Rivonia: telling it as it was
2 July 1988
It is hard these days - twenty-five years on - to recapture the feeling of
the time of Rivonia - of the sudden arrest of some of the leading liberation
movement's activists, of the triumphant state claims that the 'headquarters' of
the illegal ANC and Communist Party had been 'captured' of the trial and its
head-on confrontation between state and security police on one hand, Mandela,
Sisulu, Mbeki and their colleagues on the other. And yet, whenever the history
of the South African resistance movement is being discussed or written, 'Rivonia'
becomes some sort of milestone, or the marker of a turning point in the story.
But what is it that makes 'Rivonia' - by which is implied the whole episode
of police raid, arrest, trial and sentence special? Now, 25 years after the raid
on Lilliesleaf Farm in the Johannesburg suburb, we have experienced other and
more sweeping police raids, the arrests and trials of thousands of other
political activists and freedom fighters; we have witnessed more dramatic
confrontations between police and freedom fighters including shoot-outs and
murders, and trials with more lurid evidence, and even more draconian sentences
including sentences of death. And still Rivonia holds a special place in the
To explain, at least in part, why that should be so, it is necessary to look
not only at the events of Rivonia, but more importantly at the times in which
The Rivonia Time
Those activists of the liberation struggle who are still alive today will
probably remember them as "the best of times; ... the worst of times"
in Dickens graphic phrase. The worst of times, because the ANC had been outlawed
three years before during the country's first state of emergency, and no public
body had been created to carry on the popular struggle for freedom. On the
surface, they were times of quiet - of an almost graveyard quiet in which the
voice and aspirations of the majority of the people appeared to have been
extinguished by a brute force, and the undisputed reign of White supremacists to
have been reestablished and strengthened after a hiccup during the emergency.
The worst of times.
But below the surface, for the activists, for the members of the ANC and
their colleagues from the Indian Congress, the Communist Party, and others,
things were different. The ANC had been officially outlawed; some claimed it had
been extinguished. But its leaders had decided that the~ organisation would not
just give up and die. It would continue underground, unlawfully, secretly. It
had done so.
ANC Still Alive
The lines of communication between its leadership and the local branches had
been re-established underground; small local units met, gathered in and united
former members, discussed and decided upon action on local political and social
issues of every kind. The word that the ANC - banned, but still the ANC - was
alive underground spread by word of mouth, by rumour, through rare small
circulation, illegal leaflets - until every politically aware citizen suspected
it or believed it. But nothing could be proved. Police surveillance and search
for the illegal organisation was intense, but evidence for arrest or prosecution
remained always beyond their reach, underground. From time to time ad hoc,
short-term political campaigns developed publicly on matters of the moment, in
which former ANC activists were prominent, and the directing spirit of the ANC
New Political Era
Even before that, there had been rumors and portents from underground of the
beginning of a new political era, rumours which everyone heard or observed in
one way or another, but none could explain with any certainty. In 1961, when the
government decided to declare South Africa a republic and change the
constitution without consulting the Black majority, one of those ad hoc,
temporary, public campaigns grew up out of the shadows ostensibly headed by the
Interdenominational Ministers' Association. ANC leaders almost all of them under
individual banning orders, were nowhere in evidence; yet rumour had it that - as
always - they were there somewhere, in the centre of it.
A national conference to consider action against the republican declaration
gathered in Pietermaritzburg. Dramatically, Nelson Mandela had appeared from the
shadows of a banning order, delivered the keynote speech, and won a decision for
a national protest strike in May 31st 1960, for which he was appointed the
leading organiser. Just as dramatically, he vanished underground, no longer to
be found at home or office, but yet repeatedly available for interviews with
press or television '...from underground'.
In an interview immediately after the strike, which had been notable for
massive state armed provocation and the use and threat of armed force, Mandela
suggested that force would have to be met with force if the peoples' opinions
and rights were not to be brutally crushed. The ANC traditions of using only
non-violent actions would, he suggested, have to be reconsidered. And then again
he vanished into that ubiquitous 'underground'.
