This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Foundation, but was compiled and authored by Padraig O’Malley. It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.
Nelson Mandela's Testimony at the Treason Trial 1956-60
Source: Nelson Mandela. The Struggle is My Life, IDAF, London, 1990
In response to the growing unity and strength of the Congress Movement as a united front following the adoption of the Freedom Charter, the government arrested 156 political leaders in a mass police swoop on 5 December 1956 and charged them with high treason, a grave charge carrying the death penalty. They were accused of participating in a treasonable conspiracy, inspired by international Communism, to overthrow the South African State by violent means. The trial dragged on for four years, with the last accused being acquitted in 1961.
Extracts from the testimony by Mandela in 1960, responding as spokesman for the accused to questions from the bench, the prosecution and the defence lawyers on the content of ANC documents and question of violent intent on the part of those on trial.
PROSECUTION: Do you think that your People's Democracy could be achieved by a process of gradual reforms? Suppose, as a result of pressure, the ruling class were to agree next month to a qualified franchise for the Africans, an educational test perhaps-not a stringent one-and next year, as a result of further pressure, a more important concession is made-a further concession is made in 1962, and so on over a period of ten or twenty years-do you think that the People's Democracy could be achieved in that fashion?
MANDELA: Well, this is how I approach the question. I must explain at the outset that the Congress, as far as I know, has never sat down to discuss the question.... We demand universal adult franchise and we are prepared to exert economic pressure to attain our demands, and we will launch defiance campaigns, stay-at-homes, either singly or together, until the Government should say, 'Gentlemen, we cannot have this state of affairs, laws being defied, and this whole situation created by stay-at-homes. Let's talk.' In my own view I would say Yes, let us talk and the Government would say, 'We think that the Europeans at present are not ready for a type of government where there might be domination by non-Europeans. We think we should give you 60 seats. The African population to elect 60 Africans to represent them in Parliament. We will leave the matter over for five years and we will review it at the end of five years.' In my view, that would be a victory, my lords; we would have taken a significant step towards the attainment of universal adult suffrage for Africans, and we would then for the five years say, we will suspend civil disobedience; we won't have any stay-at-homes, and we will then devote the intervening period for the purpose of educating the country, the Europeans, to see that these changes can be brought about and that it would bring about better racial understanding, better racial harmony in the country. I'd say we should accept it, but, of course, I would not abandon the demands for the extension of the universal franchise to all Africans.
That's how I see it, my lords. Then at the end of the five-year period we will have discussions and if the Government says, 'We will give you again 40 more seats', I might say that that is quite sufficient. Let's accept it, and still demand that the franchise should be extended, but for the agreed period we should suspend civil disobedience, no stay-at-homes. In that way we would eventually be able to get everything that we want; we shall have our People's Democracy, my lords. That is the view I hold-whether that is Congress's view I don't know, but that is my view.
BENCH: Mandela, assuming you were wrong in your beliefs, do you visualise any future action on behalf of the Government, by the Government? Because I think the evidence suggests that you could not expect the Government to soften in its views. Have you any future plans in that event?
MANDELA: No, my lord. I don't think that the Congress has ever believed that its policy of pressure would ultimately fail. The Congress, of course, does not expect that one single push to coerce the Government to change its policy will succeed; the Congress expects that over a period, as a result of a repetition of these pressures, together with world opinion, that the Government notwithstanding its attitude of ruling Africans with an iron hand, that notwithstanding that, the methods which we are using will bring about a realisation of our aspirations.
PROSECUTION: Mr. Mandela, whether or not there would be success ultimately, one thing is clear, is it not, and that is that the African National Congress held the view, and propagated the view, that in resisting pressure by the Congress Movement the ruling class, the Government, would not hesitate to retaliate-would not hesitate to use violence and armed force against the Congress Movement?
MANDELA: Yes, the Congress was of that view, my lords. We did expect force to be used, as far as the Government is concerned, but as far as we are concerned we took the precautions to ensure that that violence will not come from our side.
BENCH: What were those precautions?
