The Hand of Racism: A Dramatistic Analysis of Nelson Mandela’s Rivonia Trial Speech

Michael Rangoonwala, California State University, Sacramento


This essay promotes the use of dramatism to better understand racial narratives and enhance critical race scholarship. This essay demonstrates the utility of pentadic and dramatic framing analyses on Nelson Mandela’s famous 1964 Rivonia Trial speech. In this paramount speech, Mandela advocates for a pragmatic transformation through agency and uses a comic frame to address the problem of racism in Apartheid. This essay concludes with a heuristic discussion of various pentadic approaches to address racism.


The issue of racism is a relevant and important matter to address. Far from just being a historical artifact, according to critical race theory (CRT) racism is still present in the United States. Racism is defined by Solórzano and Yosso as a group socially constructing superiority, having power, and benefiting from being superior based on the notion of race (24). Delgado and Stefancic point out the persistent racial gaps between whites and nonwhites in numerous indicators such as infant death rates, school dropout rates, income, and life expectancy since the 1980s (41). These facts counter the mainstream story that racial gaps have been closing since the civil rights movement (Delgado and Stefancic 40). Indeed, the 2016 Pew Research Center Survey indicates continued racial disparities, such as white persons reporting to have thirteen times greater median net worth in house ownership than black persons in the United States (Stepler). With both diversity levels (Chappell) and racial tensions increasing, these statistics are concerning. Therefore, it is of utmost importance to continue examining the issue of racism.

Communication scholars have an important role to play in combating racism. Through rhetorical criticism, the socially constructed words of a rhetor can be analyzed to reveal the full magnitude, and not just the tip, of ideological icebergs colliding among racial tensions. This essay contends that the methods afforded in dramatism are effective toward understanding the implicit messages inside racial narratives. Indeed, this essay demonstrates the utility of pentadic and dramatic framing analyses on Nelson Mandela’s famous 1964 Rivonia Trial speech. In this speech, Mandela advocates for a pragmatic transformation through agency and uses a comic frame to address the problem of racism in Apartheid. A discussion follows offering novel theoretical, practical, and methodological implications. Of note, this essay articulates various strategic ways racism can be addressed rhetorically using the pentad. To provide a rich analysis, this study draws upon the theoretical framework of critical race theory (CRT), which is explained in the following literature review.

The Intersection of Race and Rhetoric

Before explicating CRT and the communication literature on racism, qualifying notes must be made on the definition of race and the scope of this essay. Conceptualizing “race” is a slippery, debated, and complex endeavor. In the United States, the term race has varied over time. Race used to refer to ethnic groups, such as the Irish or British races, but it later shifted to refer to biological differences based on color (Ratcliffe 14). This association was accompanied by oppressive economic and social hierarchies, with whiteness presumed at the top (Ratcliffe 14). Presently, the very nature of whether race is a legitimate category is still debated. A recent national survey of anthropologists’ view on race and genetics conclude, “Results demonstrate consensus that there are no human biological races and recognition that race exists as lived social experiences that can have important effects on health” (Wagner, Jennifer K., et al. 318). On the other hand, in a 2018 op-ed piece in the New York Times, David Reich, a Harvard geneticist, is wary of the orthodoxy of race as only a social construct. Reich argues that scientists and anthropologists should be open to the possibility of biological differences across racial populations, citing studies using modern genetic research. While important, this debate is outside the scope of this rhetorical study.

Rather, this essay is concerned with addressing discrimination resulting from racial prejudice. Regardless of one’s view on the legitimacy and definition of race, the negative social consequences of prejudice springing from racism is undeniable. As such, one can examine race as a trope, as “It signifies socially constructed ‘common-sense’ attitudes and actions associated with different races” (Ratcliffe 12). Ratcliffe outlines four major cultural logics which views the trope of race in different ways, namely the logic of white supremacy, color-blindness, multiculturalism, and CRT (14). A white supremacy logic views race as a hierarchy based on biological differences. A color-blindness logic eliminates the concept of race both culturally and biologically. A multicultural logic values the use of ethnicity, or cultural heritage, over race. Finally, a CRT perspective posits race as a social construct but mandates the study of race to bring about social justice (Ratcliffe 14-15). In this essay, I utilize the CRT perspective as only a useful heuristic for examining and exposing racism. As Burke and dramatism are generally skeptical of categorical assertions, CRT is used with the assumption that racial prejudice still exists in sufficient magnitude to reflect CRT’s tenets.

As an emerging multi-disciplinary theory in academia, CRT seeks to oppose racism found in the dominant discourse and structures of a society. CRT finds it roots in critical legal studies in the 1970’s which questioned the fairness and neutrality of the laws following the civil rights movement. Since the mid 1990’s, CRT has primarily focused on reforming education in the United States (Brayboy 428). At its core, CRT is composed of a variety of tenets addressing the issue of racism. CRT maintains that the dominant culture in the United States is Eurocentric, which normalizes and privileges being white (“Critical Race Theory” 5; Bernal 111). One tenet states that racism is endemic in all parts of society, particularly against people of color (“Critical Race Theory” 6-7). CRT is thus activist in nature, pursuing research that advocates for political and social change to support minority groups experiencing racism (Bernal 110; Solórzano and Yosso 26). Another main tenet calls for challenging dominant ideology. Indeed, CRT “confronts and challenges traditional views of education in regard to issues of meritocracy, claims of color-blind objectivity, and equal opportunity” (Brayboy 428). Another main principle is the validation of experiential knowledge. Stories, narratives, biographies, and testimonies are viewed as authentic data for critical race scholars (Brayboy 428; Solórzano and Yosso 26).

