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

they occurred.

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?

MK Appears

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 Captured

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

their contents.

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

witness stand.

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

of 1960.

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.