Rivonia trial a landmark in Mandela's life

2013-12-06 01:35
Eight men, including Nelson Mandela, raise their fists in defiance after being sentenced to life imprisonment in the Rivonia trial. (AFP)

Eight men, including Nelson Mandela, raise their fists in defiance after being sentenced to life imprisonment in the Rivonia trial. (AFP)

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Mandela's Rivonia trial speech

2013-06-12 13:01

Nelson Mandela was sentenced to life imprisonment on June 12th, 1964. He made this speech from the dock, shortly before sentencing commenced. Listen. WATCH

Johannesburg - The trial of the State versus the National High Command and others, also known as the Rivonia trial, was one of the most significant political court cases in South African legal history.

Not only did it produce evidence of a sensational underground conspiracy but also created in accused Number One, Nelson Mandela, an internationally feted symbol of resistance to apartheid.

Mandela's statement from the dock, protected against banning or censorship by court privilege, was an exposition of the ANC's view of apartheid, its motives for resisting it, and its methods and goals - all couched in the articulate words of a trained lawyer.

In time it became an oft-quoted manifesto for the entire struggle against racial discrimination in South Africa.

Although the trial became the arena for high legal drama, involving some of the most colourful legal and political personalities in the country. It took several months before public interest in the proceedings in Pretoria's Palace of Justice took hold.

In the end it became a national cause celebre, also attracting unprecedented international media and political attention.

The trial followed a security police raid on Liliesleaf, a smallholding in the sprawling rural suburb of Rivonia north of Johannesburg on July 11 1963.

The raid, launched from a laundry van, netted a pile of papers originated by Mandela, who was then already serving a five year jail sentence on Robben Island.

It also netted the nine other accused.

Other accused

They were Walter Sisulu, secretary general of the African National Congress; Dennis Goldberg, a Congress of Democrats executive member; Govan Mbeki, a senior Eastern Province ANC official and journalist, Ahmed Kathrada and Lionel Bernstein, both members of the Communist Party and co-accused with Mandela and Sisulu in the 1956-61 Treason Trial; Raymond Mhlaba, Cape executive member of the ANC; James Kantor, a Johannesburg solicitor; and Elias Motsoaledi and Andrew Mlangeni, like Raymond Mhlaba relatively unknown but identified as members of the Johannesburg regional command of the ANC's military wing Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK).

The trial opened on 9 October 1963 with the central themes of the State's case revolving around the national high command of the ANC's military wing Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation), its organisational structure named the "M-Plan" after its creator, Mandela, and an ambitious blueprint for a nation-wide sabotage war called "Operation Africa Mayibuye" (Operation Come Back Africa).

Although legal opinion, including that of the presiding judge, held that the accused had in essence committed high treason, the attorney general decided, in view of the failure of the five-year treason trial to secure any convictions, not to proceed with treason charges.

The State's case was directed at proving four counts against each of the accused; two under the Sabotage Act which qualified for the death penalty, one under the Suppression of Communism Act and one under the Criminal Law Amendment Act.

On the bench was the Judge President of the Transvaal, Quartus de Wet, with senior counsel Dr Percy Yutar prosecuting, and the son of a revered former judge president and personal friend of Mandela, Braam Fischer, leading the defence team.


Fischer, a member of the Communist Party, later went underground and became a celebrated fugitive himself.

The first two counts under the Sabotage Act alleged the accused, together with a list of other persons, including Oliver Tambo and Joe Slovo, were involved in or had conspired to recruit guerrillas for training "for the purpose of causing violent revolution".

They were also charged with involvement in a list of acts of sabotage.

The third count, under the Suppression of Communism Act charged them with committing acts furthering the cause of communism.

The fourth count was contravention of the Criminal Law Amendment Act's prohibition on soliciting funding to support campaigning against existing laws.

Apart from the documentary evidence obtained in the Rivonia raid, the State called 173 witnesses, including two, former MK members identified in court only as X and Y.

Their evidence included claims that MK had acquired properties in the Johannesburg area to use as an arsenal and weapons factory, and a hideout and publishing house.

Documentary evidence also showed large cash contributions from African states and plans to fly recruits out of Botswana for military training.

At the end of the State case Cantor was discharged as the state had failed to establish a prima facie case against him.


Mandela made a long statement from the dock in which, his defence conceded, he admitted to be a founder of MK, and that he had toured Africa and received military training, arranged for recruits to receive the same and had solicited financial help for MK.

On of the motivations for the statement, he revealed in later life, was the very real possibility that he and his comrades would be condemned to death.

"I said to our chaps, we are going to die in any case. Let's disappear under a cloud of glory," he recalled.

In his statement Mandela said he had not planned sabotage recklessly or out of a love for violence, but because of the years of tyranny, exploitation and oppression of his people.

"At the beginning of 1961, after a long and anxious assessment of the South African situation, I and some colleagues came to the conclusion that as violence in this country was inevitable, it would be unrealistic and wrong for African leaders to continue preaching peace and non-violence at a time when the government met our peaceful demands with force."

The ANC, he said, was fighting against two features which were the hallmarks of African life in South Africa -- poverty and the lack of human dignity.

"The complaint of Africans, however, is not only that they are poor and whites are rich, but that the laws which are made by whites are designed to preserve this situation."

"Above all, my lord," Mandela concluded, "we want equal political rights, because without them our disabilities will be permanent. I know this sounds revolutionary to the whites of this country, because the majority of voters will be Africans. This makes the white man fear democracy.

"But this fear cannot be allowed to stand in the way of the only solution which will guarantee racial harmony and freedom for all."

The ANC had fought for half a century against racism and he had dedicated his life to the 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 in harmony and with equal opportunities.

"It is an ideal I hope to live for, and see realised. But, my lord, if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die."

After similar statements by some of the other accused, the defence conceded that on their own statements, all but Mhlaba and Motsoaledi were guilty of at least some of the charges; Mbeki of all charges.

On 11 June, 1964, eleven months to the day after the Rivonia raid, Mandela, Sisulu, Goldberg, Mbeki, Mhlaba, Motsoaledi and Mlangeni were convicted on all four counts.

Kathrada was found guilty on three counts, and Bernstein was acquitted, to be immediately re-arrested and arraigned on other charges.

Sentence followed swiftly on pleas of mitigation. The accused had come very close to having received the death penalty, De Wet said.

"The crime of which the accused have been convicted, that is the main crime, the crime of conspiracy, is in essence one of high treason. The State has decided not to charge the crime in this form. Bearing this in mind, and giving the matter very serious consideration, I have decided not to impose the supreme penalty, which in a case like this, would usually be the proper penalty for the crime.

"But consistent with my duty, that is the only leniency I can show. The sentence in the case of the accused will be one of life imprisonment."

On both verdict and sentence days large crowds had gathered outside the Palace of Justice and on Church Square opposite. News of the sentence found its way out of the court to the open air where a roar rose from the crowd.

Some women started singing and unfurled banners. Clenched fists and shouts of "Amandla" gave way to the singing of "Nkosi Sikelel'".

The eight convicted men were brought out the back of the court building and taken away in a small van escorted by two cars and motorcycle outriders.

The following day the front of the Vrededorp post office was blown away in another sabotage attack.

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