This emphasis on experiential knowledge informs the main methodology employed by critical race theorists: storytelling. The first step is to expose the master narrative which represents the normative view of the majority or powerful (Solórzano and Yosso 27-29). In response, critical race theorists resist the mainstream story by crafting a counter-story. Counter-stories illuminate the perspectives of oppressed groups through autobiographies, biographical analyses, composite stories, or narratives (Solórzano and Yosso 32-33). In order to create an informed composite story, scholars utilize focus groups, interviews, existing literature from multiple disciplines, and their own professional and personal experiences (Love 233; Solórzano and Yosso 34). A common, critical, rhetorical apparatus is lacking to inform the development of these counter-stories though. Not only would a rhetorical analysis give further depth to the research process for storytelling, it would also provide a common terminology for the variety of sub-divisions of CRT such as TribalCrit, AsianCrit, and LatCrit. Having a common, critical methodology that can span across the variety of stories would be useful to allow for comparing, contrasting, and analysis.

In the communication studies discipline, there is some research utilizing CRT. Several studies use CRT to deconstruct racial ideologies in late-night comedy shows, films, and court rulings (Griffin 5), to explicate environmental racism in New Mexico (Dickinson 5), or to examine events such as Chris Brown’s 2009 assault on Rihanna (Edgar 138). Yet the reverse relationship, in which communication studies informs critical race theorists, is even more sparse in the literature. There are a few notable examples. Calvert demonstrates in his research how a court’s mode of communication affects their understanding of hate speech (4). Hasian and Delgado also advocate for the relevancy of the field of rhetoric to CRT in their formulation of racialized critical rhetorical theory (245). They call for a combination of rhetoric and CRT to “move beyond simple and reductive ways of essentializing race and race relations” (246). The advantages rhetorical criticism brings is sensitivity to the nuances and complexities in language. Additionally, Olmsted recommends critical race theorists to incorporate persuasion in their work given that the voices of minorities are silenced (330). Furthermore, Ratcliffe encourages the practice of rhetorical listening, or a stance of openness, to assist cross-cultural identification across racial differences (1-2).

In summary, while CRT offers theoretical and methodological frameworks to illuminate the problem of racism, it is scarcely utilized in communication research (Griffin 1-2). It is also observed that rhetorical analyses have a useful role in developing CRT but are underutilized. To contribute to the dearth of research at this intersection, I propose the methods afforded in dramatism are effective toward understanding the implicit messages inside racial narratives. This essay demonstrates the utility of a dramatistic analysis through examining the drama of racism in Nelson Mandela’s 1964 Rivonia Trial speech. Before the analysis and discussion, dramatism and its components of the pentad and dramatic framing will be explicated. The term racial narrative is also defined followed by a description of the speech artifact.

Dramatism as a Method of Rhetorical Analysis

Given the large scope of Kenneth Burke’s work and the theory of dramatism, this essay focuses on using the pentad and dramatic framing, as they are pertinent to Mandela’s speech. Burke begins his seminal book, A Grammar of Motives, by addressing this question: “What is involved, when we say what people are doing and why they are doing it?” (xv). In essence, dramatism is a study of human motivation by studying action, which is inherent in language (Foss et al. 195). To Burke, language is not just a reflection of the world but is a form of action. When Burke mentions the word “action,” he is distinguishing it from “motion.” Motion is merely a blind force, unmodified by what a symbolizer can uniquely do (Foss et al. 195). Burke describes the human, though, as “the symbol-using (symbol-making, symbol-misusing) animal” (Language as Symbolic Action 16).Burke elaborates that action must be made in freedom, have a purpose, and is grounded in motion (Foss et al. 195-196). It is with this understanding of action that Burke introduces the pentad.

Applying the Pentad

In the quest to discover motivation and the best ways to create persuasive action, Burke created the pentad methodology. He emphasized five grammatical terms, rather than questions or answers, to promote a dialectic criticism (Weiser 294). Dialectic is defined here as “the competing voices of diversity whose combined perspectives can best achieve unity” (Weiser 289). These terms are act, scene, agent, agency, and purpose. All the terms are connected to each other and are not mutually exclusive (A Grammar of Motives 127). Burke gives the metaphor of the five fingers on a hand to describe the unity of the five terms (Anderson par. 1). If one term is emphasized above the others, it becomes the lens through which all the other terms are viewed. Hence, Burke describes a school of philosophy for each term: “each school features a different one of the five terms, in developing a vocabulary designed to allow this one term full expression…with the other terms being comparatively slighted or being placed in the perspective of the featured term” (A Grammar of Motives 127). In summary, the pentad is useful in understanding both how a rhetor names the situation and his/her accompanying worldview. The following paragraphs will define the pentadic terms, identify their idiosyncratic philosophies, and explain how to apply the pentad.

