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This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, 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 It is the product of almost two decades of research and includes analyses, chronologies, historical documents, and interviews from the apartheid and post-apartheid eras.

Historical Background: 1962 - 1963

By 1962, the South African government had weathered the storm of rebuke and condemnation the Sharpeville shoots had provoked in the international community. Direct foreign investment was again flowing into the country, the economy was growing at seven per cent annually, internal resistance had been effectively smashed, and other than the occasional acts of sabotage, --an irritant to most whites since the MK planned its operations with an emphasis on avoiding civilian casualties, thus limiting both the type of sabotage that might be considered, its geographic location and the time of day -- whites felt the divisions between Afrikaner speaking nationalists and English speaking whites were of more concern than the racial question.

In 1962, the SACP adopted a new program, The Road to South African Freedom, which would remain the centerpiece of its ideological perspective until the 1980s. Calling apartheid "colonization of a special type,' the SACP argued that Black South Africa was a colony of white South Africa." The African population was described as having "no acute or class divisions" The immediate task of the party, therefore, was to fight for the liberation of the "colonized." This task would be carried out through a "national democratic revolution" with the multi-class liberation movement as its main vehicle, but with the working class, the SACP being its vanguard, being the dominant revolutionary force within it. Since not all parties in the liberation movement shared the same vision for a post-apartheid South Africa, the working class's leading role could ensure that the struggle would have a socialist orientation. Hence, the struggle would have two stages: the first for a national democratic state, the second, for socialism.

In October 1962, the ANC held its first annual meeting since it had been banned at Lobatse, in Bechuanaland (Botswana), just across the border. For the first time, the conference explicitly linked the ANC with Umkhonto, calling it the "military wing of our struggle." There could be no turning back.

The following year the government passed the Sabotage Act, which provided for detention without trial for 90 days, subsequently amended to extend the period of detention to 180 days in solitary confinement without charges being laid. On a capricious whim of a single official a person could find himself arrested under this act without reason being given and with no legal rights to contest the arrest. This law, coupled with the provision in the Unlawful Organizations Act that allowed it to be applied for a retrospective period of ten years, gave the government carte blanche power to conduct itself in whatever way it wanted. Worse still, it gave its security apparatus carte blanche power to do whatever it wanted. Under this act a person could be charged with having committed a crime by defending "a scheme for United Nations intervention to alleviate non-white grievances" --and be hanged. Under the Sabotage Act sabotage was defined broadly enough to include strike action. Sabotage became a capital crime. Terrorism was similarly broadly defined to include "any act that endangered law and order, public safety, health or free movement of traffic; which jeopardized the supply of food, fuel, water, light and power; or which hindered medical and municipal services; trespassing on any land or building or who destroyed public or private property."

Since the law defined "sabotage" as almost any "illegal" action taken to further political or economic changes, it effectually banned all opposition to the government on any ground. Indeed, John Vorster, the minister of justice opined in parliament that he merely had to be satisfied that someone might further the aims of communism and that detention could be extended "until this side of eternity."

Detention in total isolation with no access to legal counsel, no court hearings, no visitors became the preferred weapon in the vast arsenal of government's tools to silence opposition. Besides the physical fact of being imprisoned, prolonged physical isolation has damaging psychological effects depression, uncertainty, loneliness, a sense of loss with its disruption to one's relationships with the past and present, the sense of belonging is severed, the sense of group identity, of communality with other people, of shared values is undermined. Under these circumstances, some people whose detentions were rolled -over were worn down; yearning for any form of human contact they developed relationships with their warders and interrogators, and some broke. Many detainees were never quite the same after they were released. Today we would diagnose them as suffering from post-traumatic stress and treat them accordingly. In the 1960s the tools to make such a diagnosis treatment were not available. The state of emergency became an emergency of the mind.

The International Commission of Jurists in Geneva, representing 40,000 lawyers and judges in over 60 countries, voraciously condemned the law. They said it: "reduces the liberty of the citizen to the degree not surpassed by the most extreme dictatorship," that with this law, "South Africa was taking a major, if not final step, towards the elimination of all rights of the individual and the rule of law;" that "this measure is a culmination of a determined and ruthless attempt to enforce the doctrine of apartheid and is not worthy of a civilised jurisprudence ".

Adding to the ANC's woes was its difficulty establishing viable underground structures. The party was a mass organization; a mass organization could not easily operate in secrecy. They did not know how to organize illegal activities and would, in all likelihood have had a more difficult time trying to do so had it not been able to draw on the experiences of the SACP with its own history of clandestine organization and the presence in the ANC NEC of high ranking Communists.

Moreover, the decision to embrace armed struggle had a perverse impact. The MK was a secret army; its successes depended on operations being planned in secrecy and carried out in secrecy. There was no place for the engagement of the masses. Heretofore, the ANC had organized from the front. It pulled the masses with them. It led by example. When its leaders were arrested they gave courage to the masses. They, too, were more likely to risk arrest. But with the ANC going underground and then into exile and the MK functioning in the utmost secrecy, mobilization of the masses, still the ANC's first commitment, became extraordinarily difficult to undertake and the masses, in turn, became more distanced from the ANC, more a spectator to the struggle being conducted on their behalf than an active participant.

