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Rivonia Trial

The Rivonia Trial took place in South Africa between 1963 and 1964, the Rivonia Trial led to the imprisonment of Nelson Mandela and the others among the accused that were convicted on life sentences.[1]


  • Origins 1
  • Arrests 2
  • List of defendants 3
  • Defence lawyers 4
  • Charges 5
  • Escapes 6
  • Mandela's speech 7
  • Results 8
  • See also 9
  • Notes 10
  • References 11
  • External links 12


The Rivonia Trial was named after Rivonia, the suburb of Johannesburg where leaders had been arrested (and documents discovered) at Liliesleaf Farm, privately owned by Arthur Goldreich, on 11 July 1963. The farm had been used as a hideout for the African National Congress and others. Among others, Nelson Mandela had moved onto the farm in October 1961 and evaded security police while masquerading as a gardener and cook called David Motsamayi (meaning "the walker").


Arrested were:

and others.

Goldberg, Bernstein, Hepple, Wolpe, Kantor and Goldreich were white Jews, Kathrada an Indian, and Sisulu, Mbeki, and Mhlaba were Xhosa, Motsoaledi was a Pedi, while Sisulu had a Xhosa mother and a white father.[2]

The leaders who were prosecuted in the Rivonia Trial also included Nelson Mandela, who was already in Johannesburg's Fort prison serving a five-year sentence for inciting workers to strike and leaving the country illegally. Most of the Rivonia defendants were to be convicted, and in turn sentenced to life imprisonment.

The government took advantage of legal provisions allowing for accused persons to be held for 90 days without trial, and the defendants were held incommunicado. Meanwhile, Goldreich and Wolpe bribed a guard and escaped from jail on 11 August. Their escape infuriated the prosecutors and police who considered Goldreich to be "the arch-conspirator".

The chief prosecutor was Dr. Percy Yutar, deputy attorney-general of the Transvaal.

The presiding judge was Dr. Quartus de Wet, judge-president of the Transvaal.

List of defendants

The Palace of Justice in Pretoria, site of the trial

The first trial indictment document listed 11 names as the accused.[3] The trial began in October 1963.[1][1][3] Counsel for the accused successfully challenged the legal sufficiency of the document, with the result that Justice de Wet quashed it.[4] Prior to dismissal of the first indictment, the State withdrew all charges against Bob Hepple, Hepple subsequently fled the country, without testifying, and stated "that he never had any intention of testifying".[1][1][5] The second indictment thus only listed 10 out of the original 11 names, referring to them as Accused 1 through 10.[6]

  1. Nelson Mandela
  2. Walter Sisulu
  3. Denis Goldberg
  4. Govan Mbeki
  5. Ahmed Kathrada
  6. Lionel "Rusty" Bernstein (acquitted)
  7. Raymond Mhlaba
  8. James Kantor (acquitted)
  9. Elias Motsoaledi
  10. Andrew Mlangeni

Defence lawyers

Nat Levy was attorney of record in Pretoria for Mandela and the other accused, with the exception of Kantor.[7] Hilda Bernstein (wife of Rusty Bernstein) approached Joffe, after being rebuffed by other lawyers who claimed to be too busy or afraid to act for her husband. Joffe was subsequently also approached by Albertina Sisulu (wife of Walter Sisulu), Annie Goldberg (mother of Dennis Goldberg) and Winnie Mandela (wife of Nelson Mandela). Joffe agreed to act as attorney for all of the accused except Kantor, who would require separate counsel, and Bob Hepple.[8][9]

Joffe initially secured the services of advocates Arthur Chaskalson and George Bizos, then persuaded Bram Fischer to act as lead counsel. Vernon Berrangé was also later recruited to join the team of advocates.[10] The defence line-up for the majority of the accused was:

The accused all agreed that Kantor's defence could share nothing in common with the rest of the accused. He thus arranged a separate defence team.[11] While Harold Hanson primarily represented Kantor, he was also invited to deliver the plea for mitigation for the other 9 accused.[12] The defence line-up for Kantor was


Charges were:

  • recruiting persons for training in the preparation and use of explosives and in guerrilla warfare for the purpose of violent revolution and committing acts of sabotage
  • conspiring to commit the aforementioned acts and to aid foreign military units when they invaded the Republic,
  • acting in these ways to further the objects of communism
  • soliciting and receiving money for these purposes from sympathizers in Algeria, Ethiopia, Liberia, Nigeria, Tunisia, and elsewhere.

"Production requirements" for munitions for a six-month period were sufficient, the prosecutor Percy Yutar said in his opening address, to blow up a city the size of Johannesburg.[13]

Kantor was discharged at the end of the prosecution's case.

The trial was condemned by the United Nations Security Council and nations around the world, leading to international sanctions against the South African government in some cases.


