Rivonia Trialists Charged With Sabotage on 9 October 1963

On this day in 1963, the Rivonia trialists were charged with sabotage and attempting to violently overthrow the South African government. This after a raid by security police at Lilliesleaf farm on 11 July 1963.

The Rivonia raid of July 11, 1963, was followed by an anti-climax: a trial in which Nelson Mandela, who was brought out of prison to become one of the accused, Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki, and others admitted that they were guilty of sabotage and preparation for guerrilla war. They denied, however, that a decision had been made to begin guerrilla activity. For eleven months after the raid, the underlying question in the trial was whether or not they would be hanged, which would have transformed them, as heroes of the African opposition, into martyrs.

Mandela, Sisulu, and Mbeki, the most prominent leaders of the ANC (other than Lutuli) who were still inside the country, were members of the National High Command of Umkhonto. Hundreds of documents and other evidence of subversion were found at Rivonia and at two other sites, both used as hide-outs and one used as an arsenal. Many of the documents were in the handwriting of the accused, including a diary of Mandela. For him and the others, the trial was an opportunity to set the record straight and a platform from which to reach a worldwide audience as well as their own followers within South Africa. The trial was similarly an opportunity for the government to win support, especially (it thought) because white and Indian Communists were among the accused and alleged co-conspirators. Anti-apartheid groups succeeded in focusing unprecedented international attention on the trial and in generating pressures to end it or at least to save the defendants from the death penalty. On June 11, 1964, Judge Quartus de Wet found Mandela, Sisulu, Mbeki, and others guilty, and on June 12, 1964, he sentenced them to prison for life.

For nearly ninety days, the men arrested in the Rivonia cottage had been interrogated and detained in solitary confinement. Among others detained under the 90-day law who became defendants the trial were Dennis Goldberg, a Cape Town engineer and leader of the Congress of Democrats who had been in the main Rivonia house at the time of the raid; Elias Motsoaledi and Andrew Mlangeni, minor figures in Umkhonto who had been arrested some weeks earlier; Arthur Goldreich, the tenant at Rivonia, an industrial designer who had learned guerrilla tactics in Israel; Harold Wolpe, a lawyer involved in handling the Communist Party’s money for purchase of the Rivonia property; and James Kantor, who was not involved in Umkhonto or in politics but was a legal colleague and brother-in-law of Wolpe. Kantor was discharged at the end of the prosecution’s case.

Meanwhile, Goldreich, Wolpe, and two Indian detainees, Moosa Moolla and A. Jassat, bribed a young guard and escaped from jail on August 11, eventually making their way to Swaziland and then to Tanzania. Probably the most dramatic escape in South African history, their exit from the country infuriated the prosecutors and police who considered Goldreich to be “the arch-conspirator.”

The far-reaching effects of the 90-day law were only partly evident after the Rivonia raid. Both high officials and the press spoke vividly of the culpability of the men under detention. Because technically they were not yet charged with an offense, the tradition of no public comment on a pending case could be ignored. What could not be known fully with regard to this and other pending cases was the treatment of persons who were being held incommunicado. During the ten months after May 11, 1963, 682 persons were detained, 61 of them for more than 90 days. Some complained of assault, electric shock, and suffocation within plastic bags.

White prisoners were apparently not tortured, although some white members of ARM were beaten up; solitary confinement for long periods, however, was described by critics as a form of mental torture. Mandela himself was treated by his jailers with some respect and restraint, but Mlangeni, complaining that he had been tortured with electric shocks, displayed burns and scars after his detention. Motsoaledi complained of assault. More subtle were the psychological consequences of solitary confinement and relentless questioning. These practices posed a problem for the judge regarding the reliability of prosecution witnesses in the Rivonia trial, some of whom were Africans sympathetic to Umkhonto who had been persuaded to testify for the state.

Lawyers were unable to see the accused until two days before indictment on October 9. Leading the defense team was Bram Fischer, the distinguished lawyer, Afrikaner, and veteran Communist (at that time, secretly a member of the underground party). Two days later, after appeals abroad by Oliver Tambo, the United Nations General Assembly voted 106 to 1, with only South Africa in opposition, in criticism of South African political trials; but the United States, Britain, France, and Australia abstained on the operative paragraph, which called for an end to “the arbitrary trial now in progress.” At the end of October, Hepple was able to leave the dock because he had agreed to testify for the prosecution; later he managed to flee the country. After dismissal of the first indictment as inadequate, the trial finally got under way on December 3 with an expanded indictment. Each of the ten accused pleaded not guilty, all of them except Kantor in words similar to those of Mandela: “My lord, it is not I, but the Government that should be in the dock today. I plead not guilty.”

In addition to the ten defendants, the indictment listed twenty-four alleged co-conspirators, including Tambo, Nokwe, Resha, Kotane, Marks, Dr. Arthur Letele, and Tennyson Makiwane. Surprisingly, Lutuli’s name was not listed. One defense attorney thought the exclusion was designed to drive a wedge between Lutuli and the accused. The prosecutor, however, repeatedly brought Lutuli into the case as an accomplice, and it was the accused who firmly refused to say anything that might incriminate him. Also listed as co-conspirators were the Communist Party, the ANC (which the prosecutor claimed was “completely dominated” by the Communist Party), and Umkhonto.

The offenses alleged were: (1) 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, (2) conspiring to commit the aforementioned acts and to aid foreign military units when they invaded the Republic, (3) acting in these ways to further the objects of communism, and (4) 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 said in his opening address, to blow up a city the size of Johannesburg.

