Mandela Rivonia Trial

After being sentenced to life imprisonment in 1964, Nelson Mandela (1918 – 2013) became a worldwide symbol of heroic black resistance to the apartheid regime of South Africa.

He joined the African National Congress in 1952 and became a member of a small action group whose main task was to launch Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation) or MK. From a safe house in Rivonia, MK planned sabotage of strategic targets – after its first terrorist attacks in 1961 bombs exploded in Johannesburg, Port Elizabeth, and Durban. When the ANC was banned in 1961, Mandela evaded arrest for a year but was gaoled for five years in 1962 and sent to Robben Island. His prison term was interrupted by the Rivonia trial, brought after a police raid on ANC headquarters in 1963.

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Mandela and his colleagues were charged under the Suppression of Communism Act The trial opened on 9 October 1963, with Mandela named Accused Number One and facing the death penalty. He denied he was a Communist and described himself as an African patriot who admired the Magna Carta and the Bill of Rights. His concluding words inspired support throughout the world. On 11 June Mandela and the seven other defendants were sentenced to life imprisonment. Mandela returned to Robben Island, where he was put in a stone cell measuring two meters by two meters, lit by a forty-watt bulb, and set to hard labor in a quarry.

He spent twenty-seven years in prison. Johannesburg, 20 April 1964 ‘An ideal for which I am prepared to die’ Our fight is against real, and not imaginary hardships […] We fight against two features which are the hallmarks of African life in South Africa. [… ] These features are poverty and lack of human dignity, and we do not need Communists, or so-called ‘agitators’, to teach us about these things.  The whites enjoy what may well be the highest standard of living in the world,  whilst Africans live in poverty and misery. Forty percent of the Africans live in hopelessly overcrowded and, in some cases, drought-stricken reserves, where soil erosion and the overworking of the soil make it impossible for them to live properly of the land. Thirty percent are laborers, labor tenants, and squatters on white farms and work and live under conditions similar to those of the serfs of the Middle Ages. The other thirty percent live in towns where they have developed economic and social habits which bring them closer, in many respects, to white standards.

Yet, forty-six percent of all African families in Johannesburg do not even earn enough to keep them going. The complaint of Africans, however, is not that they are poor and whites are rich, but that the laws which are made by the whites are designed to preserve this situation. There are two ways to break out of poverty. The first is by formal education, and the second is by the worker acquiring a greater skill at his work and thus higher wages.

[… ] The present Government has always sought to hamper Africans in their search for education. There is compulsory education for all white children at virtually no cost to their parents, be they rich or poor. Similar facilities are not provided for African children. In 1960-61, the per capita government spending on African students at state-funded schools was estimated at R12. 46. In the same year, the per capita spending on white children in the Cape Province (which are the only figures available to me) was R144.

The present Prime Minister said during the debate on the Bantu Education Bill in 1953: ‘When I have control of Native education, I will reform it so that Natives will be taught from childhood to realize that equality with Europeans is not for them … People who believe in equality are not desirable teachers for Natives. When my Department controls Native education, it will know for what class of higher education a Native is fitted, and whether he will have a chance in life to use his knowledge.

The other main obstacle to the economic advancement of the Africans is the industrial color bar by which all the better jobs of industry are reserved for whites only. Moreover, Africans are not allowed to form trade unions[… ]The Government often answers its critics by saying that Africans in South Africa are economically better off than the inhabitants of the other countries in Africa. Our complaint is not that we are poor by comparison with people in other countries, but that we are poor by comparison with white people in our own country, and that we are prevented by legislation from altering this imbalance.

Hundreds and thousands of Africans are thrown into gaol each year under pass laws. Even worse than this is the fact that pass laws keep husband and wife apart and lead to the breakdown of family life. Poverty and the breakdown of family life have secondary effects. Children wander about the streets of the townships because they have no schools to go to, or no money to enable them to go to school, or no parents at home to see that they go to school because both parents if there be two, have to work to keep the family alive.

This leads to a breakdown in moral standards, an alarming rise in illegitimacy, and to growing violence that erupts, not only politically but everywhere. Life in the townships is dangerous; there is not a day that goes by without somebody being stabbed or assaulted. And violence is carried out of the townships into the white living areas. People are afraid to walk alone in the streets after dark. House-breakings and robberies are increasing although the death sentence can now be imposed for such offenses. Death sentences cannot cure the festering sore.

The only cure is to alter the conditions under which the Africans are forced to live[… ] We want to be part of the general population, and not confined to living in our ghettos. African men want to have their wives and children live with them where they work, and not to be forced into an unnatural existence in men’s hostels. Our women want to be left with their menfolk, and not to be left permanently widowed in the Reserves. We want to be allowed out after 11 p.m. and not to be confined to our rooms like little children. We want to be allowed to travel in our own country, and to seek work where we want to, and not where the Labour Bureau tells us to. We want a just share in the whole of South Africa; we want security and a stake in society. Above all, my lord, we want equal political rights, because without them our disabilities will be permanent. I know this sounds revolutionary to the whites in this country because the majority of voters will be Africans. This makes the white man fear democracy.

But this fear cannot be allowed to stand in the way of the only solution which will guarantee racial harmony and freedom for all. [… ] Political division, based on color, is entirely artificial, and when it disappears, so will the domination of one color group by another. The ANC has spent half a century fighting against racialism. When it triumphs, as it certainly must, it will not change that policy.


This then is what the ANC is fighting. Our struggle is a truly national one. It is a struggle of the African people, inspired by our suffering and our own experience. It is a struggle for the right to live. During my lifetime I have dedicated my life to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony with equal opportunities. It is an ideal that I hope to live for and to see realized. But my lord, if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.

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Mandela Rivonia Trial. (2016, Aug 17). Retrieved from