The Umkhonto we Sizwe's sabotage operations were not intended as an end in themselves; indeed, MK operatives were instructed not to engage in actives that might result in the death of civilians, thus restricting their modus operandi and the range of targets they could choose from. Operations were conducted in the context of building a people's liberation army in South Africa, a goal that was never achieved.

Mandela had left the country secretly early in 1962 to attend a Pan African Freedom Movement in Addis Abba and receive military training. He returned to the country in July to continue his clandestine work, but was arrested in August, charged with inciting African workers to strike and leaving the country without valid travel documents, convicted in November, and sentenced to five years in prison.

Worse would follow. In July 1963, the upper echelon of the ANC was arrested at a farm in Rivonia, which was used by the ANC. Among the arrested were Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki, Raymond Mhlaba, Rusty Bernstein and Ahmed Kathrada. Whether out of simple foolhardiness or foolishness, the ANC underground had continued to use the farm as a "safe house' after the ANC had been banned; members and associates felt free to come and go as they pleased, no attempt to disguise these comings and goings was made, no security precautions put in place. Rivonia was a place waiting to be found. The security police captured large amounts of documentary evidence, much of it in the defendants' own handwriting, all of it subsequently used against them. At issue was not their guilt, but with what crime they would be charged with.

In October, after 90 days of detention in solitary confinement, the accused Mandela's name had now been added to their number as accused Number 1 were charged with 202 acts of sabotage allegedly carried out under their direction as senior members of MK. The charges carried the death sentence.

The centerpiece of the prosecution's case was Operation Mayibuye, a detailed outline of a plan, using Fidel Castro's model of insurgency to launch guerilla warfare in South Africa as a precursor to a mass uprising and the overthrow of the state. At his own trial a year later Bram Fischer, an attorney for the Rivonia Trialists, described the plan as "an entirely unrealistic brainchild of some youthful and adventurous imagination if there was ever a plan a Marxist could not approve in the then prevailing circumstances, this was such a oneif any part of it at all could be put into operation, it could achieve nothing but disaster".

The defendants made little or no effort to deny many of the charges. Their defense rested not only on political grounds, but on moral certitude. They had decided that they would use the trial to indict the government, to turn the courtroom into a political theatre in which each of them would play his assigned role to highlight the travesties of the regime, the merciless oppression of Blacks and the absence of even the most rudimentary from of justice in South Africa. The prosecutor played to the judge; the defendants to their Black constituency and international opinion. They would let their people know that the ANC, in spite of being banned, had not abandoned them, that it was there, alive, among them, fighting back with whatever means it took, that it would sacrifice to triumph; that bannings, house arrests, detentions without trial and the repressive might of the state, might slow, but could never stop, the march to an inevitable freedom.

At Rivonia a community of men became for one brief moment in time a community of moral beings: they turned the accusations against them into an accusation of guilt against the state whose immoral actions justified whatever actions they had engaged in to oppose it. There were no mea culpas, but Halleluiahs! To the despair of their attorneys, they said that if they were sentenced to the gallows, they would not appeal their sentences.

The trial lasted eleven months. More drama occurred out of sight of the courtroom than within. Among the defendants there was a difference that could make the difference between a life or death sentence. Govan Mbeki maintained that the ANC NEC had adopted Operation Mayibuye as ANC policy, the others did not. Thus, Mbeki, who had drafted the plan along with Joe Slovo, insisted that the NEC had agreed to the plan and that it was wrong of them not to admit to as much in court. Sisulu, however, took the stand to say testify that "Operation Mayibuye" had been drawn up but no decision regarding its use had been reached as the verdict on sabotage was not yet in at the time of their arrests. Some members of the high command were for it, some, including himself, were strongly against it, and some couldn't make up their minds. The core issue involved the use of violence: even though the ANC had sanctioned the use of violence, human targets were to be avoided at all costs; had the Operation Mayibuye been approved the range of targets would not exclude human beings, especially members of the security forces.

The issue festered long after the trial and triggered an acrimonious dispute between Mbeki and Sisulu that lasted most of their lives and strained relationships between the two on many occasions during their long years in close proximity on Robben Island.

They were, save for Rusty Bernstein, found guilty, sentenced to life imprisonment, and bundled off to Robben Island. But in his findings the judge agreed with the defense that Umkhonto and the ANC were separate organizations, a finding that had important ramifications for other members of the ANC who would face trial. Had the judge found otherwise, i.e. that MK was the military arm of the ANC and hence subject to its jurisdiction, all ANC Trialists could face the death sentence.

When the Rivonia verdicts were announced, Chief Luthuli issued a statement that was read at a meeting of the UN Security Council by the Moroccan representative. It read in part: "The African National Congress never abandoned its method of a militant, non violent struggle, and of creating in the process a spirit of militancy among the people. However, in the face of the uncompromising white refusal to abandon a policy which denies the African and other oppressed south Africans their rightful heritage freedom no one can blame brave, just men for seeking justice by use of violent methods; nor could they be blamed if they tried to create an organised force in order to ultimately establish peace and harmony." Whatever lingering doubt there was whether the Chief fully endorsed the armed struggle or merely went along with it as long as there were no civilian casualties were put to rest.

This resource is hosted by the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory, but was compiled and authored by Padraig O’Malley. Return to the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory site.