Act is defined as any purposive action (Foss et al. 199). In other words, it answers what happened. Burke claims that act is the central, beginning term that develops the pentad since it creates a situation to examine in the first place (Brock 100). Its corresponding philosophic terminology is realism (A Grammar of Motives 128). Realism, in contrast to nominalism, can be defined as “the doctrine that universal principles are more real than objects as they are physically sensed” (Foss 389). With realism then, language is utilized to understand objective reality and universal truths. However, while Burke identifies realism as the philosophical school for act, he further describes action in ways connotating freedom, choice, and essence. For instance, he states the “act itself alters the conditions of action” (A Grammar of Motives 67), implying an existentialist philosophy in which actions form essence.

Scene answers the question of when and where the action occurred. In addition to physical environments, scene can represent ideas such as cultural movements or communism. The scope of the context assigned to the scene, such as the difference between a city and a continent, is termed the circumference of the analysis (Foss et al. 199; Rutten et al. 637). Lastly scene has the philosophic terminology of materialism (A Grammar of Motives 128). Materialism as a system “regards all facts and reality as explainable in terms of matter and motion or physical laws” (Foss 389). Fay and Kuypers describe it another way as determinism (202).

Agent, or who is performing the act, has the philosophic terminology of idealism (A Grammar of Motives 128). Idealism is “the system that views the mind or spirit as each person experiences it as fundamentally real, with the universe seen as mind or spirit in its essence” (Foss 389). With this philosophy, a human’s mental capacities form reality. Fay and Kuypers also associate idealism with self-determination (202). In idealistic discourse, agents appear rational and empowered (Tonn et al. 254), using “an individual’s inner resources to overcome adverse circumstances” (Fay and Kuypers 202).

The term agency refers to how an act occurs, and its matching philosophic terminology is pragmatism (A Grammar of Motives 128). In pragmatism, “the meaning of a proposition or course of action lies in its observable consequences, and the sum of these consequences constitutes its meaning” (Foss 389). In other words, the means to an end is featured and goodness or truth is indicated by the outcomes. Burke describes the school of pragmatism in an example with science: “Once Agency has been brought to the fore, the other terms readily accommodate themselves to its rule. Scenic materials become means which the organism employs in the process of growth and adaptation” (A Grammar of Motives 287). This example illustrates how a focus on agency causes a focus on processes.

The fifth term, purpose, describes the agent’s reason for doing the action (Foss et al. 199). Foss et al. clarify that purpose should not be confused with motive, which is only discovered using all five terms (200). Purpose has the philosophic terminology of mysticism in which “the element of unity is emphasized to the point that individuality disappears. Identification often becomes so strong that the individual is unified with some cosmic or universal purpose” (Foss 389). The accentuation of purpose emphasizes the ends, rather than the means, as the focus of discourse (Fay and Kuypers 202). Finally, Burke added a sixth term later in his work titled attitude, but it will not be elaborated in this essay.

To apply the pentad to a rhetorical artifact, the first step is to name or define each of the terms. The next step examines the ratios, or relationships, between the terms. Twenty possible ratios can be created with the terms. The ratio is thought of as potential to actual; the first term creates possibilities for the second term to actualize (Tilli 45). For instance, a teacher teaching would be a predictable agent-act relationship (C. Rountree and J. Rountree 354). Pentadic pairs do not need to stay consistent with their pentadic expectations however. A term can act unpredictably to upset the ratio and transform or reverse the relationship (Tilli 45).

After systematically pairing and evaluating the second term in light of the first, a pattern of dominant terms should emerge (Rutten et al. 636). The central, dominating term will define the other pentadic terms and represent a worldview or orientation (Foss et al. 201). Burke explains that analyses of the ratios are “not terms that avoid ambiguity, but terms that clearly reveal the strategic spots at which ambiguities necessarily arise” (A Grammar of Motives xviii). Developing the critical skill of noting ambiguities is central to interpreting the pentad and thus the motive. Additionally, a pentadic analysis is not limited to just within an artifact, but it can also examine the artifact itself as the act in a larger context (Foss et al. 201).

Using the pentad method is useful for analyzing a rhetor’s motives, understanding their orientation and interpretations, and identifying alternative perspectives (Foss et al. 201). Burke created dramatism to inspire a dialectic view of rhetoric (Weiser 294). The pentad is a method in which to discover the motive and philosophy amid the dialectic conversations.

