The Rivonia Trial: The Landmark Event that Changed South Africa Forever

By Pambili Media

The Rivonia Trial (1964)Pambili Media

The Rivonia Trial was a landmark event in South Africa’s history
Often referred to as “the trial that changed South Africa,” it set off a chain of events that eventually ended apartheid and rang in democracy and freedom from oppression.

The Rivonia Trial: Outside The Palace of Justice (1964) by Pretoria News LibraryPambili Media

What was the trial about?
The Rivonia Trial took place between 1963 and 1964, when 12 members of the African National Congress (ANC) were accused under the 1962 Sabotage Act, with sabotage and attempting to violently overthrow the South African government – crimes that carried the death penalty.

Warrants of Committal Warrants of Committal (1962-11-07/1964-06-12)The Nelson Mandela Foundation

Who were the accused?
After a raid by security police at Liliesleaf farm in the Johannesburg suburb of Rivonia in July 1963, many prominent leaders of the ANC and Umkhonto we Sizwe were arrested. The incident occurred three years after the ANC, the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) and other liberation movements were banned in April 1960.

Ten of the accused, Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki, Nelson Mandela, Rusty Bernstein, Ahmed Kathrada, Denis Goldberg, James Kantor, Andrew Mlangeni, Raymond Mhlaba and Elias Motsoaledi were tried for 221 acts of sabotage and conspiracy to overthrow the State. The other two accused, Arthur Goldreich and Harold Wolpe escaped before going on trial.

Govan Mbeki (1963-07) by South African National ArchivesPambili Media

What were they accused of?
The keystone of the State’s case was a six-page plan of action called “Operation Mayibuye”, which was confiscated during the Liliesleaf Farm raid.

Operation Mayibuye was, in Nelson Mandela’s words, “sketched out in general form the plan for a possible commencement of guerrilla operations, and how it might spark a mass armed uprising” against the South African Government.

Dennis Goldberg (1963-07) by South African National ArchivesPambili Media

In gathering evidence to be used in the trial against the accused, the police were later also able to arrest others, including Dennis Goldberg and Nelson Mandela. At the time of the Lilliesleaf raid, Mandela was serving a five-year sentence for incitement and leaving the country illegally.

Lilies Leaf Farm (1963) by South African National ArchivesPambili Media

How did they get caught?
Nelson Mandela and the ANC members has organised a meeting on the 11th of July 1963 to discuss Operation Mayibuye, the plan to overthrow the Apartheid Government. This plan had been originated by Govan Mbeki and Joe Slovo. It was so secretive that only Nelson Mandela and a handful of his colleagues in the armed wing of the ANC knew of it.

Lilies Leaf Farm (1964) by South African National ArchivesPambili Media

Who tipped-off the police?
It was decided that on the 11th July 1963 it would be the last time they would meet at Liliesleaf. The leadership had been worried for some time that Liliesleaf could be exposed and as such, it was felt necessary to close operations and move to another farm.

Their decision to move to another location had been made too late. South African Police had already received a tip-off that Walter Sisulu would be at Liliesleaf. Walter Sisulu had gone into hiding as a result of a previous conviction. He was facing a five year jail term.

On the afternoon of the 11th July 1963 a dry-cleaning and flower van drove down the dusty farm drive way and stopped just past the Manor and slightly back from the Thatched Cottage. Someone in the Thatched Cottage had just opened the door and noticed the vans. As he was about to ask one of the farm labourers about the vehicles, armed policemen burst out of the vans.

Lilies Leaf Farm by South African National ArchivesPambili Media

Who did the police arrest?
The police had found a number of senior leaders of the resistance,in the thatched cottage. Moreover, documents outlining Operation Mayibuye, and the resistance movement's plan for guerrilla warfare in South Africa, were found. All the men were arrested.

The arrested were Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki, Raymond Mhlaba, Andrew Mlangeni, Elias Motsoaledi, Ahmed Kathrada, Billy Nair, Denis Goldberg, Lionel “Rusty", Bob Hepple, Arthur Goldreich, Harold Wolpe and James “Jimmy” Kantor.

The Rivonia Trial: Outside The Palace of Justice (1964) by Pretoria News LibraryPambili Media

The symbol of 'Rivonia'
The police raid at Liliesleaf Farm on July 11th, 1963 was critical.The large number of senior ANC leaders' arrests was a major blow to the movement and the struggle for liberation. However, the subsequent trial, which became known to the world as the Rivonia Trial, finally focused world scrutiny on South Africa and its oppressive regime.

From the moment of the raid, the 'Rivonia' became synonymous with the silencing of resistance in South Africa. This trial however, sparked global attention.

Where did the trial take place?
The whole world was watching when the three major sabotage trials started in Pretoria, Cape Town and Maritzburg. Bram Fischer led the defense team, which included Vernon Berrange, Joel Joffe, Arthur Chaskalson, and George Bizos.

Rivonia Trial: Outside The Palace of Justice by Pretoria News LibraryPambili Media

What did Nelson Mandela say in his 3-hour speech from the defendant's dock?
"During my lifetime I have dedicated my life 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 will live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal for which I hope to live for and to see realised. But, my Lord, if it needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die."

The Rivonia Trial: Outside The Palace of Justice (1964) by Pretoria News LibraryPambili Media

What was the result of the trial?
The defendants were sentenced to life imprisonment for sabotage.

Nelson Mandela was released from prison 11 February 1990 after over 27 years of unbroken incarceration.

Rivonia Trial: Ahmed Kathrada by Ahmed KathradaPambili Media

"When we finished this 90-day interrogation period... the lawyers told us, 'Chaps, prepare for the worst. There is enough evidence to hang you."
Ahmed Kathrada

Rivonia TrialPambili Media

"This now proves to everyone who criticised the 90-day detainment law, that the government was correct by passing this legislation as we are able to now put our claws around the scourge of communism..."
Chief prosecutors

Rivonia TrialPambili Media

“Apartheid is better described as a policy of good neighbours.”
Dr. Verwoerd

The Rivonia Trial (1964)Pambili Media

"We were fighting against a system and not against . people... and not against white people most definitely not."
Goerge Molebatsi

Rivonia TrialistsPambili Media

The remaining Rivonia Trialists, until the unfortunate passing of Mr. Nelson Mandela on the 5th of December, 2013.

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