PhD student Sarah Slator shares some of her research on the Rivonia Trial, shedding light on the defendants who stood alongside Nelson Mandela, and those who defended them.
8 min read.
For the last five years or more, my life has revolved around a South African court case from 1963-64. The case was known as the Rivonia trial due to the location of the arrests of many of the defendants at the Liliesleaf Farmhouse in the Rivonia suburb of Johannesburg. While many of the men on trial were well known anti-apartheid activists at the time, one name remains a global icon – Nelson Mandela. When I started my thesis, several of the defendants and the legal team were still living, but in 2020 we lost the final two defendants as well as the remaining member of the defence team who represented all bar one of the men on trial. To me this marks the point where the events that I have been studying truly become history, as those most integrally involved are now gone. The main aim of this post is to bring to light, to hopefully a few more people, the names of the other men who were on trial for their lives alongside Nelson Mandela, as well as the men who defended them.
- Nelson Mandela (Accused No. 1)
- Walter Sisulu (Accused No. 2)
- Denis Goldberg (Accused No. 3)
- Govan Mbeki (Accused No. 4)
- Ahmed Kathrada (Accused No. 5)
- Lionel Bernstein (Accused No. 6)
- Raymond Mhlaba (Accused No. 7)
- James Kantor (Accused No. 8)
- Elias Motsoaledi (Accused No. 9)
- Andrew Mlangeni (Accused No. 10)
- Bob Hepple (Accused No. 11)
- Joel Joffe (instructing attorney)
- Bram Fischer (advocate, lead counsel)
- Vernon Berrangé (advocate)
- George Bizos (advocate)
- Arthur Chaskalson (advocate)
- Harold Hanson (advocate)
The reasons why each of the men ended up as a defendant in this trial could take several individual posts in their own right. The same can be said of the contributions of many of the defence team. Then there is a fair amount to write also on the subject of who was supposed to be a defendant in the trial but wasn’t. Maybe in following posts I will write more closely about this. But for now, an introduction to the arrests and the trial will have to do!
The arrests at the Liliesleaf Farmhouse in Rivonia took place on the 11th July 1963 on a day where several leading members of the African National Congress (ANC), its armed wing Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) and the South African Communist Party (SACP) were meeting there. Some of these men were on the run from the police – Kathrada, Mbeki, Mhlaba and Sisulu – and all the organisations they represented had been banned by the South African Government. Despite the precariousness of their situation all the men were aware that security had been very lax. Although the farmhouse was a secret hideout, its location was widely known among members of the ANC, MK and the SACP. The existence of police informants within these organisations was a constant danger, and the arrests of a number of MK members in June 1963 made it likely it was just a matter of time before the police found out the location. The meeting on this day was meant to be the last one before a new base was found.
At 3:15pm a laundry van pulled in and made its way down the drive towards the main house, a sight that raised little concern before members of the security police threw open the back doors of the van and poured out. There was no chance of escape, either for those in the main house or the others who were meeting in the outhouses. Everyone on the property was rounded up and, as there had been little time to destroy any evidence, masses of documentation were gathered. This provided the state with a huge amount of incriminating material, including documents about Operation Mayibuye – a plan for a campaign of sabotage and guerrilla warfare.
The Liliesleaf Farmhouse is now run as a national heritage site and is well worth a visit. The site provides a vast amount of information about the Rivonia trial as well as about the fight against apartheid more broadly. Liliesleaf – Liliesleaf
Of those arrested in the raid, six would appear as defendants in the Rivonia trial – Bernstein, Goldberg, Kathrada, Mbeki, Mhlaba, and Sisulu. These men were later joined by Mandela, who was already serving a sentence for leaving the country illegally in 1962, and by three who were arrested elsewhere – Motsoaledi, Mlangeni (both high ranking officials of the ANC) and Kantor (a lawyer who was not known for being political, but who had close family ties to those who were). The South African Government had passed a law that was known as the 90 Day Detention Act prior to the arrests and all those who were detained disappeared from public view with only very limited opportunity to meet with family members and legal representation. They were subjected to intense interrogation. The state was very keen to obtain one of the men as a witness and they persuaded Bob Hepple to act as a state witness. Upon providing a statement, Hepple was released. Rather than appear as a witness against his comrades, he fled South Africa with his wife and settled in the UK. The ten other men continued on to trial.
At this time there was only a limited pool of advocates and attorneys willing to take on cases of this type, and the men who comprised the defence team for nine of the ten men were experienced hands at providing defence for those arrested for political activities against the state and against apartheid. The lead counsel, Fischer, was himself active in the same circles as those men on trial and was a high-ranking member of the SACP.