Rumour and guarded suggestions of the use of force by the liberation
movement. It was rumoured that the reversal- of the policy of non-violence was
being considered; but by whom, none could say. It was rumoured that ANC members
in local secret branches were being consulted, opinions sought. It was becoming
the consensus everywhere amongst the political activists that change was
necessary and overdue, and that force would have to be brought into play against
a state which knew no other answer to its people's grievances. But who would
start, and where? how? In the shadowy, apparently leaderless vacuum left by the
disappearance of the substance of the ANC, could the slow drift to anarchic
violence evidenced by a new and unknown group calling itself 'Poqo' be followed?
The answer came, again dramatically, on December 16th, 1961 - six months
later from the Republic Day strike. In the early hours of the morning, in all
the main urban areas, government and municipal installations came under attack
by sabotage. Bombs brought down electrical pylons, and damaged pass offices and
rail tracks. Posters pasted up during the night announced the actions to be the
work of a new body, Umkhonto we Sizwe, which would carry on armed forms of
struggle for the liberation of the people.
Before many of the posters could be read and digested by the people at whom
they were aimed, police squads scoured the areas, tearing them down and
destroying them. Still, the message got out - not to many but to a few; and the
news that something new had been formed and had struck against the state, spread
by gossip and by rumour. But of Umkhonto itself and its leaders there was no
sign. It too had surfaced briefly, and then disappeared into the 'underground.'
From time to time during the following months there were reports, rumours,
tales, some true and some untrue, of further acts of sabotage against symbols
and installations of the State. There were tales of deliberate crop burning, and
of petty industrial sabotage of machines; but no solid facts. The press, leant
upon by government, suppressed the news of actual sabotage, even where reporters
confirmed the facts. Sabotage, too, remained a flicker in the shadows, raising
the hopes and morale of a suffering population although they could discover
nothing solid about its scale, its effectiveness, or who directed and carried it
Mandela remained out of sight,, unreported. Until August, there were rumours
that he had been seen now here, now there, that he had addressed secret meetings
of activists in several centres; but no one knew for sure. And then the sudden
news that he had been stopped at a road block on the Durban-Johannesburg road
and arrested, 17 months after disappearing underground. Soon afterwards he was
charged with inciting a strike on Republic Day, and with leaving the country
illegally. In November 1962 he was sentenced to five years' imprisonment. But
mystery remained. Where had he been when 'underground'? Why had he left the
country, and returned again to the 'underground'? His vigorous defence of his
politics during the trial provided no clues, no answers.
And so it remained - a period of occasional and often unreported acts of
sabotage, of occasional legal protest actions breaking the surface; but only
rumour and speculation about what really was going on underground. Until June
By then almost all known ANC and Communist Party activists had been placed
under banning orders, prohibited from almost all social and political contact
with others; many were house arrested and virtually incommunicado. And still
rumour had it that the 'underground' survived, lived and operated..
Detention of suspects without trial had been written into the law, and the
first victims had vanished into the silence of solitary confinement in police
stations and prisons, from which rumours and evidence of persistent torture,
sleep-deprivation and maltreatment filtered out. Other prominent political
activists had disappeared into the 'underground' - Walter Sisulu from Soweto,
Govan Mbeki from Port Elizabeth, both being sought by security police armed with
house arrest orders. On June 26th, an illegal radio transmission programme had
come on the air - Freedom Radio -heard with some difficulty; and for its first
ever broadcast from underground, the voice and message of Walter Sisulu. Perhaps
few people had switched to the right wavelength at the right moment; but word
circulated around the townships, and on the grapevines of political rumour. The
underground is no longer silent! It speaks!
And then it was July 1lth. And Rivonia.
The State Case
The triumph of the police and state was unrestrained, the tone exultant. The
claims of what had occurred in a raid on a Rivonia house were extravagant. The
'secret headquarters' of the whole national liberation movement, it was claimed,
had been 'captured', together with the secret archives of a vast conspiracy of
sabotage and preparation for guerrilla war. Those arrested, it was claimed,
constituted the 'High Command' of the conspirators, and they had been taken
red-handed along with precise detailed plans for armed struggle. The mask had
been stripped from the vaunted 'non-violent' ANC, it was claimed, and the
reality of a murderous violent conspiracy had been revealed to confirm all the
government's fiercest allegations against it.