Dramatic Framing

Dramatic framing is another significant form of analysis from Burke. Burke identifies the impact of literary art forms and how it frames the attitudes of an event. They act as what he terms “equipment for living,” which enables people to deal with the complexity of an event and establish an orientation (Ott and Aoki 281; Rutten et al. 634). According to Burke, symbolic forms can be organized into frames of rejection or acceptance (Ott and Oaki 281). The frame of rejection takes the “literary forms of elegy, satire, burlesque, and grotesque,” but “By ‘coming’ to terms’ with an event primarily by saying ‘no,’ frames of rejection are unable to equip individuals and groups to take programmatic action” (Ott and Oaki 281). Alternatively, frames of acceptance focus on obtaining resolution and are often enacted in the literary forms of epic, tragedy, and comedy. For instance, using a scapegoat mechanism to reveal guilt and call for redemption is a tragic acceptance of the situation. The problem with this frame, though, is that it does not encourage ethical learning (Ott and Oaki 281) and can be described as fatalistic (Smith and Hollihan 589). Burke further clarified two forms of tragic framing in a footnote in Attitudes Toward History (188-189). A factional tragedy, typically seen in war rhetoric, externalizes all guilt by attributing evil to another party. In contrast, in a universal tragedy, guilt is internalized and shared by everyone, as the audience is invited to identify with the protagonist. A universal tragedy is similar to comic framing in creating a sense of “humble irony” and “the role of double vision” (Desilet and Appel 349). The difference is that a tragedy names one a villain, while a comedy labels one a fool: “Like tragedy, comedy warns against the dangers of pride, but its emphasis shifts from crime to stupidity” (Attitudes Toward History 41).

Burke encourages people to use a comic frame to achieve peace. A comic frame, not to be confused with comedy as hilarity, encourages self-reflection and the advancement of social knowledge to avoid future mistakes (Ott and Oaki 280-281). It stands in opposition to victimage by encouraging redemption for the perpetrator and focusing on the causal conditions of the grievance (Smith and Hollihan 589). For example, Gandhi’s movement of civil disobedience in India illustrates the comic frame, as his focus was on “evil deeds” and not the “evil doer” (Carlson 450).

Another important, related concept to dramatic framing is terministic screens. Burke defines terministic screens saying, “Even if a given terminology is a reflection of reality, by its very nature as a terminology it must be a selection of reality; and to this extent it must function also as a deflection of reality” (Language as Symbolic Action 45). In other words, the terms and vocabulary one uses is the lens or ideological system through which they view reality. For example, if medical terminology is used to describe a disabled person, the lens the individual is viewed is through a pathological understanding (Rutten et al. 635). Foss et al. note that a person’s terminology is often related to their occupation or career (206). In sum, noting terministic screens reveals the rhetor’s dramatic framing of reality and biases.

Defining Racial Narratives

Since this essay examines a racial narrative, it is necessary to provide a brief definition and overview. The use of the term racial narrative simply means a narrative, story, or testimony that features discourse centered on race. Such a narrative is relevant for critical race theorists since “Epistemologically, CRT places race and racism at the center of analysis…It privileges and makes central the experiential knowledge of subordinated people” (Love 226). The speech Nelson Mandela gives at the Rivonia Trial can be considered a racial narrative and may have transferable insights into racism in general. In this trial Mandela gives a testimony of his own life, of the actions of the African National Congress (ANC), and the experiences of Africans. Thus, it is both an autobiography and biography. Mandela’s speech fits the category of a counter-story showing the perspective of black Africans in South Africa.

The study of narratives is not limited to critical race theorists. In the last 45 years, the study of narratives has flourished in multiple disciplines such as history, ethnography, psychology, communication, and more. Additionally, “Whereas the focus used to be primarily and exclusively on the form and content of stories, there is now an increasing attention for the political, ideological, cognitive, and social function of narratives” (Rutten and Soetaert 328). The pentad is both suitable and effective for studying narratives. Scholars have applied the pentad to a variety of narratives ranging from personal experiences to fictional stories (Rutten and Soetaert 337). Bruner, an educational psychologist, claims that “narrative imitates life, life imitates narrative” (692), and applies the pentad to narratives to discover where the tensions are in the story (Bruner 697; Rutten and Soetaert 330-331). In a similar spirit, this study applies the pentad specifically to a racial narrative.

Nelson Mandela’s 1964 Rivonia Trial Speech

Nelson Mandela has placed his stamp upon history and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993 for his efforts in eradicating the Apartheid system in South Africa (“Nelson Mandela”). The Apartheid was a violent period in history from around 1950 to 1994 in which the white minority in South Africa created legislation to racially segregate South Africans in all aspects of society (“Apartheid”). For instance, through the Land Acts, 80 percent of the land became owned by the white minority and was used exclusively for their residential or business practices. Additionally, pass laws required nonwhite people to carry documentation to travel (“Apartheid”). Eventually, international pressure and internal reform brought about national elections in 1994 in which Nelson Mandela became the first black president (“Apartheid”).

The artifact under consideration in this analysis is the last 10 minutes of Nelson Mandela’s pivotal Rivonia Trial Speech in June 1964. Before the trial, Mandela was a nonviolent activist with the ANC, a black liberation group. However, since the government increased its violence and nonviolent protests gained little, Mandela and other activists responded with sabotage (“Nelson Mandela”). Alongside nine other accused ANC leaders, the presence of international jurists, and a biased court system, Mandela defended himself against charges of treason and supporting communism (Nicholson 123-125). In the end, he barely avoided a death sentence and was sentenced to life in prison until he was released in 1990 (Nicholson 126). As for his four-hour speech, it was later published and achieved global fame in its eloquent resistance against Apartheid (“Listen: Two Mandela Speeches”; “Nelson Mandela”; Nicholson 125).

