The Rivonia Trialists today

[Image] Bob Hepple still lives in England.

[Image] Ahmed Kathrada is now retired.
(Images: Lucille Davie)

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Lucille Davie

He was Accused No 1, and he was the last man to be released from jail. Nelson Mandela stood accused with 10 others in the Rivonia Trial in 1964, all on trial for sabotage, which carried the death penalty.

But they didn’t go to the gallows. Instead, eight men got life imprisonment, serving from 22 to 27 years. At the trial, Judge Quartus de Wet said: “I have decided not to impose the supreme penalty, which would usually be death for such a crime. But consistent with my duty, that is the only leniency which I can show. The sentence in the case of all the accused will be one of life imprisonment…”

Mandela’s fellow accused were Ahmed Kathrada, Andrew Mlangeni, Raymond Mhlaba, Walter Sisulu, Elias Motsoaledi, Govan Mbeki, James Kantor, Lionel “Rusty” Bernstein, and Bob Hepple.

Bernstein and Kantor were acquitted in late 1963, and charges against Hepple were withdrawn, after which he fled to England, where he still lives.

But where are the trialists now?

Nelson Mandela

Mandela became South Africa’s first democratic president in 1994, stepping down in 1999. He joined the African National Congress (ANC) in 1943, and was one of the group which formed the ANC Youth League in 1944. He was the Transvaal president and national volunteer-in-chief of the 1952 Defiance Campaign. He was arrested and tried for treason with 156 others in 1956, and acquitted in 1961. He was detained under the state of emergency in 1960, and on his release, went underground. He co-founded Mkhonto we Sizwe (MK, Spear of the Nation), the ANC’s military division, and was its first commander-in-chief, leaving the country for five months in 1962 for military training. After 17 months on the run Mandela was arrested in August 1962 for leaving South Africa without a passport, and for inciting workers to strike. He was serving five years’ imprisonment on Robben Island for these crimes, when he was charged with sabotage, along with those arrested at Liliesleaf. He was the last Rivonia trialist to be released from prison, on 11 February 1990. He celebrated his 95th birthday in hospital on 18 July 2013, being treated for a recurring lung infection.

Ahmed Kathrada

Kathrada or Kathy, Accused No 5, was released in 1989 and became a member of parliament in 1994, and served as adviser to Mandela during his tenure as president. He joined the Young Communist League at the age of 12, and was a member of the South African Communist Party (SACP) central committee. After frequent bannings, arrests and house arrests, he went underground in April 1963, but was arrested at Liliesleaf in July of that year. While imprisoned on Robben Island he obtained four degrees. After 1994 he was appointed as parliamentary counsellor to President Mandela. From 1997 to 2006 he was chairman of the Robben Island Council. He has written three books and received many awards. He is now retired and consults to the Nelson Mandela Foundation.

Andrew Mlangeni

Accused No 10, Mlangeni was released in 1989 and became a member of Parliament, a position he still holds. He was a trade unionist and was active in the bus boycott and strike in 1955. He joined the ANC Youth League in 1951, and was a member of the SACP and MK. He was sent for military training in 1962, and was arrested on his return in 1963. Mlangeni received the ANC’s Isitwalandwe Award in 1992 for his contribution to the liberation struggle.

Raymond Mhlaba

A former commander-in-chief of MK, Mhlaba was Accused No 7. He was released from Pollsmoor Prison in 1989 and in 1991 was elected to the ANC national executive and the SACP central committee, becoming national party chairman in 1995. In 1994 he became premier of the Eastern Cape and served in this role until 1997. He was then appointed high commissioner to Uganda and Rwanda, retiring in 2001. In 2003 he had a stroke and in 2004 was diagnosed with liver cancer. He died in 2005 in Port Elizabeth. Mhlaba received the ANC’s Isitwalandwe Award in 1992 for his contribution to the liberation struggle, and the Moses Kotane Award in 2002 for his contribution to the SACP.

Walter Sisulu

Walter Sisulu, Mandela’s great friend, was Accused No 2. He was the former secretary-general of the ANC, and very influential in the movement. He moved back into his small four-roomed house in Soweto after his release in 1989, at the age of 77. He took up ANC duties but after democratic elections in 1994 retired from politics. Sisulu and his wife Albertina moved into the northern suburbs of Johannesburg, because he needed to be closer to his doctors, his health now failing. In May 2003 he died peacefully in Albertina’s arms at his home, at the age of 90.

