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Introduction by Olivia E. Sears

Whether the Latin word for “cell” originated from celare, the verb meaning to hide, or from cero, for the wax of a honeycomb, it soon became Rome’s common word for a store-closet, a slave’s room, or a prison cell. In all its original meanings, “cell” seems to describe a small space dependent upon a larger structure.

As monasteries adopted the word to refer to their residences, the meaning expanded. For those devoted to the religious life, a cell’s walls offered a barrier from the profane and an opportunity for insight; they offered isolation to aid in reflection and spiritual growth
.

In the 20th century, science has popularized new meanings for the word. Although scientists first borrowed the term based on their belief 

that the biological cell was much like a physical cell—a discrete formation with nearly impenetrable walls—biologists today consider the cell more permeable, its wall acting as a selective barrier, preserving the differences between interior and exterior, yet allowing specified interaction with the environment. Much as it was when monks and hermits first retreated from society, the cell is once again regarded as a locus for transformation.
In fact, most contemporary definitions of the word “cell” imply activity. The honeycomb is a place of production for the bee; cellular telephones offer instantaneous networks of communication; batteries’ stored energy gives our machines mobility. And the social cells of revolutionary groups can effect change throughout a society. Yet, amongst all the definitions, it is one of the oldest that still dominates: the prison cell, the only cell that exists solely to restrict activity

The most recognized prisoner in recent history may be Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela. Mandela was released from prison on February 11, 1990, and soon thereafter was elected president of South Africa. On the 11th anniversary of Mandela’s release, recordings from the trial that sentenced him to life in prison were made public.

Referred to in his trial as “Accused Number One”, Mandela was charged with acts of sabotage designed to foment violent revolution. He gave a three-hour speech in
his defense, his last public words before his imprisonment. In June of 1964, he was sentenced to life in prison at Robben Island. Mandela spoke that day about a society’s confinement of its people and the consequences of that isolation. These words, quiet for so long, are worth hearing again:

 
 
 
 
Africans … want to be allowed to live well, to obtain work, and not be endorsed out of an area because we were not born there. We want to be allowed, and not to be obliged, to live in rented houses which we can never call our own. We want to be part of the general population and not confined to living in our ghettos. African men want to have their wives and children to live with them, where they work, and not to be forced into an unnatural existence in men’s hostels. Our women want to be with their men folk and not to be left permanently widowed in the reserves. We want to be allowed out after eleven o’clock at night, and not to be confined to our rooms like little children.
 
We want to be allowed to travel in our own country and to seek work where we want to.... We want a just share in the whole of South Africa.... Our struggle is a truly national one. It is a struggle of the African people, inspired by our own suffering and our own experience. It is a struggle for the right to live. [pause]
During my lifetime I have dedicated my life to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. 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 and to see realised. But, my lord, if it needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die

Excerpt from Nelson Mandela’s speech at the Rivonia Trial, April 20, 1964, Track 5 (5’27") NSA C985, from dubbings made by The British Library National Sound Archive, NELSON MANDELA: THE RIVONIA TRIAL (Pretoria, South Africa 1963-1964).

Note: The South African Broadcasting Corporation located the recordings from Mandela’s trial, which were stored on “dictabelts”, a technology long ago abandoned. After searching the world, the SABC discovered that The British Library had a dictabelt machine preserved in its archives. Researchers used the machine to bring Mandela’s young voice back to life.

 

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