An important consideration is that this dramatistic analysis will focus on the last 10 minutes of the speech, which contain Mandela’s most emotional and epic components and his concluding remarks (see “Listen: Two Mandela Speeches” for audio and transcription). Additionally, it is a manageable selection from his four-hour speech to analyze. Another important consideration is that the pentadic analysis will be done in isolation, or within the speech. The alternative way of utilizing the pentad is to examine the artifact itself as the act in a larger context (Foss et al. 201), but this is not the case for this study.

Transforming the Hand of Racism

Nelson Mandela’s Counter-Story

The first way to uncover the implicit messages inside a racial narrative through the pentad is to identify the pentadic terms. Indeed, identifying the pentadic terms reveal Mandela’s rhetorically nuanced casting of the situation.

First, naming the terms shows that Mandela creates a juxtaposition of an oppressive present and a hopeful future. For his present situation in South Africa, Mandela describes a scene of political racialism through white supremacy. He says, “The lack of human dignity experienced by Africans is the direct result of the policy of white supremacy” (see NPR’s “Listen: Two Mandela Speeches That Made History” for all quotations of Mandela’s speech). He later states that the “ANC has spent half a century fighting against racialism.” Mandela is critiquing the one-sided political monopoly of the white minority. The white minority are implied as the agents in this drama. Mandela implies their purpose as preserving white supremacy when he calls for equal voting: “I know this sounds revolutionary to the whites in this country, because the majority of voters will be Africans. This makes the white man fear democracy.” The fear of losing control motivates the ruling white minority to preserve their situation. In order to do this, they enact an agency of racist legislation. Mandela goes into detail describing “legislation designed to preserve white supremacy.” Mandela critiques menial work assigned to Africans, pass laws, and the absence of equal political rights. Finally, Mandela depicts the consequence of racist legislation, or act, as the lack of human dignity for Africans. Mandela attributes poverty, the breakdown of family life, “a breakdown in moral standards, to an alarming rise in illegitimacy, and to growing violence which erupts not only politically, but everywhere” as ultimately stemming from racist legislation such as pass laws. In summary, there is pentadic coherence to explain the situation Mandela describes of an oppressive present as follows: for the purpose of preserving white supremacy,white minority agents create an act of abusing the human dignity of Africans through the agency of racist legislation in a scene of political racialism.

Mandela then strategically juxtaposes the oppressive present with a hopeful future. Thus, Mandela is creating two sets of pentads. The second pentad contains terms that are exactly opposite of the oppressive present pentad. This nuanced casting of two situations illustrates Mandela advocating for a complete transformation of terms. Mandela states, “I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons will live together in harmony and with equal opportunities.” This quote succinctly demonstrates Mandela describing a scene of democracy and equality, for the purpose of racial harmony and freedom for all. To accomplish this, Mandela proposes a new agency: “Above all, My Lord [the judge], we want equal political rights, because without them our disabilities will be permanent.” Mandela says voting is “the only solution which will guarantee racial harmony and freedom for all.” Having equal political rights through voting is accomplished by the agents of all people regardless of color or race. Consequently, the new agency of voting will produce an act of the restoration of human dignity. As Mandela states, “The only cure is to alter the conditions under which Africans are forced to live and to meet their legitimate grievances.” He then elaborates on all the wants that Africans are denied of. These wants, such as good pay or the ability to work or travel anywhere, are in direct contrast to the oppressive conditions Mandela describes under racist legislation. In overview, Mandela paints a hopeful scene of democracy and racial equality for the purpose of racial harmony and freedom for all, in which all people as agents can perform the agency of voting to create an act of restoring human dignity.

In summary, the juxtaposition of an oppressive present and a hopeful future is illustrated through the first step of naming the pentad. The implicit, rhetorical message revealed from Mandela’s nuanced casting of the situation is Mandela’s exhortation for complete transformation. See Figure 1 for a visual of the pentadic analysis.

Figure 1.

Second, the arrangement of pentadic terms illuminate Mandela strategically crafting a counter-story. Recalling from CRT, a counter-story presents the perspectives of the oppressed to “shatter complacency, challenge the dominant discourse on race, and further the struggle for racial reform” (Solórzano and Yosso 32). It is significant how Mandela arranges the pentadic terms because it shows his perspective. For instance, an alternative view—and perhaps the white minority’s view—could feature the violent situation, poverty, and breakdown of moral standards in South Africa as the scene. With this point of view, a variety of interpretations of the causes of the scene could be made, such as placing the locus of blame on the black South Africans. Instead, Mandela posits the turmoil in the country as an act. Naming the problems as an act removes the conversation from abstraction and makes it personal, indicating an intentional agent, agency, and purpose at work. Mandela provides a line of logic that unjust pass laws ultimately cause poverty and violence. Overall, Mandela is explaining a counter-story on behalf of the oppressed African people that racist legislation is the root cause of the societal problems. Clearly, through examining the arrangement of pentadic terms, a window is created to peer into the conversation inside the racial narrative.

