Here is the piece from Alison’s South Africa visit.


The Rivonia Trial 50 Year On

The Rivonia Trial, the third and final trial of Nelson Mandela by the Apartheid State of South Africa, took place fifty years ago. It was in this trial that Mandela made a four hour statement to the court which ended with the following words:

“It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”
The speech marked a significant moment in the struggle and the quality of its oratory in such a highly charged political trial drew attention world wide. Whilst international pressure began to mount on the Apartheid government the very real prospect of the death penalty rested over the Rivonia defendants. In the end Mandela himself was sentenced to imprisonment and spent 27 years, often in solitary confinement and engaged in hard labour on Robben Island. His autobiography The Long Road to Freedom is a classic of the political struggles in the twentieth century.

Awol Allo, a postgraduate student working on the power and influence of Political Trials, organised a conference with and at the School of Law at the University of Pretoria to mark the 50th Anniversary of the Rivonia Trial and to draw together a multidisciplinary gathering from across the world who would consider the transcripts, courtrooms, politics, architecture, theatre, space and significance of the Rivonia trial 50 years on. I was privileged to be among those invited to speak.

The conference took place over 2 days with a final day of visits to key sites of the trial in Pretoria. It was my first ever trip to South Africa, the country which taught me as a student about solidarity with countries and causes on the other side of the world, and opened me out as a student to boycott and protest and marches and made intimate a distant litany of names and places: Sharpville, Soheto, Oliver Tambo, Walter Sisulu, Ruth First, Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela.

As I write this I am sitting in a leafy Pretoria guest house, a small fountain plays in the garden and there are roses in bloom. It is midwinter’s day. The magnolia is budding. I feel profoundly unworthy. I always feel this intently when I visit Africa. I cannot escape the need to hold the legacy near of what colonialistion and its unspeakable violences has brought forth into the twenty first century.

Over the last two days I have listened and spoken, questioned and held a space of symbolism amid powerful emotions through a conference understood its own symbolism and wore it well, with quietness and thoughtfulness and care. The week before the conference Mandela’s state of health was headline news. He is about a mile away in Pretoria hospital. His long standing friend and defence counsel, for Rivonia and through his long years on Robben Island is the opening speaker at out conference, it is my task to introduce him.

“When people say nothing has changed in South Africa,” he says in his opening remarks, “I say they should go to the University of Pretoria – an all white university in the 1980s. Everything has changed…..” The timbre of his voice rises and warms with emotion, tears linger in his eyes. “Black women are graduating” he says.

Over the next two hours we are treated to an electrifying telling of the history of the ANC, the anti apartheid movement, the international solidarity movement, the trials – especially, Rivonia – the live possibility of the death penalty. The story is rich, astute, warm, humours, clear as a bell. We move through the Defiance Campaign, learn of the whites who joined in, the diversity of the campaign, especially from church organisations “who were prepared to walk through the ‘blacks only’ entrance and were arrested, fined and imprisoned too. The story is told through the eyes of a lawyer and the full significance of the important e of law to the aim of justice unfolds. We are told of the smart tactics, of the arrogant assumptions of this in power which fail them time and again, of two acquittals, underground activity, the adoption of the Freedom Charter: South Africa belongs to all who live in it Black or White.

As we come to the subject of the RIvonia Trial, George Bizos’s voice softens, as he tells us, “it was for me to explain what was decided and that there was a strong possibility of the death penalty.” His speech becomes more telegraphic and it is as if we are there, Bram Fischer walking in with news of the solidarity overseas, the UN calls for the release of the Rivonia five. Walter Sisulu. Oliver Tambo. Messages were brought from all of the world and South Africa was beginning to be a Praia of the world. Fifty years suddenly could have been yesterday.

The three words, ” if needs be” , were words advised by Bizos, as Mandela summed up his speech from the dock. They took away the inevitability, opening space for a different outcome. As he nears the end of his plenary to us his voice quavers again. There is a pause:

“Nelson Mandela will be remembered as the person who avoided a bloody revolution and there would have been racial war if it were not to his persistence and wisdom.”

A humbling privilege indeed.

The conference ends with a circle. It has been intimate, not a grand affair, but intensely hard work. Each one of us speaks and offers our thoughts on what we now consider we have learned, and still have to explore. Matters of education in universities and schools of law in particular, of the hungry of our young postgraduates for the energy and edge of a struggle, the place of art and artistry, language and persistence, tonal stability and political pragmatism are turned over between us. We’ve heard first hand of the autopsy of Steve Biko, from a defence counsel for one of the 9/11 terror suspects on trial in a military court in Guantanamo Bay. One of our number has come from Istanbul and we agree to send a message of solidarity to the protesters there from the conference. My own thoughts have been on the place of courtesy in education for non-violence and in the Rivonia transcript, and on the role played in George Bizos’s life, in Mandela’s time in prison, of gardening.

On the day after the formal part of the conference has ended we visit significant sites in Pretoria which feature in the three trials, the now derelict Old synagogue, known now as the Old Court, and the Palace of Justice. There we are allowed access to the Court in which the Rivonia Trial took place, and then, down corridors, in a service lift, past piles of discard court papers in the basement and put of the back of the building we are taken through a locked metal gate, a locked wooden door, and the, keys turning again and echoing around a dark space, and with no introduction or preparation we find ourselves inside the holding cell for the Rivonia five, and wondering at the dense writings on the walls. There a psalms, there are words from the prophets, the word freedom is everywhere, along side the names of the accused and the length of the setences received….. 18 years, 14 years, 12 years, 18 years…..and in black pen, inked over the original pencil, is the Freedom Charter.

We are quiet, we photograph, our guide tells us of what it is he is a little perplexed by our interest and obvious emotion. Our bodies shift uncomfortably. I realise that if I had been in this place in the company of members of The Iona Community we may have sung, quietly, ‘Senzenina’. I obey an impulse to kneel, for this is holy ground, perhaps the holiest I have ever known. And then, standing again, and with everyone gathered around, I read aloud the Charter.

South Africa belongs to all who live in it, black and white and no government may justly claim authority unless it is based on the will of the people.
1. The people shall govern!
2. All national groups shall have equal rights!
3. The people shall share in the country’s wealth
4. The land shall be shared among those who work it!
5. All are equal before the law!
6. All shall enjoy equal human rights!
7. There shall be work and security!
8. The doors of learning and culture shall be opened!
9. There shall be houses, security and comfort!
10. The shall be law and friendship!


Written by Alison Swinfen

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