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Rivonia Trial

The Rivonia Trial was a trial that took place in South Africa between 1963 and 1964. Ten leaders of the African National Congress (ANC) were charged (and eight eventually convicted) on four broad charges: (a) recruiting persons for training in the preparation and use of explosives and in guerrilla warfare for the purpose of violent revolution and committing acts of sabotage; (b) conspiring to commit these acts and to aid foreign military units when they [hypothetically] invaded the Republic; (c) acting in these ways to further the objects of communism; and (d) soliciting and receiving money for these purposes from sympathizers outside South Africa.

Among other consequences, the trial led to the imprisonment of ANC leader (and future President of South Africa) Nelson Mandela and the other convicted defendants on life sentences, of which Mandela actually served 27 years. Mandela's speech from the dock was to prove an influential statement of his political beliefs.


The trial was named after Rivonia, the suburb of Johannesburg where 19 ANC leaders had been arrested (and ANC documents discovered) at Liliesleaf Farm, privately owned by Arthur Goldreich, on 11 July 1963. The farm had been used as a hideout for the African National Congress. Among others, Nelson Mandela had moved onto the farm in October 1961 and evaded security police while masquerading as a gardener and cook called David Motsamayi (meaning "the walker").


Arrested were:

and others.

Goldberg, Bernstein, Hepple, Wolpe, Kantor and Goldreich were white Jews, Kathrada and Nair were Indian, and Sisulu, Mbeki, and Mhlaba were Xhosa, Motsoaledi was a Pedi, while Sisulu had a Xhosa mother and a white father.[1]

The ANC's leaders who were prosecuted in the Rivonia trial also included 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. Most of the Rivonia defendants were to be convicted, and in turn sentenced to life imprisonment. (The apartheid regime's attack on the ANC's leadership and organizers was to continue subsequently with a trial known as Little Rivonia, in which other ANC members were prosecuted for sabotage. Among the defendants in this second trial was the chief of Umkhonto we Sizwe(MK), Wilton Mkwayi, who was sentenced to life imprisonment alongside Mandela and the other ANC leaders on Robben Island.)

In the Rivonia trial the government took advantage of legal provisions allowing for accused persons to be held for 90 days without trial, and the defendants were held incommunicado. Meanwhile, Goldreich and Wolpe bribed a guard and escaped from jail on 11 August.[citation needed] Their escape infuriated the prosecutors and police who considered Goldreich to be "the arch-conspirator".

Lawyers were unable to see the accused until two days before indictment on 9 October. Leading the defence team was Bram Fischer, the distinguished Afrikaner lawyer, assisted by Joel Joffe, Arthur Chaskalson, George Bizos, Vernon Berrangé and Harold Hanson. A separate team including Hanson and Harry Schwarz defended Kantor. At the end of October, Hepple was able to leave the dock because under pressure he agreed to testify for the prosecution. In fact he never did so, as he managed to escape and flee the country.[2]

The presiding judge was Dr. Quartus de Wet, judge-president of the Transvaal.

The chief prosecutor was Dr. Percy Yutar, deputy attorney-general of the Transvaal.

The trial began on 26 November 1963. After dismissal of the first indictment as inadequate, the trial finally got under way on 3 December with an expanded indictment. Each of the ten accused pleaded not guilty. The trial ended on 12 June 1964.

List of defendants

File:Palace of Justice, Church Square, pretoria.JPG
The Palace of Justice in Pretoria, site of the trial

The first trial indictment document listed 11 names as the accused.[3] Counsel for the accused successfully challenged the legal sufficiency of the document, with the result that Justice de Wet quashed it.[4] Prior to dismissal of the first indictment, the State withdrew all charges against Bob Hepple, after he agreed to testify for the prosecution. Hepple subsequently fled the country, without testifying, and from exile told reporters that he never had any intention of testifying against the defendants.[5] The second indictment thus only listed 10 out of the original 11 names, referring to them as Accused 1 through 10.[6]

  1. Nelson Mandela
  2. Walter Sisulu
  3. Denis Goldberg
  4. Govan Mbeki
  5. Ahmed Kathrada
  6. Lionel "Rusty" Bernstein (acquitted)
  7. Raymond Mhlaba
  8. James Kantor (acquitted)
  9. Elias Motsoaledi
  10. Andrew Mlangeni

Defence lawyers

Nat Levy was attorney of record in Pretoria for Mandela and the other accused, with the exception of Kantor.[7] Hilda Bernstein (wife of Rusty Bernstein) approached Joffe, after being rebuffed by other lawyers who claimed to be too busy or afraid to act for her husband. Joffe was subsequently also approached by Albertina Sisulu (wife of Walter Sisulu), Annie Goldberg (mother of Dennis Goldberg) and Winnie Mandela (wife of Nelson Mandela). Joffe agreed to act as attorney for all of the accused except Kantor, who would require separate counsel, and Bob Hepple.[8][9]

