South Africa: Overcoming Apartheid

Rivonia Trial

Summary

Ten members of the African National Congress were indicted in the Rivonia Trial in 1963 and accused of conspiring to commit guerilla warfare and furthering the aims of communism. The accused included Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, and Govan Mbeki, who were members of the National High Command of Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), the armed wing of the African National Congress. The indictment under the Sabotage Act came more than two months after the men were arrested at a farm house in Rivonia that was secretly being used by MK.

The possibility of a death penalty hung over the trial. The defendants conducted this as a political trial. They admitted to having conducted acts of sabotage (in which no one had been killed) and to preparation for guerrilla war, but argued that they had not actually decided to begin guerrilla warfare. At the end of the trial, Mandela gave a powerful statement from the dock in which he said: “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.” There were world-wide calls for clemency, including from the United Nations. In the end, the judge sentenced nine of the ten to life in prison rather than death; one was acquitted. After the sentencing on June 12, 1964, the African and Indian defendants (but not Dennis Goldberg who was white) were immediately sent to Robben Island to serve their sentences.

Web Documents

Speech: Statement from the dock at the opening of the defence case in the Rivonia Trial
By Nelson Mandela
[more info]
[Go to source directly and leave this site] external link
Testimony: "Statement by W.M. Sisulu in court, during Defiance Campaign, before being sentenced for pass offence"
By Walter Sisulu [more info]
[Go to source directly and leave this site] external link
Book Chapter/Excerpt: "Toward Robben Island: The Rivonia Trial", From Protest to Challenge: A Documentary History of South African Politics in South Africa, 1882-1964., Volume 3
By Gail M. Gerhart and Thomas Karis
[more info]
[Go to source directly and leave this site] external link
Magazine Article: "Rivonia: Telling It As It Was"
By Lionel Bernstein
[more info]
[Go to source directly and leave this site] external link

AODL African Studies Center MSU Matrix NEH