  • Arthur Goldreich and Harold Wolpe escaped from The Fort prison in Johannesburg while on remand after bribing a prison guard. After hiding in various safe houses for two months they escaped to Swaziland dressed as priests with the aid of Manni Brown who posed as a tour operator as a cover to deliver weapons to the ANC. From Swaziland, Vernon Berrangé was to charter a plane to take them on to Lobatse, a small town in south-eastern Botswana.[14]
  • Wolpe's escape saw his brother-in-law James Kantor, who had been serving as a member of the defence team, arrested and charged with the same crimes as Mandela and his co-accused. Harry Schwarz, a close friend and a well-known politician, acted as his defence. After being dealt with aggressively by the prosecutor Percy Yutar, who sought to portray him as a vital cog of MK, Kantor was discharged by Judge Quartus de Wet, who ruled that he had no case to answer. Following his release, Kantor fled the country. He was to die of a massive heart attack in 1975.

Mandela's speech

At the beginning of the defence's proceedings, Nelson Mandela gave a three-hour speech from the defendant's dock, in which he explained and defended the ANC's key political positions. He justified the movement's decision, in view of the increasing restrictions on permitted political activity on the part of Africans, to go beyond its earlier use of constitutional methods and Gandhian non-violent opposition to the state, embracing a campaign of sabotage against property (designed to minimize risks of injury and death), while also starting to train a military wing for possible future use. He also discussed in some detail the relationship between the ANC and the SACP, explaining that, while the two shared a commitment to action against the apartheid system, he was wedded to a model of constitutional democracy for South Africa (he singled out the British political model for particular praise), and also supported a market economy rather than a communist economic model. The speech is considered one of the founding moments of South African democracy.[15][16]

Mandela's closing words have been much-quoted. They were reportedly spoken looking the judge full in the eyes. His statement that he was prepared to die for the cause was strongly resisted by his lawyers, who feared it might itself provoke a death sentence. In a concession to their concerns, Mandela inserted the words "if it needs be". Nelson Mandela speaking at the dock of the court, 20 April 1964 said:[17]


Although the prosecution did not formally request the death penalty, close observers of the trial considered such a sentence to be implicit in the prosecutor's presentation of his case.[13] Opposition to the death penalty included both public campaigns internationally and the defence's arguments within the courtroom. Harold Hanson was called upon to argue in mitigation. He compared the African struggle for rights to the earlier Afrikaans struggle, citing precedents for temperate sentencing, even in cases of treason. Eight defendants were sentenced to life imprisonment; Lionel Bernstein was acquitted.

There was no surprise in the fact that Mandela, Sisulu, Mbeki, Motsoaledi, Mlangeni, and Goldberg were found guilty on all four counts. The defence had hoped that Mhlaba, Kathrada, and Bernstein might escape conviction because of the skimpiness of evidence that they were parties to the conspiracy, although undoubtedly they could be prosecuted on other charges. But Mhlaba too was found guilty on all counts, and Kathrada, on one charge of conspiracy. Bernstein, however, was found not guilty. He was rearrested, released on bail, and placed under house arrest. Later he fled the country.

Denis Goldberg went to Pretoria Central Prison instead of Robben Island (at that time the only security wing for white political prisoners in South Africa) where he served 22 years.

Nelson Mandela spent twenty seven years and eight months in prison as a result of the Rivonia trial (18 years of which were spent on Robben Island). He was released on 11 February 1990 by President F. W. de Klerk.

See also


  1. ^ a b c d e
  2. ^ Beresford 2003.
  3. ^ a b
  4. ^ Broun 2012, pp. 43, 48.
  5. ^ Hepple 2004.
  6. ^ Records of the Rivonia Treason Trial, State vs Nelson Mandela and Others; Second Indictment. The Library, University of the Witwatersrand
  7. ^
  8. ^ Joffe 2013, pp. 12-13.
  9. ^ Broun 2012, p. 15.
  10. ^ Broun 2012, p. 18.
  11. ^ Joffe 2013, p. 29.
  12. ^ Broun 2012, pp. 122-3.
  13. ^ a b Frankel 2011, p. 258.
  14. ^ Sisulu 2011, p. 202.
  15. ^ Clarkson 2013, p. 85.
  16. ^ Davis & Le Roux 2009, pp. 48-50.
  17. ^ Mandela 1979.



Journal articles

Newspaper articles


External links

  • Rescuing the Rivonia Trial recordings, British Library, including extracts from the original Dictabelt recordings made in court, and restored to audible condition with technical assistance from the British Library
  • "The Rivonia Trial" - article by Sunder Katwala from The Observer, dated Sunday, 11 February 2001
  • ANC history
  • On the trail of Mandela's handgun.
  • Rivonia Unmasked The prosecutor's account of the Rivonia Trial.
  • Historical Papers of the Rivonia Trial, Digital Collection at the University of the Witwatersrand.
  • Rivonia Trial Images
  • Baileys African History Archive – Rivonia Trial
  • I am prepared to die speech - Mandela
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