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June 12 1964, half a century ago today, was one of the darkest days in the history of the liberation struggle in South Africa.
It seemed like the forces of racism and reaction were about to achieve their final victory.
Ten members of the leadership of the African National Congress (ANC) and the South African Communist Party had finished an eight-month trial and had been handed down long jail sentences.
They were Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Denis Goldberg, Govan Mbeki, Ahmed Kathrada, Raymond Mhlaba, Elias Motsoaledi and Andrew Mlangeni.
Two of the accused, Lionel “Rusty” Bernstein and James Kantor, were acquitted.
Those in the dock covered the entire spectrum of what would become the South African “rainbow nation.”
Goldberg and Bernstein were white Jews, Kathrada was Indian and Mhlaba, Mbeki and Motsoaledi were black from the Xhosa tribe. Sisulu’s mother was Xhosa and his father was European.
Mandela came from the Xhosa-speaking Thembu tribe.
The Rivonia trial was essentially a crude mechanism through which the white apartheid government hoped to destroy or silence the ANC. It failed.
The ANC leaders, including Nelson Mandela, who was already in Johannesburg’s Fort prison serving a five-year sentence for inciting workers to strike and leaving the country illegally, were found guilty and given long prison sentences.
Leading the defence team was the distinguished Afrikaner lawyer Bram Fischer, assisted by Harry Schwarz, Joel Joffe, Arthur Chaskalson, George Bizos and Harold Hanson.
The team of Rivonia defence lawyers were unable to see the accused until two days before the trial opened on October 9.
At the end of October another one of the accused, Bob Hepple, left the dock. Under pressure he had agreed to testify for the prosecution. In fact he never did. ANC comrades smuggled him out of the country.
The charges against all defendants were both broad and vague: recruiting persons for training in the preparation and use of explosives and in guerilla warfare for the purpose of violent revolution and committing acts of sabotage; conspiring to commit these acts and to aid foreign military units when they invaded the republic; acting in these ways to further the objects of communism; and soliciting and receiving money for these purposes from sympathisers outside South Africa.
Mandela and seven other defendants were found guilty and given life sentences, much to the disappointment of the South African government and also many British Conservatives like Margaret Thatcher and today’s Speaker of the House of Commons John Bercow who publicly demanded they all be hung.
The accused were sent to Robben Island Prison. Goldberg was sent to Pretoria Central Prison’s security wing for white political prisoners — the only one of its kind in South Africa. Apartheid’s segregation even applied to prisons. He served 22 years.
Not long after the trial, defence lawyer Bram Fischer was arrested and himself put on trial for “supporting communism.”
Many believe the state went for Fischer because the defendants in the trial had not received the death penalty. He was sentenced to life imprisonment and was only released when he became critically ill.
Mandela, as we now know, served 27 years, was released and became president of the South African nation.
His speech from the dock was to prove an inspiration to a whole generation both in South Africa and the rest of the world as they fought and eventually ended apartheid.
Finally the battle against apartheid was won, the obscene system was cast into the dustbin of history and with it the names, reputations and memories of the government ministers, judges, police spies, prosecution lawyers, prison officers and state witnesses who fixed the trial.
On the other hand the memories of Mandela and the other men of Rivonia still burn bright in all our memories and still inspire all those who are fighting for a better, more equal world today in Africa and beyond.
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