SA marks 50 years since Rivonia Trial sentencing

12 June 2014

It was 50 years ago today, on Friday, 12 June 1964, that eight men stood in the dock in the Palace of Justice in Pretoria awaiting their sentence on sabotage charges in what became known as the Rivonia Trial.

On that day in 1964 a large crowd had gathered in the street outside the court in support of the eight men who had been tried for eight-and-a-half months in a trial that began on 9 October 1963.

Before the trial a second trial indictment had listed 10 accused: Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki, Raymond Mhlaba, Denis Goldberg, Ahmed Kathrada, Andrew Mlangeni, Elias Motsoaledi, Lionel “Rusty” Bernstein, and James Kantor.

However, Bernstein was acquitted on 11 June 1964, rearrested and later fled the country, while Kantor was released on 4 March of that year. An 11th accused, Bob Hepple, had all charges against him withdrawn on condition that he testified for the prosecution before the trial. He agreed but never did and also fled the country.

The eight men on trial were all expecting to be sentenced to death for their role in the African National Congress’s (ANC) armed struggle against apartheid.

“The menacing shadow of the gallows stalked us in and outside the courtroom throughout that trial. In prison one lived in a pervading atmosphere of the death sentence. Prison officials, maliciously or otherwise, went out of their way to constantly cast such shadows in my path,” Nelson Mandela wrote later while in prison.

“It was a tense moment when the judge finally delivered his sentence, it was a source of encouragement to see that it was not the accused in the dock who were visibly nervous but the judge himself.

“The whole of South Africa and the world tensely awaited the verdict and the unprecedented step was taken to have it broadcast directly from the court,” Mandela wrote. “The judge’s voice was barely audible as he pronounced sentence of life imprisonment and quickly left the court. Among the spectators there was a sigh of relief and many hurriedly left the court to convey the news to the excited throng outside.”

The eight were relieved, although for their families in the court, it was difficult to witness their loved ones about to be sent to jail for life. In those days in South Africa, a life sentence meant just that. But at least they had life.

They were incarcerated in Robben Island Prison, with the exception of Goldberg, who because he was white was sent to Pretoria Central Prison, where he served 22 years.

A mystery solved

While he photographed the crowd outside the courtroom and the accused in a van heading for jail, a young university student, Lionel Shapiro, also captured the trialists’ family members leaving.

For years, one photograph stood out for Shapiro. He had been unable to identify a young woman leaving the court. It was only after Shapiro had donated these photographs to the Nelson Mandela Foundation, in 2014, that archivist Zanele Riba made some enquiries and discovered who she was.

It was the late June Mlangeni, the wife of Andrew Mlangeni, who was delighted to discover the existence of the photograph and confirmed that the “beautiful”, “lovely” woman was his wife. “Oh look at how brave she is,” he said.

Mandela’s Rivonia Trial speech

It was at the Rivonia Trial that Mandela made his famous speech, which ended with the words: “During my lifetime I have dedicated myself 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 live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

Nelson Mandela Foundation and SAinfo reporter