Feature: Rivonia Trials Remembered – By Eric Singh, ANA Snr. Editor

The Surviving Rivonia Trialists

“The Rivonia Trial (1963-1964) was a turning point in the fight for freedom against the apartheid system in South Africa – it was a defining moment in the global struggle for human rights and dignity. The Trial marked the start of international mobilization, through UN Resolution 1881 (11 October 1963) to stand up for equality and democracy in South Africa. In 1970, UNESCO was the first organization within the UN system to establish contact with liberation movements recognized by the Organisation of African Unity (OAU). Throughout these long years, UNESCO always stood with the people of South Africa in their struggle for equal dignity.”

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These were the words of UNESCO Director-General Ms Irina Bokova. She was speaking at a conference in July 2013 at UNESCO Headquarters in Paris, to mark the 50th Anniversary of the opening of the Rivonia Trial in Pretoria.

The Director-General continued: “In 2007, the records of the Rivonia Trial and Nelson Mandela’s defiant speech were inscribed on the UNESCO Memory of the World Register as part of humanity’s common heritage. At the 36th session of the UNESCO General Conference (October 2011), Member States decided to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the Rivonia Trial. This Conference – A Long Journey from Adversity to Diversity – is a unique opportunity to celebrate a moment of unity and moral clarity in the face of adversity in the history of humanity… .“

Ms Dolana Msimang, South African Ambassador in France and Permanent Delegate to UNESCO, described the Rivonia Trial as a watershed moment in the history of the liberation struggle in South Africa.

Speaking at the opening of the Photo Exhibition (part of the anniversary celebrations) which captures the historical context of life under apartheid, Ms Msimang explained:

“The events that followed the Trial set the struggle against apartheid in South Africa on a different trajectory. It was through the Rivonia Trial that the struggle for liberation in South Africa was given a voice, through, among others, the increased media surrounding the event and the nature of the *sentences meted out to the accused. This commemoration is therefore a re-affirmation, with humanity, of lessons learnt from South Africa’s struggle against apartheid, and as a remembrance of the widespread support offered by the international community to the people of South Africa in their darkest hour of need.”

The Ambassador was referring to the creation of Anti-Apartheid Movements and other support groups against apartheid that sprang up throughout the world. She used the opportunity to praise them and thanked the representatives of these organisations, many of whom travelled far and wide to attend the August gathering in Paris.

From left to right: Jeff-Radebe, Andrew Mlangeni, Dolana Msimang and Irina Bokova/Photo: Karin Singh

Most notable of these guests were **Mr Alex Moumbaris and Ms Hélène Passtoors.

An highlight of the gathering was the presence of two of the four living Rivonia Trialists – Mr Andrew Mlangeni (87) and Mr Denis Goldberg (80). Nelson Mandela (95) and Ahmad Kathrada (84) were unable to attend due to health reasons. Mandela’s health was a dark cloud hanging over the Conference.
Therefore, there was a sigh of relief when two days later, the whole world rose to celebrate his 95th birthday.

South Africa was officially represented by Mr Jeff Radebe, Minister of Justice and Constitutional Development who was accompanied by Mr Ebrahim Ebrahim Deputy Minister of International Relations and Co-operation. Both of them served long term imprisonment on Robben Island.

What is the Rivonia Trial? This question has been posed many a time especially by young people. A brief explanation is necessary. The Trial takes its name from Lilliesleaf farm in Rivonia in the vicinity of Johannesburg where a number of the top leadership of the underground movement was arrested on 12 July 1963. The farm was being used as a temporary HQs and preparations were being made to shift elsewhere. But the state struck first. This was a hammer blow for the Liberation Movement.

Eventually, on 30 October 1963 – 11 people, Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Denis Goldberg, Govan Mbeki, Ahmed Kathrada, Lionel Bernstein, Raymond Mhlaba, James Kantor, Elias Motsoaledi, Andrew Mlangeni, and Bob Hepple were indicted on four counts.

These included recruitment of individuals for training in the use of explosives and 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. Furthering the objects of communism.
Soliciting and receiving money from sympathizers to overthrow the government.

Nelson Mandela, who was already serving a five-year sentence for organising a national strike and leaving the country illegally, was brought from his cell on Robben Island and enjoined with the others. Each count carried the death penalty or life imprisonment.

Bob Hepple, who had agreed to become a state witness was then removed from the dock and set free. Instead of returning to the court he was whisked off by the underground and the next thing he was speaking to the press in Dar es Salaam a few days later.

At the end of the state case, James Kantor was discharged because the judge said he had no case to meet. The Trial lasted until 12 June 1964 when Judge Dr Quartus de Wet found all the accused guilty and sentenced them to life imprisonment. Rusty Bernstein was discharged and re-arrested immediately. After some hackling with the judiciary and the police Bernstein was granted bail. Instead of waiting for more harassment at the hands of the police, he used the “bush passport” and together with his wife Hilda, they made their way to the UK.

The black accused were secretly flown out in an army Dakota to Robben Island immediately after judgement was passed. Denis Goldberg, who was found guilty on all four counts had to push his four life imprisonment years in Pretoria because Robben Island accommodated blacks only. Apartheid muss sein. Ahmed Kathrada, on the other hand, despite being found guilty on one count suffered the same fate as the others.