Denis Goldberg

Accused No 3, Goldberg spent 22 years in Pretoria Central, isolated from his fellow Rivonia trialists because white prisoners weren’t sent to Robben Island. In 1985 the government offered to release any political prisoner who renounced armed struggle. Goldberg accepted, and after visiting his daughter briefly in Israel, moved to England, where he represented the ANC at the UN’s Anti-Apartheid Committee. He founded Community HEART in 1995 to help poor black South Africans overcome the legacy left by apartheid. Goldberg returned to South Africa in 2002 and became a member of Parliament. He lives in Cape Town, and after serving for several years as a special adviser to the ministry of water affairs and forestry, has now retired.

Elias Motsoaledi

Motsoaledi was Accused No 9. He was a trade unionist and a member of the Council of Non-European Trade Unions. He was banned after the 1952 Defiance Campaign and helped establish the South African Congress of Trade Unions in 1955. He was imprisoned for four months during the 1960 state of emergency and detained under the 90-day detention laws of 1963. He was released from Robben Island in 1989, and elected to the ANC’s National Executive Committee on his release. Motsoaledi He was awarded the ANC’s Isitwalandwe Award in 1992 for his contribution to the liberation struggle. He died in 1994.

Govan Mbeki

The father of former president Thabo Mbeki, and Accused No 4, Mbeki was a teacher, trade union organiser, journalist and writer. He joined the ANC in 1935 and the SACP in 1953. He was a member of the SACP central committee, the ANC national executive committee and the MK high command. He went underground in November 1962 and was arrested at Liliesleaf. After his release from Robben Island in 1987, he was elected deputy president of the Senate, the precursor of the National Council of the Provinces, the country’s second parliament. Mbeki was also a recipient of the Isithwalandwe award. He wrote several books: South Africa: The Peasants’ Revolt, The Struggle for Liberation in South Africa and Sunset at Midday. He died in 2001 in Port Elizabeth.

Bob Hepple

Charges were dropped against Hepple, Accused No 11, and he was released. The prosecution was hoping he would turn state witness, but he immediately fled to England with his wife, to be joined there by his parents with his two young children. He went on to have a long and distinguished legal career in that country – he is an international expert and activist in labour law, equality and human rights; emeritus master of Clare College and emeritus professor of law at the University of Cambridge in England; and has received several awards and honours, including a knighthood in 2004. He has just published a book, titled Young man with a Red Tie: a memoir of Mandela and the Failed Revolution 1960-1963. It recounts his escape to avoid testifying against the Rivonia trialists.

Rusty Bernstein

Rusty Bernstein, Accused No 6, was acquitted in the Rivonia Trial, but arrested again soon after and released on bail. He fled the country and lived with his wife Hilda and family in England, working as an architect until he died in June 2002. Bernstein remained a member of the ANC until his death at the age of 82. He joined the Communist Party in 1938, and was a founder member of the South African Congress of Democrats. He was the principal drafter of the 1955 Freedom Charter. After 1994 he made several trips to South Africa but continued to live just outside Oxford in England. In 1999 he published his autobiography, Memory against Forgetting.

James Kantor

Accused No 8 was Kantor, a lawyer but not a member of the ANC or MK. He was one of the trialists, possibly because his brother-in-law and business partner was Harold Wolpe, who had been arrested at Liliesleaf, and was a member of the ANC and the SACP. When Kantor was acquitted at the trial, he fled the country, and died in London in 1974, at the age of 47.

Wolpe escaped from the Marshall Square Police Station, together with Goldreich and Mosie Moola and Abdulhay Jassat, and after hiding out in Johannesburg for two months, Wolpe and Goldreich escaped across the border, and flew to London. Goldreich moved to Israel in 1964, where he died in 2011. Wolpe lived with his family for 27 years in London, where he became an academic. He remained an active member of the ANC and the SACP. In 1991 he and his wife and son returned to South Africa, settling in Cape Town, leaving their two daughters in Europe. He died in 1996 at the age of 70.

Mosie Moola and Abdulhay Jassat made their way to India after their release, but ended up back in South Africa. Moola served as ambassador in various embassies, and is now based in Johannesburg. He works in the department of foreign affairs. Jassat (who still suffers from epilepsy as a result of his torture) was in exile for 32 years. He is now a businessman in Johannesburg.