Reflections on the Rivonia Trial

On the anniversary of the verdicts, Mike Phipps recalls a critical moment in the struggle for majority rule in South Africa

On June 12th 1964, the Rivonia Trial in South Africa came to an end with the sentencing to life imprisonment of Nelson Mandela and seven of his comrades. Named after the suburb where most of the defendants were arrested, the trial would go down in history – largely for the speech Mandela made from the dock.

At the time of the Rivonia raid, Nelson Mandela was lodged in solitary confinement at a Pretoria jail serving a five-year prison term for leaving the country without a passport and inciting a strike. But it was he who proposed to the leadership of the African National Congress the undertaking of an armed effort against the South African government: “The attacks of the wild beast cannot be averted with only bare hands,” he said.

The trial began on October 30th 1963. Ten defendants appeared in the Pretoria Supreme Court charged with sabotage. They all pleaded not guilty, but were advised by their defence team to expect the death penalty.

The Trial highlighted a conundrum faced by those in any liberation struggle: the way that justice is often at odds with legality. Liberation movements, while rejecting the legitimacy of the racial minority state, were forced to deal with the legal system. When activists were apprehended they simply could not disregard it. In the Rivonia Trial, the ‘accused’ addressed this problem by using the courts as a site of struggle.

Nelson Mandela led the defendants up a staircase that opened into the centre of the court, where a specially constructed dock had been built. He gave the clenched fist salute to supporters that had become an ANC trademark. Mandela shouted, “Amandla!” (Power), and the crowd responded with the cry, “Ngawethu!” (It shall be ours).

The defendants’ daily appearances in court drew large crowds that filled the courtroom and streets outside the court. The media presence and coverage of the Trial were also important.  The Trial was watched by the world. As a result, South Africa experienced pressure from the international community: the United Nations called on the South African government not to impose the death sentence, which many expected.

At the start the defence’s proceedings, Mandela spoke from the dock:

“At the beginning of June 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. This conclusion was not easily arrived at. It was only when all else had failed, when all channels of peaceful protest had been barred to us, that the decision was made to embark on violent forms of political struggle.”

Mandela spoke for three hours, explaining and defending key political positions of the African National Congress. He argued the court was illegitimate and that defying the laws of the minority white regime was permissible. He justified the strategy of armed struggle against the South African apartheid regime, given the increasing restrictions being placed on legal opposition, but declared that he supported a constitutional democracy for the country. His speech is considered one of the founding moments of South African democracy.

Mandela’s closing words have been much-quoted. They were reportedly spoken looking the judge full in the eyes. He said:

“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 to be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

Two of the defendants were found not guilty. The remaining eight served long terms of imprisonment, in Mandela’s case over 27 years. Soon after the Trial, defence lawyer Bram Fischer was arrested and put on trial for ‘supporting communism’. Fischer, an Afrikaner fighting against an Afrikaner government, was sentenced to life in prison and was released only when he was critically ill.

In the aftermath of the Trial, the International Olympic Committee, FIFA, and other international sports bodies began terminating South Africa’s membership of these organisations. By the end of the 1970s, South Africa was largely isolated from participating in world sport. Cultural bodies around the world also terminated South Africa’s membership. The increasing international isolation of the regime –above all, economically – was a significant factor in forcing it to negotiate a transition to majority rule.

In February 1990, Nelson Mandela was finally released.  The next year, he was elected president of the ANC. In April 1994, South Africans of all races went to the polls. The ANC won 62% of the vote and on May 10th, Nelson Mandela took the oath of office as the first black President of South Africa.

There is no doubt that the Rivonia Trial made the struggle against the apartheid regime more challenging in the short term. Key leaders were incarcerated on Robben Island and, until more African states secured independence, it was very difficult for the ANC to organise in neighbouring countries.

But after the Trial, everyone knew the ANC existed and had a strong and highly effective leadership. Some have dubbed it “the trial that changed South Africa.” Nelson Mandela’s speech from the dock established him as deep political thinker and strategist, as well as a man of great bravery.

What happened is also a reminder that political defeats are never permanent and the human spirit can triumph over the most adverse odds. As Martin Luther King said, “We shall overcome because the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.”

Mike Phipps’ book For the Many: Preparing Labour for Power was published by OR Books in 2018. His new book Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow: The Labour Party after Jeremy Corbyn (OR Books, 2022) can be ordered here.

Image: Nelson Mandela,. Source: FlickrNELSON MANDELA. Author: Kingkongphoto & from Laurel, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

Subscribe to the blog for email notifications of new posts