On October 29, it was exactly 50 years since 11 accused were charged with 199 acts of sabotage in the Rivonia Trial.
The Rivonia what? Many youngsters may ask, isn’t that a road in Johannesburg? Many also think that OR Tambo – one of the stalwarts who freed South Africa from apartheid – is the name of an airport.
I once asked one of the survivors of the Rivonia Trial, Ahmed Kathrada, who spent 26 years behind bars for his pains, what he thought about youngsters who neither knew nor cared about the sacrifice of a generation. His answer was telling.
“That is what we fought for.”
All of those who stood trial in Pretoria on that summer’s day faced death without flinching and oozed defiance. Nelson Mandela stood tall while Walter Sisulu rang rings around prosecutor, Percy Yutar, as he attempted to humiliate the scholarly activist.
Every time Yutar delivered a damning piece of evidence, a special branch policeman in court would glare at fellow accused Denis Goldberg, whom they saw as a race traitor as well as a communist, and draw his forefinger menacingly across his throat.
“I had to think how I was going to respond, so I gave him the middle finger,” chuckled Goldberg nearly 50 years later.
This kind of feisty defiance helped change millions of minds as the story winged its way around the world. Overnight the 11 criminals in the dock became the freedom fighting Benjamin Franklins of Africa. The trial truly saw a shift in world opinion that was to help usher out apartheid.
At the climax of the trial Mandela made a four-hour speech from the dock that went down in history.
“I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. 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.”
On June 12 1964, the defendants were sentenced to life – spared the death penalty by fancy diplomatic footwork in the background, mainly by the British who feared unrest could threaten investments in South Africa.
As they were driven away in chains in a police van, the accused each held up three fingers telling their lawyers they would be out in three years; it was not to be – life meant life. All paid with their lives serving up to 27 rough years behind bars. This meant years of sleeping on concrete floors and slaving in a quarry on Robben Island, just off Cape Town.
All of these men: Kathrada; Goldberg; Mandela and Andrew Mlangeni survive and live modestly. Mlangeni lives in the same house in Dube, Soweto, in which he was arrested more than half a century ago. They didn’t do it for money; or power; or fame. Half a century one of their biggest fears is that the ideals they fought, not they, will be forgotten.
In this age of political cynicism, avarice and spin doctors; I think there is no better time to remember Rivonia.