Rights Realize Reality – A Pragmatic Worldview

The second step of the pentad method is to analyze the pentadic ratios or relationships. Analysis of the ratios shows a rhetor’s implicit, key motives. First, it is demonstrated that Mandela features agency as the dominant term through a process of elimination. Next, it is explored how agency as the dominant term reveals Mandela’s ultimate message and worldview.

At first it appears scene would be the dominant term in Mandela’s speech. Indeed, scene fits logically in controlling the other terms. The scene of political racialism could be seen to control or cause the act (lack of human dignity for Africans), agency (racist legislation), or purpose (to preserve white supremacy). However, Mandela presents the scene in subordination of agency when he states “The lack of human dignity experienced by Africans is the direct result of the policy [emphasis added] of white supremacy.” The policy is the root cause while white supremacy is a descriptor. Granted, it may be unclear which preposition, “of the policy” or “of white supremacy,” is more significant in this sentence. The rest of the speech confirms a focus on agency, though, as Mandela centralizes issues in legislation, pass laws, and voting.

One could also argue that purpose is the dominant term in this speech. The purpose of preserving white supremacy could logically enact an agency of racist legislation, a scene of political racialism, or an act of abusing the human dignity of black Africans. Yet similar to scene, Mandela subordinates the purpose term when he says, “Legislation [emphasis added] designed to preserve white supremacy entrenches this notion.” Once again, Mandela highlights legislation. Furthermore, the rhetoric employed by Mandela in this speech is not characteristic of dramatistic purposive rhetoric. For example, in Fay and Kuyper’s analysis of John F. Kennedy’s (JFK) Berlin speeches, they claim JFK emphasizes purpose by using a prophetic and moralistic tone and employing the unconditioned future tense (207). Mandela does not employ similar wording. For instance, Mandela passively uses the present perfect tense in the last paragraph of his speech saying, “I have dedicated my life to this struggle,” “I have fought,” or “I have cherished the ideal.” Mandela’s tone is more so somber than prophetic, offering a description of the oppressive present and hoping for change. This is not surprising considering his context—a prisoner on trial defending against the death penalty.

The term act, or the lack of human dignity for black Africans, does not logically realize the potential in the other terms in this case. Instead, it is often explained as a result of the agency of racist legislation. Similarly, the term agent, or the white minority, could not control the other terms except for maybe the purpose of preserving white supremacy. Mandela only mentions “the white man” twice and focuses his discourse more so on agency, act, and scene.

After examining the relationships in all the ratios and “the strategic spots at which ambiguities necessarily arise” (Grammar of Motives xviii), it becomes convincing that agency is the dominant term. Previous examples have illustrated how Mandela desires transformation through agency by emphasizing key terms such “legislation,” “policy,” “pass laws,” and “equal political rights.” Additionally, Mandela’s counter-story positions unjust legislation as the ultimate cause of poverty and violence in the country. Since Mandela’s discourse mainly addresses aspects of agency, act, and scene, the main ratio pairs are Agency:Act and Agency:Scene. It can be concluded that Mandela’s main exhortation is to transform an oppressive present to a hopeful future by changing the nature of legislation or agency (refer to Figure 1). “Above all,” Mandela states, “we want equal political rights.” To transform a situation, a pentadic term can act unpredictably to upset the ratio and transform or reverse the relationship (Tilli 45). In this case, though, the pentadic term of agency is not being used to reverse a pentadic ratio; rather, it is acting as a pivot to transform into a whole new pentad. Through changing agency, all the other terms will be changed as well. This is evidenced in that agency remains the dominant term in both pentads. It is the definitions of the terms that are changing. Clearly, using the pentad is monumental in understanding the course of action Mandela recommends and thus his key message.

Lastly, the dominant term reflects the rhetor’s motive or worldview through a corresponding philosophic terminology (Foss 389). Since agency is featured in this speech, Mandela is implying a pragmatic worldview to change the circumstances of Apartheid. Mandela’s discourse focuses on processes or means, which is caricature of a pragmatic philosophy. For example, Mandela calls for a democratic voting process, the elimination of pass laws, and less governmental regulation of daily life for Africans. Mandela’s argument is that by examining the consequences of legislation, one can determine the political direction South Africa should take. In making the case for the direction of democracy, Mandela first presents the dire consequences of the present racist legislation: poverty, violence, and inhumane treatment of black Africans. Afterwards, Mandela describes the positive consequences of having just and racially democratic legislation: human dignity and equality. Clearly, Mandela is exhibiting a pragmatic worldview in which truth or goodness is to be assessed by the consequences of processes.

Furthermore, one can elaborate on the main ratios, Agency:Act and Agency:Scene, in relation to their philosophic worldviews. The Agency:Act ratio translates into pragmatism defining realism or existentialism. In terms of Mandela’s speech, the message is that enabling just processes of legislation will create a reality or essence that is just. More specifically, equal democratic elections will create acts that restore and maintain human dignity for all. Equally so, unjust processes lead to oppressive acts. The Agency:Scene ratio translates into pragmatism shaping materialism. In the case of Mandela’s speech where scene represents an idea (political racialism or democracy), the implicit message is that legislation will ultimately shape the political landscape of the country. Just legislation will realize true democracy, not the other way around. Likewise, unjust legislation will realize a racist climate. Overall, analyzing the pentadic ratios demonstrates that Mandela is exhorting to change the unjust scene and dire acts of the oppressive present through changing the dominant term of agency, and hence implies the philosophical worldview of pragmatism. Through dramatism, these implicit messages have been explored inside the racial narrative.

