By Kenneth S. Broun
Twenty-two years ago, on the 11th of February 1990, Nelson Mandela walked out of a South African prison, a free man for the first time in twenty-seven years. He immediately assumed the leadership role that would move South Africa from a system of apartheid to a struggling but viable democracy. No one person, not even Nelson Mandela, was solely responsible for this miracle. But no one can doubt the crucial role that he played in the process that brought a new era to South Africa, or that his intellect, sturdy leadership, and political savvy made this process far more peaceful than anyone had predicted would be the case.
That Mandela was alive to assume this leadership is a remarkable story. When the trial that led to his conviction began in 1963, most in South Africa and abroad predicted that he and his codefendants would be hanged. Mandela and his codefendants faced charges brought under the recently enacted Sabotage Act, the violation of which carried the death penalty. The South African government proudly announced that it had brought to justice men who had planned and begun to carry out a campaign for its violent overthrow. The country’s press celebrated the success of the police in catching the violent criminals who represented a very real threat to the way of life of white South Africa. Foreign representatives were told by informed sources that the maximum sentence for the top leadership was possible, indeed likely.
The 1963–64 trial of Mandela and his co-defendants is known as the Rivonia trial, named for the Johannesburg suburb in which most of the defendants were arrested. Other defendants included ANC leaders Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki, the father of future South African president Thabo Mbeki, and the South African Indian leader, Ahmed Kathrada.
A team composed of lawyers of great intellect, legal ability and integrity defended the accused. They applied their considerable skill to a cause in which they deeply believed. The accused, through both their statements to the court and their testimony, demonstrated strength of character and devotion to a cause that even a hostile judge could not, in the end, ignore. The conduct of the judge before whom the case was tried illustrates both the strength and weaknesses of the South African judicial system. The judge may well have been independent of the government and its prosecutor, but his own prejudices guided him through much of the proceedings. The prosecutor, who was described by a visiting British barrister as a “nasty piece of work” may have hurt, rather than helped his case by engaging in a political dialogue with the defendants who took the witness stand.
White South African opinion was clearly in favor of the prosecution and harsh sentences for the accused. But international opinion was almost unanimous in its support for them, particularly in the newly independent African states and the Communist bloc. There was also considerable attention to the trial on the part of the major Western powers, or at least concern that death sentences would sour relations with African and other Third World people. The question was how the West, and in particular the United States and United Kingdom, might attempt to influence the trial’s outcome.
Perhaps the key point in the trial was Nelson Mandela’s statement from the dock, a statement made in lieu of testimony. He ended the statement with these words:
During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to the 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 see realized. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.
His words now adorn the wall of the Constitutional Court building in Johannesburg. When asked many years later why the judge did not sentence him to death at the Rivonia trial, Mandela said: “because I dared him to do so.”
Kenneth S. Broun is the author of Saving Nelson Mandela: The Rivonia Trial and the Fate of South Africa and the Henry Brandis Professor of Law at the University of North Carolina Law School. Since 1986, he has traveled regularly to South Africa to conduct programs in trial advocacy training through the Black Lawyers Association of South Africa. Saving Nelson Mandela describes the trial and explores the factors that changed the outcome from a likely death penalty to a sentence of life imprisonment — a sentence that may have saved the nation from either a continuation of an oppressive regime or a bloody civil war.