Remembering the Rivonia Trialists, lessons for democratic South Africa.

Fifty six years ago, Security Branch police swooped on Lilieslieaf Farm in the vicinity of Rivonia and arrested senior leaders of the Congress Movement. Those arrested were Govan Mbeki, Walter Sisulu, Raymond Mhlaba, Ahmed Kathrada, Rusty Berenstein, Dennis Goldberg and Bob Hepple. They were later joined by Arthur Goldreich, James Kantor, Andrew Mlangeni, Elias Motsoaledi and Harold Wolpe. Nelson Mandela was hauled from Robben Island where he was serving five years to come and join his comrades- in-arms in what was to become a historic political trial in the history of South Africa.

The trial as trumpeted by the prosecution was one of treason which in terms of the law of the day carried a maximum sentence of a death penalty. The Chief Prosecutor Mr. Percy Yutar wanted to demonstrate to the opponents of the apartheid regime that he who crosses the official line shall be dealt with in the harshest of ways. This he demonstrated by his conflicted approach to his first indictment which was rejected by the trial Judge, Mr. Quartus de Wet. When he re-submitted his second indictment it came even clearer that he was indeed on a “fishing expedition” as the accused labelled it.

The principal position of the accused was one of service to the people and unwaveringly they were determined to achieve this regardless of the repercussions which were obviously dire at the time. Their readiness to sacrifice even their lives pointed to a rare devotion to the cause of a revolutionary project which at the time was more intensified in our country. These leaders demonstrated to all and sundry that the welfare of a nation is more important than individual or group interests. In the end they were found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment of hard labour on 12th June 1964. Harold Wolpe and Arthur Goldreich escaped from the Pretoria jail and fled into exile. James Kantor and Rusty Berenstein were acquitted. Bob Hepple who had initially agreed to be the prosecution’s star witness fled into exile after his release to the chagrin of Mr. Yutar.

It is now history that these gallant revolutionary democrats were finally released from prison to come and take their rightful place in the political arena and to shape the future of a democratic South Africa. This happened during the most oppressive and painful moment in the history of our country. All efforts to impede the movement towards democracy by the regime was thwarted by the pressure that was mounting through several forms of protests that were effected by various political formations, their military wings and organs of civil society with the African National Congress emerging as a key player. Masses of the people came out strongly to show maximum involvement and to stand by their leaders throughout these trying and painful times in the history of their country.

The resoluteness of these leaders and their determination to bring the apartheid regime to its end was shown by the level of solidarity they displayed during the trial. They accepted all the obvious acts contained in the indictment but refused to testify in any form that might have endangered their comrades. They were indeed ready to demonstrate their unflinching and principled stance on the fight against the demon of apartheid which was declared a crime against humanity by the international community through the United Nations Organization. Their stance not to appeal any kind of sentence imposed on them including death penalty was the pinnacle of their devotion to the national democratic revolution.

Remembering the Rivonia Trialists, lessons for democratic South Africa

What lessons can democratic South Africa draw from these leaders?

Firstly, it is that the democracy we enjoy today didn’t come on a silver platter. Secondly, that people had had to pay the ultimate price of death in their service to the national democratic revolution. Thirdly, that no amount of abuse of power by a government can deter people from taking their rightful place in the life of a nation. Fourthly, that there is a need not to put this important historical moment on the back banner of governance processes as it constitutes a vital cog in the shaping of the future of our country.

Fifthly, that any public representative should understand the primacy of people in the discharge of their responsibilities. Sixthly, that democratic South Africa deserve to be managed on sound governance principles else we run the risk of a drastic reversal of our democratic gains.

The apex of their contribution culminated in the ushering in of a democratic South Africa in 1994 with Nelson Mandela elected as the first black President. Their stellar work in shaping democratic South Africa remains a beacon of hope and inspiration for the country, Africa and the rest of the world. This generation has laid a solid foundation for the advancement of human rights through the opening of opportunities for all the people. The contribution that these leaders discharged is a heritage the country should always be proud of and work tirelessly to consolidate. These outstanding leaders made their mark in the history of our country and local historians should work relentlessly in order to ensure that these achievements are not lost in the passage of time.

We owe it to these leaders that whatever we do and wherever we are we should bear in mind that the struggle that ushered in this democracy was based on the tenet of Ubuntu. It is therefore prudent for the people to be concerned when some of the public representatives and civil servants use their stations of responsibility to unlawfully enrich themselves at the expense of the people. It is equally important for those public representatives and servants who are not affected by these corrupt practices to raise the governance bar higher by reporting the culprits to law enforcement agencies and demanding accountability. The Rivonia Trialists have demonstrated beyond doubt that service to the people is an essential characteristic of a true leader.


Goldrick Mafologela

015 0040 430

Politics & Governance


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