MANDELA: Well, my lord, for example in 1952 when we launched the Defiance Campaign, and secondly, my lord, you will notice that we frequently use 'stay-at-home', not 'strike' in the ordinary sense. Now, my lord, in a strike what is usually done is to withdraw workers from a particular industry and then have pickets to prevent the people from working in those industries which are boycotted. But the Congress theory (was) that to have pickets might attract police violence. We deliberately decided to use 'stay-at-home' where people are asked to remain in their houses.
PROSECUTION: As far as you know, has the onward march of the liberatory movement continued to manifest itself?
MANDELA: Yes it has. Congress has become much more powerful and much more strong today.
PROSECUTION: And in your opinion is the possibility of this violence to which you refer therefore heightened-increased?
MANDELA: Oh, yes; we felt that the Government will not hesitate to massacre hundreds of Africans in order to intimidate them not to oppose its reactionary policy.
BENCH: Now, the difference which I want to discuss with you, what would the reaction of White supremacy be if it was made to realise that the demands of the Congress alliance would result in its supremacy being terminated once and for all?
MANDELA: Well, that has been a problem all along, my lord.
BENCH: That may be, but what do you think the reaction of White supremacy would be to that claim?
MANDELA: Well, for all I know they may be hostile to that type of thing. But already political organisations are arising in this country which themselves are striving for the extension of the franchise to the African people.
BENCH: Well, the question is now whether you can ever achieve that by the methods you are using?
MANDELA: No, but, my lord, this is what I am coming to, that already since we applied these new methods of political action, this policy of exerting pressure, we have attained-we have achieved, we have won ground. Political parties have now emerged which themselves put forward the demand of extending the franchise to the non-European people.
BENCH: Unqualified franchise? One man, one vote?
MANDELA: No, no, my lord, it is qualified.
BENCH: I would like to discuss this with you.
MANDELA: If your lordship could give me time? Now, it is true that these parties, both the Liberal Party as well as the Progressive Party(2) are thinking in terms of some qualified franchise. But, if your lordship bears in mind the fact that when we initiated this policy, there were no political parties-none in the Union -which thought along these lines, then your lordship will realise the revolution that has taken place in European parties in this country today. You are now having an organised body of opinion, quite apart from the Congress of Democrats, who themselves are a force, quite apart from them, you are having an organised body of opinion amongst Whites who put forward the view that some limited form of franchise should be extended to Africans
BENCH: I don't think we are quite on the same-let me put it this way-wavelength. During the indictment period, did or did not-I think you said it was accepted by the Congress alliance that White supremacy would be hostile to this claim, one man one vote?
MANDELA: Yes, it is hostile, except to qualify of course that even during that period parties had already emerged which were putting forward this view, and therefore it was reasonable for us to believe that in spite of the hostility which we still encounter from the majority of the Whites, already our policy was succeeding.
BENCH: I want to know whether the Congress Alliance discussed or considered whether the-whether White supremacy in South Africa would without a show of arms surrender that which if surrendered would mean its end?
MANDELA: No, my lord. The Congress has considered the question from the point of view firstly of its experience. The Whites being eager to retain political power exclusively for themselves
BENCH: That was considered?
MANDELA: That was considered. It was also considered that through this policy of exerting pressure we will force the Whites by using our numbers, our numerical preponderance, in forcing them to grant us what we demand, even against their will. We considered that, and we felt that that was possible.
BENCH: How would you use your numerical numbers to force White supremacy to give what you want?
MANDELA: For example by staying at home and not going to work, using our economic power for the purpose of attaining our demands. Now, my lord, we were not looking-we were not hoping that these demands were going to be realised during the period of the indictment, no. We had in mind that in the foreseeable future it will be possible for us to achieve these demands, and we worked on the basis that Europeans themselves in spite of the wall of prejudice and hostility which we encountered, that they can never remain indifferent indefinitely to our demands, because we are hitting them in the stomach with our policy of economic pressure. It is a method which is well organised. The Europeans dare not look at it with indifference. They would have to respond to it and indeed, my lord, they are responding to it.