Whether the organs of state that released a series of lurid statements
believed it all or not is not clear. There has always been - as there is today -
a vast gap between government propaganda about the nature of the opposition, and
the reality of it. The reality - so far as the accused in the forthcoming trial
were concerned - was this. They were charged with having jointly constituted a
'National High Command' - (of what was not stated) - of which nothing had ever
previously been heard.
This High Command, it was alleged, had been responsible for organising some
300 acts of sabotage at various places throughout the country over some 18
months; about most of these events, thee regime knew neither whether they had
actually occurred, nor, if they had, who had carried them out. They were said to
have prepared documents showing that they had prepared and started on the
development of armed quasi-guerrilla forces in pursuit of a plan for the armed
overthrow of the government; of the documents themselves, few of them knew
anything at all; perhaps there were such documents; perhaps they were forgeries,
but most of the accusers knew neither of their existence, their validity or
Lilliesleaf Farm in fact had not been 'headquarters' as the state alleged,
but a 'safe house' used by various illegal organisations. Each of its users left
there, for 'safe-keeping' or for reasons of carelessness, its own documentary
evidence. None of the users - or the accused - knew of all the documents, or
indeed of their existence until the court case.
Possible Death Sentence
The charges carried a possible death sentence, and the prosecution was
putting it about that death sentences would be asked for. There are always, in a
political trial, two possible lines of defence; and where charges are this
serious, the choice is not to be made lightly. There could be a lawyer-led'
defence, based on contesting all the state evidence and rebutting it, and on
legalistic argument about the scope and meaning of the laws under which the
prosecution is brought. Or there could be a political defence, based on a
strenuous justification of deeds actually committed, and on turning the
accusation of guilt against the state whose policies and actions had made the
actions necessary and right.
From this point on, James Kantor must be excluded. He was a strictly
non-political lawyer, uninvolved in any of the events covered by the trial, who
had been arrested as an act of petty spite and as surrogate for his
brother-in-law, Harold Wolpe, who was cited in the Rivonia indictment as a
'co-conspirator', but had escaped from a police cell before he could be charged.
There was no case at all against Kantor, and an application for his discharge at
the end of the state case succeeded.
The Accused of One Mind
The Rivonia accused were of one mind, which was itself remarkable. They came
from different sectors, different organisations within what can loosely be
called 'the liberation movement'. Their basic political ideologies ranged from
Marxist, through nationalist, to near-Gandhian pacifist. Their participation -
if any - in the underground preparation and commission of acts of violence
varied; some had been at the very centre, some on the rank-and-file level, some
quite outside everything except the political debates and exchanges which had
given rise to new policies, some variously outside the country or in prison at
the time most of the events took place. But the case rested on a charge of
conspiracy in which the deeds of each can be attributed against all the others,
regardless of such differences. The decision of how to defend had to be made in
They were all of one mind. The political defence had to be followed, even at
the cost of any temporary or personal advantage which might be gained by
sticking to the legalisms. There was to be no search for self-justification or
self-advertisement. Here, it was realised, was the opportunity the whole
'underground' had sought, and failed to find - the opportunity to address the
whole country, to explain the reasons why the struggle had to shift from total
nonviolence to a combination of violent and non-violent means; to explain why
Urnkhonto had been formed, by whom and for what purposes. Here at last was the
opportunity to break out of the blackout of state censorship and press
self-censorship, and replace unreliable rumour with an authentic policy guide
for the whole people. The Rivonia trial must become the platform from which to
tell the whole story, as it really was.