The chief prosecutor was Dr. Percy Yutar, deputy attorney-general of the Transvaal, a Jew whose intense emotional involvement in the case was said to be due, in part, to his animus toward Jews who were Communists. He also shared the prevailing assumption of other white South Africans that “the rank and file of the Bantu in this country were faithful and loyal.” In his opening address, he said:

The planned purpose … was to bring about in the Republic of South Africa chaos, disorder and turmoil, which would be aggravated, according to their plan, by the operation of thousands of trained guerrilla warfare units deployed throughout the country at various vantage points. These would be joined in the various areas by local inhabitants, as well as specially selected men posted to such areas. Their combined operations were planned to lead to confusion, violent insurrection and rebellion, followed at the appropriate juncture by an armed invasion of the country by military units of foreign powers. In the midst of the resulting chaos, turmoil and disorder it was planned by the accused to set up a Provisional Revolutionary Government to take over the administration and control of this country.

He concluded (perhaps confusing the ANC with the PAC) by alleging that the accused and their organizations “had so planned their campaign that the present year – 1963 – was to be the year of their liberation from the so-called yoke of the white man’s domination.” In his final speech, Yutar declared for the first time that “the day of the mass uprising in connection with the launching of guerrilla warfare was to have been the 26th May 1963.” Choice of this date, six weeks before the Rivonia raid and a time when Umkhonto possessed only an air rifle with which Mandela had once tried target practice, mystified the accused and their lawyers.

Yutar’s summary of ” the planned purpose” was a summary of “Operation Mayibuye,” the draft memorandum found at Rivonia, which was, for Yutar, “the corner-stone of the State case.” Whether or not this plan for guerrilla war and foreign intervention had been accepted was, in the minds of the defense, the crucial question affecting sentences. Sisulu testified that the plan had been prepared by a group that included Arthur Goldreich. Some members of the National High Command favored it very strongly, he said; others (himself included) opposed it very strongly; and many were undecided and wanted further discussion. Preparations for the eventuality of guerrilla warfare were made, he said, but no decision to launch it was taken. The judge agreed. (Bram Fischer is reputed to have killed the plan. In his own trial later, he described Operation Mayibuye as “an entirely unrealistic brainchild of some youthful and adventurous imagination …. If ever there was a plan which a Marxist could not approve in the then prevailing circumstances, this was such a one …. if any part of it at all could be put into operation, it could achieve nothing but disaster.”)

Yutar described the Rivonia trial as “a classical case of high treason par excellence.” The accused were not charged under the common law of high treason, however, but under the Sabotage Act, which also carried the death penalty. Prosecution for treason would have required a preparatory examination, useful to the defense, with two witnesses to every overt act, and proof beyond a reasonable doubt. Dr. Yutar, privately recalling the abortive Treason Trial of 1956-1961, chose to proceed under the Sabotage Act, which shifted much of the onus of proof from the prosecution to the defense.91 In his final judgment, the judge agreed that the case was essentially one of high treason; but, perhaps ironically, he found in the fact that treason had not been charged a basis for deciding not to impose the death penalty “the only leniency” he could show. Afterwards, Sir de Villiers Graaff, leader of the United Party, said that his “only regret- with the verdict was that Mandela and others had not been charged with high treason. because then “the world would have understood the outcome of this case very much better than it does at this moment.”

In a manner similar to that adopted by the defense in the Treason Trial, which sought to dismiss all expressions of violent intent as outside ANC policy, the defense in the Rivonia trial argued that even acts by Umkhonto members could not be ascribed to the accused if the members had violated instructions against endangering human life. Although witnesses for the prosecution testified to such instructions, Yutar talked of murder and attempted murder. The defense reacted with outrage because no specific allegations were made. The judge agreed that other organizations as well as Umkhonto were committing sabotage, sometimes on the same targets, and that only a small proportion of the 193 acts of sabotage (none of which had resulted in loss of life) had been proved to be the responsibility of Umkhonto.

Potentially more important was the judge’s agreement that the ANC and Umkhonto were two separate though overlapping organizations, despite a governmental proclamation during the trial that the ANC was the same as Umkhonto. The distinction between the two organizations was important for every ANC member who might be charged in the future, because the maximum penalty for membership in an unlawful organization was ten years in prison, whereas the penalty for sabotage could be death.

These gratifying gains hardly compensated, however, for the shattering effect on all the accused (except Kantor) of the detailed testimony of “Mr. X,” who was Bruno Mtolo, the most active saboteur in Natal. He was the leading witness among 173 witnesses for the prosecution. Mtolo, a member both of the ANC and of the Communist Party, had become disaffected with Umkhonto, claiming that its leaders pursued selfish interests and disregarded the welfare of their followers. The judge considered him a reliable witness, and the defense, an extraordinarily impressive witness of phenomenal memory and very quick mind. The defense also insisted, however, that his testimony was a distorted mixture of fact and fiction, and Mandela expressed to his lawyers anger at Mtolo’s smearing of the ANC and Umkhonto as Communist.

Most distressing, however, was Mtolo’s readiness to “go out of his way to implicate people who were not even suspected by the police … [and his volunteering of] an enormous amount of information.” After his release, an Afrikaans publisher brought out an autobiography in which Mtolo suggested that “there must be some higher reason” for the presence of whites and other races in South Africa and concluded with an appeal to Lutuli as the leader of “the Zulu nation” to draft a new ANC policy “acceptable to the people but also to the white Government.”



Towards Robben Island: The Rivonia Trial https://omalley.nelsonmandela.org/omalley/index.php/site/q/03lv02424/04lv03370/05lv03415.htm


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