DEFENCE (on the basic policy document of the ANC Youth League): What was the aim of the ANC with regard to Nationalism on the one hand and tribes on the other hand?
MANDELA: It was always the policy of the ANC to bring about out of the various African tribal groups in the country a united African community.
DEFENCE: As far as the Union of South Africa was concerned, did you regard it as a country which was subject to foreign domination?
MANDELA: We regarded it as subject to White supremacy.
DEFENCE: Apart from the question of organisation, did the Youth League feel that the methods and activity used by the ANC should be changed?
MANDELA: Up to the time that the Youth League was formed and until 1949 the only methods of political action which were adopted by the ANC were purely constitutional; deputations to see the authorities, memoranda, and the mere passing of resolutions. We felt that that policy had been tried and found wanting and we thought that the ANC, its organisers and fieldworkers, should go out into the highways and organise the masses of the African people for mass campaigns. We felt that the time had arrived for the Congress to consider the adoption of more militant forms of political action: stay-at-homes, civil disobedience, protests, demonstrations-also including the methods which had previously been employed by the ANC.
DEFENCE: Were some members of the Youth League actually in favour of expelling Communists from the ANC?
MANDELA: Yes, my lords. As a matter of fact the Youth League moved a resolution at conferences of the ANC calling on the ANC to expel Communists, but these resolutions were defeated by an overwhelming majority.
DEFENCE: On what grounds were these resolutions rejected?
MANDELA: The view of the ANC was that every person above the age of 17 years, irrespective of the political views he might have, was entitled to become a member of the ANC.
DEFENCE: What was your own view at the time?
MANDELA: At that time I strongly supported the resolution to expel the Communists from the ANC....
(Mandela then went on to say that later he had worked with Communist members of the ANC.)
DEFENCE: Whatever may have been their opinions or intentions as far as you were concerned did it appear to you that they were followers of ANC policy?
MANDELA: That is correct.
DEFENCE: Did they appear loyal to it?
MANDELA: That is correct.
DEFENCE: Did you become a Communist?
MANDELA: Well, I don't know if I did become a Communist. If by Communist you mean a member of the Communist party and a person who believes in the theory of Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Stalin, and who adheres strictly to the discipline of the party, I did not become a Communist.
DEFENCE (citing the ANC Programme of Action adopted in 1949): How did you understand the new Programme of Action?
MANDELA: Up to 1949 the leaders of the ANC had always acted in the hope that by merely pleading their cause, placing it before the authorities, they, the authorities, would change their hearts and extend to them all the rights that they were demanding. But the forms of political action which are set out in the Programme of Action meant that the ANC was not going to rely on a change of heart. It was going to exert pressure to compel the authorities to grant its demands.
DEFENCE (on the Suppression of Communism Act):
MANDELA: Well, in regard to the Act, the ANC took the view that the Act was an invasion of the rights of our political organisations, that it was not only aimed against the Communist Party of South Africa, but was designed to attack and destroy all the political organisations that condemned the racialist policies of the South African Government. We felt that even if it were aimed against the Communist Party of South Africa we would still oppose it, because we believe that every political organisation has a right to exist and to advocate its own point of view.
DEFENCE (On the Defiance Campaign of 1952): Do you think that, apart from the increase in your membership, it [the Defiance Campaign] had any other result?
MANDELA: Yes, most certainly. Firstly, it pricked the conscience of the European public which became aware in a much more clear manner of the sufferings and disabilities of the African people. It led directly to the formation of the Congress of Democrats. It also influenced the formation of the Liberal Party. It also led to discussions on the policies of apartheid at the United Nations and I think to that extent it was an outstanding success.
DEFENCE: Do you think it had any effect at all on the Government?
MANDELA: I think it had. After the Defiance Campaign the Government began talking about self-government for Africans, Bantustans. I do not believe, of course, that the Government was in any way sincere in saying it was part of Government policy to extend autonomy to Africans. I think they acted in order to deceive . . . but in spite of that deception one thing comes out very clearly and that is that they acknowledged the power of the Defiance Campaign, they felt that striking power of the ANC had tremendously increased. . .