Joffe initially secured the services of advocates Arthur Chaskalson and George Bizos, then persuaded Bram Fischer to act as lead counsel. Vernon Berrangé was also later recruited to join the team of advocates.[10] The defence line-up for the majority of the accused was:

The accused all agreed that Kantor's defence could share nothing in common with the rest of the accused. He thus arranged a separate defence team.[11] While Harold Hanson primarily represented Kantor, he was also invited to deliver the plea for mitigation for the other 9 accused.[12] The defence line-up for Kantor was


Charges were:

  • recruiting persons for training in the preparation and use of explosives and in guerrilla warfare for the purpose of violent revolution and committing acts of sabotage
  • conspiring to commit the aforementioned acts and to aid foreign military units when they invaded the Republic,
  • acting in these ways to further the objects of communism
  • soliciting and receiving money for these purposes from sympathizers in Algeria, Ethiopia, Liberia, Nigeria, Tunisia, and elsewhere.

"Production requirements" for munitions for a six-month period were sufficient, the prosecutor Percy Yutar said in his opening address, to blow up a city th[13]

Kantor was discharged at the end of the prosecution's case.

The trial was condemned by the United Nations Security Council and nations around the world, leading to international sanctions against the South African government in some cases.


  • Arthur Goldreich and Harold Wolpe escaped from The Fort prison in Johannesburg while on remand after bribing a prison guard. After hiding in various safe houses for two months they escaped to Swaziland dressed as priests with the aid of Manni Brown who posed as a tour operator as a cover to deliver weapons to the ANC. From Swaziland, Vernon Berrangé was to charter a plane to take them on to Lobatse, a small town in south-eastern Botswana.[14]
  • Wolpe's escape saw his brother-in-law James Kantor, who had been serving as a member of the defence team, arrested and charged with the same crimes as Mandela and his co-accused. Harry Schwarz, a close friend and a well-known politician, acted as his defence. After being dealt with aggressively by the prosecutor Percy Yutar, who sought to portray him as a vital cog of MK, Kantor was discharged by Judge Quartus de Wet, who ruled that he had no case to answer. Following his release, Kantor fled the country. He was to die of a massive heart attack in 1975.

Mandela's speech

Main article: I Am Prepared to Die

At the beginning of the defence's proceedings, Nelson Mandela gave a three-hour speech from the defendant's dock, in which he explained and defended the ANC's key political positions. He justified the movement's decision, in view of the increasing restrictions on permitted political activity on the part of Africans, to go beyond its earlier use of constitutional methods and Gandhian non-violent opposition to the state, embracing a campaign of sabotage against property (designed to minimize risks of injury and death), while also starting to train a military wing for possible future use. He also discussed in some detail the relationship between the ANC and the SACP, explaining that, while the two shared a commitment to action against the apartheid system, he was wedded to a model of constitutional democracy for South Africa (he singled out the British political model for particular praise), and also supported a market economy rather than a communist economic model. The speech is considered one of the founding moments of South African democracy.[15][16]

Mandela's closing words have been much-quoted. They were reportedly spoken looking the judge full in the eyes. His statement that he was prepared to die for the cause was strongly resisted by his lawyers, who feared it might itself provoke a death sentence. In a concession to their concerns, Mandela inserted the words "if it needs be". Nelson Mandela speaking at the dock of the court, 20 April 1964 said:[17]


Although the prosecution did not formally request the death penalty, close observers of the trial considered such a sentence to be implicit in the prosecutor's presentation of his case.[13] Opposition to the death penalty included both public campaigns internationally and the defence's arguments within the courtroom. Harold Hanson was called upon to argue in mitigation. He compared the African struggle for rights to the earlier Afrikaans struggle, citing precedents for temperate sentencing, even in cases of treason. Eight defendants were sentenced to life imprisonment; Lionel Bernstein was acquitted.

There was no surprise in the fact that Mandela, Sisulu, Mbeki, Motsoaledi, Mlangeni, and Goldberg were found guilty on all four counts. The defence had hoped that Mhlaba, Kathrada, and Bernstein might escape conviction because of the skimpiness of evidence that they were parties to the conspiracy, although undoubtedly they could be prosecuted on other charges. But Mhlaba too was found guilty on all counts, and Kathrada, on one charge of conspiracy. Bernstein, however, was found not guilty. He was rearrested, released on bail, and placed under house arrest. Later he fled the country.

Denis Goldberg went to Pretoria Central Prison instead of Robben Island (at that time the only security wing for white political prisoners in South Africa) where he served 22 years.

Nelson Mandela spent twenty seven years and eight months in prison as a result of the Rivonia trial (18 years of which were spent on Robben Island). He was released on 11 February 1990 by President F. W. de Klerk.

See also




Journal articles

Newspaper articles

  • Beresford, David (7 May 2003). "Walter Sisulu". the Guardian. Retrieved 2014-08-13. 



External links