Rivonia tapes allow us to recover lost voices

Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki, Raymond Mhlaba, Elias Motsoaledi, Andrew Mlangeni, Ahmed Kathrada and Denis Goldberg. They were sentenced to life in prison on June 12 1964
Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki, Raymond Mhlaba, Elias Motsoaledi, Andrew Mlangeni, Ahmed Kathrada and Denis Goldberg. They were sentenced to life in prison on June 12 1964

Gavin Fischer

History is as much about story telling as it is about fact.

Very few people are inspired by a list of names, dates and basic historical detail; instead we crave a narrative to piece together the past and how we came to be where we are.

But in building narrative, we can lose important detail in a search for meaning.

This has become clearer to me recently, as I’ve listened to audio recordings of the full proceedings of the Rivonia Trial.

Released to the public for the first time this week, the newly digitised court tapes give a chance to fill in some of the detail lost in the story of the trial.

It’s a story the country knows well.

Nelson Mandela and his co-accused mounted a case against apartheid during the trial, and their defiance and heroism meant they became the figureheads of the fight for freedom.

These inspiring acts would lead to Rivonia being named “the trial that changed a nation”.

My great uncle, Bram Fischer, as the head of the defence team, played a part in the story as he helped make the case against apartheid.

It was just one part of his work against a racist state.

A lawyer from a wealthy Afrikaner background, set to be prime minister or chief justice, he instead chose the tougher path of resisting apartheid, becoming the leader of the banned Communist Party and eventually being imprisoned, tortured and killed for his work.

Bram died before I was born and all I have ever known of him is this story of sacrifice, which has become almost myth to me.

Access to the audio from the trial has allowed me a unique opportunity to better connect with the man instead of the myth.

Listening to his voice for the first time, I have been able to transport myself to the courtroom in the early 1960s, before tragedy swept through Bram’s life.

Quiet, polite to all, his sharp intelligence and moral authority helped save the lives of the accused, who could have been hanged for their perceived crimes against the state.

If the tapes have helped me see beyond the story of my great uncle, they can do the same for the Rivonia Trial as a whole.

Until now, only a few minutes of Mandela’s speech from the dock has been available to hear and, for good reason, it has become the central moment of the trial.

Indeed, a line is often drawn from his compelling words to his inauguration as president so many years later.

Away from such standout moments, what the hundreds of hours of new audio allow is an insight into the people caught up in the trial, who have been lost in the mass of history that surrounds it.

There are brief moments among the evidence that shed light on those fighting to survive, long before the trial took on the historical significance it has now.

One example is that of the labourers who worked at Liliesleaf farm in the Rivonia suburb of Johannesburg, the hideout and meeting place of many top members of the anti-apartheid movement in the early 1960s.

When the police raided Liliesleaf in 1963, these workers were rounded up as well.

They were imprisoned, tortured and police forced them to give evidence against Mandela and his co-accused.

“They told me to undress … they told me to run round the table, and each one that I passed … struck me with a fist,” says Thomas Mashifane, the head labourer, who spoke out at the end of his testimony to highlight the police abuse.

“I just want to know why … I should be assaulted like that when I was not committing any offence.”

As I listened to him speak, the senseless violence and humiliation was almost too much to hear.

Mashifane died in 2006, but I was able to meet his daughter Elizabeth, who remembers the day of the raid well.

She had never heard her father’s evidence and she didn’t go to court.

As the recording plays, her gaze drifts away from me, the words seeming to transport her back to dark times in her life.

I ask if she is proud of her father for speaking up.

It’s a question I soon realise is naive, considering the pain and anguish her whole family went through. “What difference did it make?” she asks, and the answer is clear.

You can find bravery in Mashifane’s act of defiance, one small part of the heroic trial narrative, but that is of no use to him or his family.

Even long after the trial, police hounded and tortured Mashifane, maybe in the mistaken belief he knew something of the apartheid resistance, maybe simply because they could.

If his words at the trial did make a difference to his life, it may just have been that they made things worse.

Individuals, families, even whole communities were struck by the shock waves of the trial that changed a nation, yet injustice robbed many of their chance to be heard.

These new tapes give us an opportunity to recover some of these voices from the past.

I’ve had a chance to play them to families who thought they were lost. While some of the content is harrowing, I’ve seen how even short snippets of the recordings can help reclaim these individuals from the dehumanising mass of apartheid.

Unfortunately, such stories are not just a feature of South Africa’s past. Grinding structural injustice remains in this country.

Trying to make sense of the suffering today often feels overwhelming.

But I have been reminded of something important through hearing these tapes; listening is at least a start.

Simply witnessing, documenting and reclaiming the individual voices of those who suffer, not letting them get lost in the sweeping narrative of politics or history, is one essential step we must take towards understanding injustice.

There is no opportunity to hear the verdicts of the trial.

Those tapes haven’t been found.

Maybe we’ll never hear the judge show what little mercy he could find in the law and in himself, sentencing all the accused to life in prison.

But that these verdicts aren’t in the tapes doesn’t make them feel incomplete.

They are part of a different narrative that would eventually become the bedrock of the new South Africa.

As I listen to the audio, the story of a free South Africa is still in the future and the trial feels more like the present than the past.

My great uncle is alive, and those worst affected by the trial suffer, hope and try to survive, not knowing what the future holds.

Fischer is a journalist for the BBC. Follow him on Twitter @gavfischer

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