BENCH: Well, as a matter of fact isn't your freedom a direct threat to the Europeans?
MANDELA: No, it is not a direct threat to the Europeans. We are not ant-white, we are against white supremacy and in struggling against white supremacy we have the support of some sections of the European population and we have made this clear from time to time. As a matter of fact, in the letter we wrote to the then Prime Minister of the country, Dr Malan, before we launched the Defiance Campaign, we said that the campaign we were about to launch was not directed against any racial group. It was a campaign which was directed against laws which we considered unjust, and time without number the ANC has explained this . . . It is quite clear that the Congress has consistently preached a policy of race harmony and we have condemned racialism no matter by whom it is professed.
BENCH (asking about the one-party system of government):
MANDELA: My lord, it is not a question of form, it is a question of democracy. If democracy would be best expressed by a one-party system then I would examine the proposition very carefully. But if democracy could best be expressed by a multi-party system then I would examine that carefully. In this country, for example, we have a multi-party system at present, but so far as the non Europeans are concerned this is the most vicious despotism you could think of.
BENCH: Are you attracted by the idea of a classless society?
MANDELA: Yes, very much so, my lord. I think that a lot of evils arise out of the existence of classes, one class exploiting others (but) . . . the ANC has no policy in any shape or form on this matter.
DEFENCE (On the article 'The Shifting Sands of Illusion'): Do you adhere today to the attitude you then expressed towards the Liberal Party?
MANDELA: I still do, except that the Liberal party has now shifted a great deal from its original position. It is now working more closely with the Congress Movement and to a very large extent it has accepted a great portion of the policy of the Congress Movement. I also believe that in regard to the question of the qualified vote there has been some healthy development of outlook which brings it still closer to our policy. To that extent some of the views I expressed in that article have now been qualified.
DEFENCE (On the issue of imperialism):
MANDELA: In our experience the most important thing about imperialism today is that it has gone all over the world subjugating people and exploiting them, bringing death and destruction to millions of people. That is the central thing and we want to know whether we should support and perpetuate this institution which has brought so much suffering.
The Treason Trial was in its fourth year when the shootings at Sharpeville took place on 21 March 1960. Sixty-nine Africans were killed and 176 wounded when police opened fire on an unarmed crowd. International attention was focused on South Africa. A State of Emergency was proclaimed by the government; over twenty thousand people were detained. The ANC was banned, and so was the Pan-Africanist Congress (PAC), a splinter group which had broken away from the ANC the previous year over the issue of the ANC's co-operation with non Africans. Under pressure from the Commonwealth to change its racial policies, the South African government decided to hold a referendum among the white population to determine whether the country should become a republic outside the Commonwealth. This was viewed with grave misgivings by the Africans, who saw the proposed republic as an opportunity for the government to further institutionalise the racialist policies of the Nationalist Party, without any external check. Forty African leaders, including former members of the now-banned ANC and PAC, with Liberals and Progressives, met initially at a Consultative Conference at Orlando, Johannesburg, on 16 December 1960, to organise a united front against this threat.
Of crucial concern at the time was the situation in Pondoland, in the Transkei, where popular resistance to the imposition of the 'Bantu Authorities' system, mentioned by Mandela in document 5(f) above, had led to violent police repression and eventually to the deployment of military units against the unarmed people.
1. In response to the growing unity and strength of the Congress Movement as a united front following the adoption of the Freedom Charter, the government arrested 156 political leaders in a mass police swoop on 5 December 1956 and charged them with high treason, a grave charge carrying the death penalty. They were accused of participating in a treasonable conspiracy, inspired by international Communism, to overthrow the South African State by violent means. The trial dragged on for four years, with the last accused being acquitted in 1961.
2. A small political party formed in 1960; its policies were non-racial but based on a qualified franchise. A major sponsor was Harry Oppenheimer, then the Chairperson of Anglo-American Corporation. Following the breakup of the United Party in 1977, elements from it amalgamated with the Progressive Party to become the Progressive Federal Party, the main opposition party in the white parliament.