Nevertheless, despite the long years of incarceration, they lived to prove that their efforts were not in vain. The new and democratic dispensation of South Africa in 1994 engulfed them fully where their knowledge and experiences were exploited with accused No. 1, Nelson Mandela became the first black President of the land at the bottom end of the African continent.

Biology has its own rules and a number of these leaders have since left this world. Who knows, maybe they will find better pastures elsewhere.

No article on the Rivonia Trial can be complete without mentioning the dedication and skill of the leader of the Defence Team – Abram (Bram) Fischer (23/4/1908 – 8/5/1975).

Many say that it was the skills and experience of Bram Fischer plus international pressure that swayed the decision of the judge against imposing the death penalty.

Bram Fischer

Bram Fischer came from a very distinguished Afrikaner family in the Orange Free State (OFS). His father was a Judge President and grandfather a former Prime Minister of the OFS. He himself had a brilliant academic career which could have opened the doors of power for him. Instead he chose the path of fighting for democracy and equality of all the people of South Africa.

Bram Fischer was arrested on 23 September 1964 and charged with 12 other men and women (all whites) for carrying out treasonable activities and promoting the aims of communism and the eventual overthrow of the state. During this trial Fischer had to appear in a patent case in London. He applied for bail in order to represent his client.

In his application for bail, he said: “I am an Afrikaner. My home is in South Africa. I will not leave my country because my political beliefs conflict with those of the Government”.

Bram Fischer travelled to London and returned immediately after completing his assignment. In London great pressure was applied on him to forego his bail of ₤5,000 and carry out the struggle from there.

A day after the proceeding began, Fischer did not return to the court. Instead he wrote to a letter explaining his decision which was read out by his counsel. He said:
My decision was made only because I believe that it is the duty of every opponent of this Government to remain in this country and to oppose the monstrous policy of apartheid with every means in his power. That is what I shall do for as long as I can.

Fischer was eventually captured in November 1965 and sentenced to life imprisonment in March 1966. He refused to go into the witness box. Instead, in a lengthy address to the court from the dock, Fischer said, inter alia:

When a man is on trial for his political beliefs and actions, two courses are open to him. He can either confess to his transgressions and plead for mercy or he can justify his beliefs and explain why he acted as he did. Were I to ask forgiveness today I would betray my cause. That course is not open to me. I believe that what I did was right. I must therefore explain to this court what my motives were; why I hold the beliefs that I do and why I was compelled to act in accordance with them.

Fischer then “lectured” the court on the history of South Africa delving deep into the past and ending with the present. In his closing remarks Fischer pointed out:

All the conduct with which I have been charged has been directed towards maintaining contact and understanding between the various races of this country. If it might one day help to establish a bridge across which White leaders and the real leaders of the non-Whites (sic) can meet to settle the destinies of all of us by negotiations and not by force of arms, I shall be able to bear with fortitude any sentence which this court may impose on me…..

Bram Fischer ended his narration thus:

In prophetic words, in February 1881, one of the great Afrikaner leaders, addressed the President and Volksraad (parliament) of the OFS. His words are inscribed on the base of the statue of President Paul Kruger in the square in front of this court. After great agony and suffering after two wars they were eventually fulfilled without force or violence for my people.

President Kruger’s words were:

With confidence we place our case before the entire world. Whether we are victorious or whether we die, freedom will arise in Africa like the sun from the morning clouds.

Unfortunately Bram Fischer did not live to see his dreams come true. Cancer took its toll and he was grudgingly allowed to die at his brother’s home in Bloemfontein. His ashes were confiscated by the state and simply disappeared.

The African National Congress honoured this great son of Africa by renaming the international airport in Bloemfontein (Fischer was born in this city) Bram Fischer International Airport as part of 100th Anniversary celebrations in January 2012.



*Eight of the accused were found guilty. In pronouncing his verdict, Judge Quartus de Wet said: “ I have decided not to impose the supreme penalty, which would usually be death for such a crime. But consistent with my duty, that is the only leniency which I can show. The sentence in the case of all the accused will be one of life imprisonment”.

Alexandre Moumbaris (r) pictured with Eric Singh/Photo: Karin Singh


**Alex Moumbaris, an Australian citizen was sentenced to 12 years imprisonment for assisting MK (underground army of the ANC) in 1973. He hit the international headlines in December 1979. Together with Tim Jenkins and Stephen Lee – also underground operatives sentenced to long periods of imprisonment – they broke out of the maximum security prison in Pretoria and within days, they were reporting of their escape from the ANC Headquarters in Lusaka, Zambia.







Helene Passtoors (l) pictured with Eric Singh in Paris/Photo: Karin Singh

Hélène Passtoors was charged with treason for smuggling weapons from Mozambique to MK in South Africa. This charge carried a possible death sentence. International outcry prevailed and Passtoors received 10 years of which she served three. The Belgian government negotiated her release.

Both of them are holders of the ORDER OF THE COMPANIONS OF OR TAMBO.











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