Fifty years since Mandela’s sentencing

7 November 2012

While Nelson Mandela’s sentence to life in prison was handed down at the conclusion of the Rivonia Trial on 12 June 1964, his first conviction for which he had to serve a prison sentence was on 7 November 1962.

To mark this lesser known but important trial, the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory plans to launch an exhibition on it, coinciding with the launch of the refurbished Nelson Mandela Foundation building as a facility open to the public in mid-2013.

Mandela Foundation to open to public

The building at 107 Central Street in Houghton, Johannesburg, which houses Mandela’s post-presidential office, is undergoing extensive refurbishment to repurpose it into an archive and dialogue facility – the final phase of a five-year transition which will see the building opened to the public.

“It is the task of the team at the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory not only to document and manage Mr Mandela’s personal archive, but to unearth new information and artefacts about his life and times,” Verne Harris, head of the Memory Programme at the centre, said in a statement this week.

“As we discover fresh information, we will keep updating our public platforms.”

Not immediately sent to Robben Island

According to the centre, it was on 7 November 1962 that Mandela was first convicted, receiving a five-year prison sentence for leaving the country illegally and inciting workers to strike.

“Contrary to popular opinion, Mandela was not immediately sent to Robben Island,” the centre relates. “In fact, he served the first seven months of his sentence in Pretoria Local Prison. He only went to Robben Island in May 1963, but was suddenly transferred back to Pretoria in mid-June 1963, two weeks before the raid on Liliesleaf Farm in Rivonia netted his comrades.”

Together with them, and other comrades arrested elsewhere, Mandela was put on trial later that year for sabotage.

On 12 June 1964, at the end of the Rivonia Trial, Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Ahmed Kathrada, Govan Mbeki, Denis Goldberg, Raymond Mhlaba, Andrew Mlangeni and Elias Motsoaledi were sentenced to life imprisonment.

Arrest of ‘the Black Pimpernel’

Mandela’s arrest had taken place separately, at a police roadblock outside Howick in South Africa’s then Natal province on Sunday, 5 August 1962.

Mandela’s 27-and-a-half years in prison is calculated from the day of his arrest, as he was in custody from then until his eventual release on 11 February 1990.

The man dubbed “the Black Pimpernel” by the media at the time had evaded capture by apartheid operatives for 17 months, during which time he had spent about seven months abroad.

“His clandestine trip took in visits to more than a dozen African countries and England, and aimed to raise support and money for the newly formed armed wing of the African National Congress, as well as to secure military training for himself,” the centre relates.

Mandela was charged, convicted and sentenced within three months of his arrest. The charge of leaving the country illegally, without a passport, was related to his clandestine trip, which he began through Botswana on 11 January 1962.

‘Black Man in the White Man’s Court’

According to the centre, Mandela underwent two periods of military training: one, in March 1962, with the National Liberation Front in Algeria at its base in Oujda, Morocco, and the second in June 1962 at the Rapid Reaction Force of the Ethiopian Police – also known as Kolfe, about 8km outside Addis Ababa. In his autobiography Long Walk to Freedom, Mandela refers to it as the headquarters of the Ethiopia Riot Battalion.

The charge of incitement related to Mandela’s role in organising a strike for 29, 30 and 31 May 1962, against South Africa becoming a republic.

He was sentenced by Mr WA van Helsdingen of the Special Regional Court in the Old Synagogue in Pretoria to three years for incitement and to two years for leaving the country illegally.

Bob Hepple, one of Mandela’s underground support team and his legal adviser during his 1962 trial, has written a book, Young Man with a Red Tie: A memoir of Mandela and the failed revolution 1960-63, in which he portrays the character of the man who defied white South African “justice”.

Young Man with a Red Tie is due to be published in 2013. Click here to read an edited extract, “Black Man in the White Man’s Court” (pdf file).

SAinfo reporter