The main burden of telling it fell, inevitably, on accused No.1 - Nelson
Mandela. An unexpected move totally unsettled the prosecutor, who had been
preparing his cross-examination of Mandela with some glee. Mandela elected not
to go into the witness stand, but to make his statement from the dock. He thus
passed up any opportunity to present a legal defence against the charges, or
provide any evidence in rebuttal. But he gained what the accused wanted above
all else -an opportunity to tell the whole story of Umkhonto and the turn to
forms of violent struggle, as it was, without interruptions and without the
obscurities which develop in the question-and-answer form of evidence from the
His statement has often been repeated as the "I am prepared to die"
testimony of South Africa's freedom fighters. That statement was reported and
rebroadcast through the country. If it sealed the certainty of a verdict of
guilt against Mandela, it broke at last the stifling blanket of censorship and
silence which had surrounded the ANC and its allies since the state of emergency
Leaders in the Witness Box
Sisulu, Mbeki, Kathrada and others went into the witness box, to discuss the
evidence, rebut the lies of Which they were aware, and fill the gaps in the
story which Mandela's statement had left unfilled. Through fiercely sustained
cross-examination, all stood their ground. All defended the decision to start
violent forms of struggle, though their personal roles in its execution varied.
All refused steadfastly to reveal any of the information about the underground
which was not, already in evidence, or to implicate by smear ANC leader, Chief
Luthuli or leading defence counsel Abram Fisher, who were the targets of the
prosecutor's special venom.
The outcome of the case was not in doubt. The accused had ensured that a
'guilty' verdict was certain. All that was in doubt was whether it would apply
equally and to all of them; and whether the sentence would be death. In the
event, all but one* were found guilty; no reasons were given for the judgment;
all were sentenced to life imprisonment. All had decided, in advance of the
verdict, that whatever happened they would not appeal. They had made their stand
as a matter of principle. They had done their duty to their movements and to
their people, whom they had tried to serve with all the purpose of their being.
They would not appeal to either the mercy or the humanity of a State they had
declared at the outset of the trial to be guilty of the violence, oppression and
inhumanity which characterised South Africa.
Twenty-five years on. And they are still there, in prison - all except
Goldberg, released in 1984 and Mbeki last year. The day of their sentencing 25
years ago seemed to be the very nadir of the liberation movement's fortunes -
its best known leaders imprisoned for life; its underground organisation in
disarray; its members being rounded up and flung into prison as, piece by piece,
the police net work of information widened through systematic torture in
solitary confinement without charge or trial. It was the worst of times, for
those inside prison and for those outside.
But a corner had been turned, whether or not any of them could see it for
themselves at the time. The veil of secrecy had been tom down, and in its place
before the eyes of the whole population stood revealed the new, illegal policy
and programme of the ANC and its allies. The political case for the new phase of
struggle had been made, and the organisational basis of its first units
explained. From here on, the downward drift towards passivity and defeatism
which had fed on the state's triumphs since the 1960 state of emergency ended.
New hope, new confidence new ideas and hew leadership began slowly, painfully to
break out of the police-state manacles. The corner had been turned; and the
countdown to the revival of the peoples' struggle which would dominate the
country's politics in the 70s and 80s had begun. Twenty-five years on, and it
still continues. Unstoppable now. Irreversible. Because the men of Rivonia
talked to the people of South Africa from the court, pointing the way at heavy
cost to themselves.
But as Mandela had written, well before Rivonia: "There are no easy
walks to freedom!"
*Bernstein was found 'not guilty' and discharged. The evidence against him,
as against Kathrada and Mhlaba, was of the flimsiest; any or all of them could
have been found not guilty. It is believed that the judge decided in advance to
acquit one, thus proving the 'fairness' of the trial. Bernstein, being White and
middle-class, won the lottery.
Accused in the Rivonia Trial:
Brought from Robben Island, where he was serving an earlier sentence:
- Nelson Mandela
Arrested at Lilliesleaf Farm, Rivonia:
- Walter Sisulu
(ANC, Umkhonto we Sizwe)
- Ahmed Kathrada
- Lionel Bernstein
(Congress of Democrats, CP)
- Raymond Mhlaba
- Denis Goldberg (Congress of Democrats) and:
Arrested subsequently in various places:
- Andrew Mlangeni
- Elias Motsoaledi
- James Kantor
(No political affiliations)
All organisational links stated above are those given by the accused
themselves in their own statements in court.