black and white, will be able to walk tall, without any fear in their hearts, assured of their inalienable right to human dignity–a rainbow nation at peace with itself and the world.

As a token of its commitment to the renewal of our country, the new Interim Government of National Unity will, as a matter of urgency, address the issue of amnesty for various categories of our people who are currently serving terms of imprisonment. We dedicate this day to all the heroes and heroines in this country and the rest of the world who sacrificed in many ways and surrendered their lives so that we could be free. Their dreams have become reality. Freedom is their reward.

We are both humbled and elevated by the honor and privilege that you, the people of South Africa, have bestowed on us, as the first President of a united, democratic, non-racial and non-sexist South Africa, to lead our country out of the valley of darkness. We understand it still that there is no easy road to freedom. We know it well that none of us acting alone can achieve success. We must therefore act together as a united people, for national reconciliation, for nation building, for the birth of a new world. Let there be justice for all.

Let there be peace for all.
Let there be work, bread, water and salt for all.
Let each know that for each the body, the mind and the soul have been freed
to fulfill themselves. Never, never and never again shall it be that this beautiful land will again experience the oppression of one by another and suffer the indignity of being the skunk of the world.
Let freedom reign.

The sun shall never set on so glorious a human achievement! God bless Africa!
Thank you.

Works Cited
Borchers, T. (2006). Rhetorical theory: An introduction. Waveland Press Inc.: Illinois Burke, K. 1969. A Rhetoric of Motives. Berkeley: University of California Press. Burke, K. (1966). Language as symbo1ic action: Essays on life, literature, and method. Berkeley: University of California Press. Campbell, K.K. & Jamieson, K.H. (1990). Deeds done in words: Presidential rhetoric and the genres of governance. The University of Chicago Press: Chicago. Corbett, E.P.J. & Connors, R.J. (1999) Classical rhetoric for the modern student. Oxford University Press: New York. Davis, G. (1997, July 18). No ordinary magic. Electronic Mail & Guardian [On-line]. Available: . Horrel, M. (1973). The African homelands of South Africa. USA: University of Michigan. Ali-Dinar, A.B. (1994). Inaugural speech, Pretoria [Mandela]. University of Pennsylvania: African studies center. Retrieved from Killingsworth, M.J. (2005). Appeals in modern rhetoric: An ordinary-language approach. Southern Illinois University Press. Parry-Giles, S.J. & Hogan, J.M. (2010). The handbook of rhetoric and public address. United Kingdome: Blackwell Publishing Ltd. Salazar, P.J. (2002). An African Athens: Rhetoric and the shaping of democracy. London: Lawrence Erlbaum. Sheckels, T.F. (2001). The rhetoric of Nelson Mandela: A qualified success. Howard Journal of Communications, Vol 12-2. Sigelman, L. (Jan-Mar 1996). Presidential inaugurals: The modernization of a genre. Political Communication. Vol 13-1. South Africa’s political parties. Retrieved from Tarvin, D. (2008). Vincent Fox’s inaugural address: A comparative analysis between the generic characteristics of the United States and Mexico. Retrieved from
ess_A_Comparative_Analysis_Between_the_Generic_Characteristics_of_the_United_States_and_Mexico Tuman, J.S. (2010). Communicating terror: The rhetorical dimensions of terrorism. San Francisco: Sage Publications. Wolfarth, D.L. (April 1961). John F. Kennedy in the tradition of inaugural speeches. Quarterly journal of speech, Vol. 47-2. Additional Works Referenced

Foss, S.K. (2004). Rhetorical criticism: Exploration & practice. Illinois: Waveland Press, Inc. Hart, R.P. & Daughton, S. (2005). Modern rhetorical criticism: Third edition. USA: Pearson Education, Inc. Kuypers, J.A. (2005). The art of rhetorical criticism. USA: Pearson Education Inc. Lacy, M.G. & Ono, K.A. (2011). Critical rhetorics of race. New York: New York University Press

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Nelson Mandela Inauguration Speech Analysis

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