All the defendants were charged with communism and sabotage offences in contravention of the Suppression of Communism Act and the Sabotage Act, and all faced possible death sentences as punishment. The eyes of the world were upon South Africa during the nine months of the trial and it was used as a rallying point by anti-apartheid campaigners. Debates also resulted in the General Assembly and the Security Council of the UN and resolutions were passed calling for South Africa to end the trial and to release all political prisoners.
The strategy that the defendants planned to use in the trial was to use their time in court to argue against the apartheid policies of the state. When entering the court and asked to plead, Nelson Mandela declared ‘not guilty, it is the government who should be in the dock’, and this was repeated by other defendants. Later in the proceedings, Mandela decided to not go into the witness box but instead to read a speech from the dock. His speech lasted a number of hours and ended with the famous lines “I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all people will live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal for which I hope to live for and to see realized. But, My Lord, if it needs to be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”
On the 11th June 1964, eight of the ten defendants were judged to be guilty and on the 12th June eight of the men were sentenced to life in prison; Mandela, Sisulu, Goldberg, Mhlaba, Mbeki, Kathrada, Motsoaledi and Mlangeni. All of them would serve decades of their sentences. All bar Goldberg were sent to Robben Island. Apartheid extended into the prison system and Robben Island was for ‘Coloured’ prisoners only. Goldberg, as a White man, served his sentence at the Pretoria Central Prison. Bernstein was acquitted although he was immediately rearrested before he could leave the courthouse. Not long after, he fled South Africa and made his way to the UK. The case against Kantor had been dismissed by the judge much earlier.
While there was a great deal of relief across the world that there were no death sentences handed down to any of the defendants, there was still protest at the harshness of the life sentences received. This was to have longstanding consequences for apartheid in South Africa with ‘Free Nelson Mandela’ becoming a rallying cry for future generations of anti-apartheid activists. The outcome of the trial was important not only at the time but also throughout the remaining years of the apartheid era.
There are numerous published accounts of the trial, written by the defendants upon their release as well as by members of their defence team. Here is a list of them, though this is not an exhaustive list of works that refer to the trial:
- Bizos, G. Odyssey to Freedom, (Cape Town: David Philip Publishers Ltd, 1988)
- Goldberg, D. A Life for Freedom: The Mission to End Racial Injustice in South Africa, (The University Press of Kentucky, 2015)
- Hepple, B. The Young Man in the Red Tie: A Memoir of Mandela and the Failed Revolution, 1960-63, (Jacana Media, 2013),
- Joffe, J. The State vs. Nelson Mandela: The Trial that Changed South Africa, (London: Oneworld Publications, 2007)
- Kantor, J. An Unhealthy Grave, (London, Hamish Hamilton Ltd, 1967)
- Kathrada, A. Memoirs, (Cape Town: Zebra Press, 2004)
- Mandela, N. Long Walk to Freedom, (London, Abacus 1995)
This post was originally published on Sarah Slator’s A Global History of Apartheid blog, where you can read more about her work and insights.
 Denis Goldberg, accused number 3, passed away on the 29th April 2020 and Andrew Mlangeni, accused number 10, passed away on the 21st July 2020. Finally George Bizos, Advocate for the defence, passed away on the 9th September 2020.
 An excellent film that has the same goals as this post is ‘Life is Wonderful: Mandela’s Unsung Heroes’, directed by Sir Nick Stadlen. The film has interviews with Bizos, Goldberg and Mlangeni as well as Ahmed Kathrada, accused number 5, and Joel Joffe, Attorney for the defence. The title ‘Life is Wonderful’, comes from an exclamation that Goldberg made upon hearing that neither he nor any of his fellow defendants were to be sentenced to death. The judge announced the sentences quietly and Goldberg’s mother couldn’t hear what he announced. Goldberg shouted to her that the sentence was life in prison, and that life is wonderful.
 There are multiple first-hand accounts of the day of the arrests. A list of accounts by some of those involved has been provided.
 The role of advocate in South Africa equates to barrister in the UK, while attorney equates to solicitor.
 Not long after the trial ended, Fischer went underground to continue his work fighting to end apartheid. He was arrested after many months in hiding and sentenced to life in prison in 1966. He died in custody long before apartheid finally ended.
 The transcript of the full speech has been made available by the Nelson Mandela Foundation: https://www.nelsonmandela.org/news/entry/i-am-prepared-to-die and excerpts are available on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gQvlxnWELHM
 The case against Kantor was weak and it was widely assumed that his arrest was in response to the escape of his brother in law, Harold Wolpe. Harold Wolpe was arrested in July 1963 and held in the same jail as Arthur Goldreich, the owner of the Liliesleaf Farmhouse. Their jailbreak is another story in its own right!