The Comic Foolishness of Racism

By examining Mandela’s discourse through a dramatic framing lens, it can also be argued Mandela uses a comic frame. Throughout the speech, his tone and words are educational and not derisive. As Carlson notes in his essay on Gandhi’s movement, “The comic frame identifies social ills as arising from human error, not evil, and thus reasons to correct them” (Carlson 448). In a similar manner, Mandela’s discourse focuses on reasoning versus accusation. While very similar to the tragic universal frame, the comic frame may be more suitable to describe Mandela’s approach because of his focus on foolish human error versus shared guilt. Mandela’s comic spirit is shown through how he addresses a terministic screen to build universal identification, emphasizes impartiality, and focuses on agency to solve societal problems.

First, Mandela establishes universal commonalities by exposing and critiquing the terministic screen of white supremacy. In the first paragraph of the speech, he states, “White supremacy implies black inferiority.” Mandela then describes the consequences of viewing blacks as inferior such as expecting them to do only menial tasks. “Because of this sort of attitude, whites tend to regard Africans as a separate breed. They do not look upon them as people with families of their own; they do not realise that we have emotions—that we fall in love like white people do.” Mandela cites more examples and ends with “And what ‘house-boy’ or ‘garden-boy’ or labourer can ever hope to do this?” In this last sentence, Mandela is pointing out how labeling Africans with economic-like-terminology selects a reality that Africans are inferior and deflects their hope to live with dignity. This is a representative example of a terministic screen at work, and Mandela exposes it clearly. By appealing to the universal human traits of love and family, Mandela builds identification with his wider audience.

The comic approach is also apparent when Mandela appeals to impartiality. In the last two paragraphs of his speech, Mandela states that race is an artificial construct and that the goal of the ANC is “fighting against racialism. When it triumphs as it certainly must, it will not change that policy…I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination.” This excerpt shows Mandela is more concerned with eliminating racism than with casting blame or guilt to a perpetrator. Mandela said he desires a “free society in which all persons [emphasis added] will live together in harmony.” It is clear Mandela is not using a rejection frame, for he suggests programmatic action for a democracy. Mandela is emphasizing a comic frame to advance social knowledge and avoid future mistakes.

Furthermore, Mandela’s focus on agency complements a comic approach. Instead of labeling the white South Africans as inherently evil, vicious, or criminal, he focuses on the foolishness of the policy of white supremacy and its negative societal effects. Through crafting a counter-story, Mandela provides a line of logic that unjust, racist pass laws ultimately cause poverty and violence, which affect both blacks and whites as “violence is carried out of the townships into the white living areas.” Arguably, keeping the focus on legislation and the problem of racism averts the speech from slipping into a factional tragic frame of blaming and polarizing. Indeed, Mandela rarely mentions the agent of white man in the speech artifact, which may indicate he is trying to focus on the causal problems and long-term solutions.

In summary, Mandela’s attempts to reason through building identification, emphasizing impartiality, and focusing on agency exemplifies the comic frame to address societal issues and hope for an ideal society. These rhetorical moves may serve to create what Burke termed “maximum consciousness,” or self-reflection (Attitudes Toward History 171). Ironically, Mandela is seriously comic, and concludes his speech with his famous words: “it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

Discussing the Hand of Racism

This essay sought to expand the rhetorical toolbox used by scholars and orators in combating racism. Indeed, the results from the pentadic and dramatic framing analyses offer theoretical, practical, and methodological implications. Since racism is a universal issue, insights from analyzing Mandela’s discourse may be applicable to combating racism in South Africa, the United States, and globally. In the following discussion, Mandela’s discourse is first compared to CRT, allowing a unique pentadic conversation on various ways to rhetorically approach racism. Next, practical suggestions on how dramatism enables production communication about racism are shared. Finally, the phenomenon of the transformational pivot pentad is highlighted.

On a theoretical level, the pentad can ironically provide a serious conversation by being playful with the terms. By comparing Mandela’s discourse with CRT, an interesting pentadic conversation occurs on how one should approach racism. For instance, which pentadic term should be the focus of a rhetor to effectively combat racism? From Mandela’s perspective, changing the agency of racist legislation is the key to end domination. He states, “Political division, based on colour, is entirely artificial and, when it disappears, so will the domination of one colour group by another.” This hopeful belief could be explained by the context of Mandela’s speech. When he gave the speech, he was still in a pre-civil-rights context in South Africa. Democratic elections were only held thirty years later in 1994 (Nicholson 126). Amid oppression, Mandela was searching for practical steps to achieve the ideal of harmony. Although South Africa is now a democracy, South Africa still struggles with the “entrenched social and economic effects” of racism (“Apartheid”). Proof of this struggle is very evident in a South African town hall debate show in 2014 (“Big Debate on Racism”). In the show, opinion leaders across a variety of industries and races, not just black and white, debated why the dream of the “rainbow nation project” has seemed to fail. The debate shows a plethora of standpoints and accusations about present and historical experiences of racism, and it emphasizes the continued need for finding productive ways to discuss racism.

In contrast to centralizing agency, CRT might recommend focusing on the ideology itself—the scene of racism. CRT criticizes “issues of meritocracy, claims of color-blind objectivity, and equal opportunity” (Brayboy 428), as CRT maintains that racial gaps have not improved in the United States since the civil rights movement (Delgado and Stefancic 41). CRT posits racism in scenic language when they describe it as “endemic, permanent” (Solórzano and Yosso 25), at the institutional, cultural, and individual level (Museus and Park 552), as the “center of analysis” (Love 228), and central to other forms of subordination (Bernal 110). Viewing racism as the scene could also explain the subordination of minority groups—making them depowered agents, rendering their agencies noneffective, disregarding their purposes, and encouraging abusive acts. Essentially, CRT may critique Mandela’s focus on agency as inadequate and suggest attacking the ideological scene of racism itself.

So far, the pentadic conversation on how to rhetorically address racism has assumed a singular approach of debating which pentadic term should transform the rest. However, other combinations can exist such as viewing pentadic terms as complementary in a scaffolding approach. For example, a scaffolding strategy would first change one pentadic term in order to change another in a step-wise process. For instance, Mandela’s focus on transforming agency may have been an appropriate first step to allow all voices to be heard, and subsequent efforts in South Africa should now attend to the scene of racism through educational efforts. Another strategy could be termed the simultaneous approach, in which all terms of the pentad are attempted to be transformed on the same occasion. Further research is encouraged to assess the possibilities and results of these different approaches. Overall, the terms of the pentad allow a heuristic conversation on various approaches rhetors can use to address racism.

Additionally, CRT may question the effectiveness of the comic frame in addressing the historical effects of racism. One critique of the comic frame in general is its inability to address “situations justifying warrantable outrage,” such as Hitler’s actions or the bombing of Pearl Harbor (Desilet and Appel 356). Similarly in South Africa, the tension of wanting rectification—while desiring a unified country—is quite evident (“Big Debate on Racism”). In situations of warrantable outrage, Desilet and Appel discuss the potential of combining frames, by initially using tragic framing of conflict within a broader strategy of comic framing (356). Scholars should explore how multiple modes of framing may be used to combat racism.

The tools afforded in dramatism can also have practical implications for enabling production communication about racism. For critical race theorists, dramatism could be applied in several ways. One way is as the primary methodology for analyzing a specific racial narrative and presenting the implications of the study, especially since using the pentad “provides grounds for critiquing specific relationships” (C. Rountree and J. Rountree 355). Another way is to use the pentad for understanding and recognizing patterns within data of experiential stories to inform the composition of counter-stories. Also, dramatism can provide a common language to compare findings across the different groups within CRT such as TribalCrit, AsianCrit, and LatCrit.

Dramatism can also assist communication about racism by encouraging the practice of rhetorical listening. Central to rhetorical listening is understanding cross-cultural standpoints, identifications, and historical and social contexts (Ratcliffe 26). As demonstrated in this essay, dramatism allows the mapping of one’s counter-story. The way Mandela frames the agent, purpose, agency, scene, and act shows his perspective of what is occurring in South Africa. Thus, naming the pentad is an enactment of rhetorical listening. Scholars and students can benefit from analyzing racial narratives using dramatism, as CRT calls for praxis and listening exercises to raise awareness of racism in higher education (“Critical Race Theory and the Next 20 Years” 87).

Finally, a methodological point of discussion is about the uniqueness of how agency acted like a transformational pivot between two pentads. Most pentadic analyses feature one pentad and explicate the ratios within the singular pentad (e.g., Fay and Kuypers; Rutten et al.; Tonn et al.). Foss et. al describe the goal of a pentadic analysis as finding the dominant term (201), but they do not mention a situation of two pentads. Additionally, one form of analysis is to analyze a term acting unpredictably to upset the main ratio and reverse the relationship (Tilli 45). Yet in Mandela’s speech, the central term of agency acts like a pivot between two pentads. If agency is redefined, then one pentad swings into becoming another pentad. Perhaps this phenomenon occurs mainly in situations of “chained rhetoric,” defined here as discourses spoken amid oppression.


Through rhetorical criticism, communication scholars have a role to play in the fight against discrimination from racism. This essay suggests the methods afforded in dramatism are useful to that end, as they are effective toward understanding the implicit messages inside racial narratives. Through the case study of Nelson Mandela’s 1964 Rivonia Trial Speech, it is argued that identifying the pentadic terms, analyzing the pentadic ratios, and conducting a dramatic framing analysis aid in understanding Mandela’s key, implicit messages. It is seen that Mandela creates a juxtaposition of an oppressive present and hopeful future, crafts a counter-story, advocates for a pragmatic transformation through agency, and uses a comic frame to address societal problems. The results afford a heuristic discussion on various pentadic approaches to addressing racism. Future research using dramatism is encouraged to continue the dialogue on how to address the pentadic hand of racism in today’s society.

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