Anti-apartheid activist and ANC leader Nelson Mandela is sentenced to life in prison for sabotage in South Africa

Anti-apartheid activist and ANC leader Nelson Mandela is sentenced to life in prison for sabotage in South Africa

12 June 1964 AC

Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela (Xhosa pronunciation: [xoˈliːɬaɬa manˈdeːla]; born 18 July 1918) is a South African anti-apartheid revolutionary and politician who served as President of South Africa from 1994 to 1999. He was the first black South African to hold the office, and the first elected in a fully representative, multiracial election. His government focused on dismantling the legacy of apartheid through tackling institutionalised racism, poverty and inequality, and fostering racial reconciliation. Politically an African nationalist and democratic socialist, he served as the President of the African National Congress (ANC) from 1991 to 1997. Internationally, Mandela was the Secretary General of the Non-Aligned Movement from 1998 to 1999.

 

A Xhosa born to the Thembu royal family, Mandela attended Fort Hare University and the University of Witwatersrand, where he studied law. Living in Johannesburg, he became involved in anti-colonial politics, joining the ANC and becoming a founding member of its Youth League. After the Afrikaner nationalists of the National Party came to power in 1948 and began implementing the policy of apartheid, he rose to prominence in the ANC's 1952 Defiance Campaign, was elected President of the Transvaal ANC Branch and oversaw the 1955 Congress of the People. Working as a lawyer, he was repeatedly arrested for seditious activities and, with the ANC leadership, was prosecuted in the Treason Trial from 1956 to 1961 but was found not guilty. Although initially committed to non-violent protest, in association with the South African Communist Party he co-founded the militant Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) in 1961, leading a bombing campaign against government targets. In 1962 he was arrested, convicted of sabotage and conspiracy to overthrow the government, and sentenced to life imprisonment in the Rivonia Trial.

 

Mandela served 27 years in prison, first on Robben Island, and later in Pollsmoor Prison and Victor Verster Prison. An international campaign lobbied for his release, which was granted in 1990. Becoming ANC President, Mandela published his autobiography and led negotiations with President F.W. de Klerk to abolish apartheid and establish multi-racial elections in 1994, in which he led the ANC to victory. He was elected President and formed a Government of National Unity. As President, he established a new constitution and initiated the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to investigate past human rights abuses, while introducing policies to encourage land reform, combat poverty and expand healthcare services. Internationally, he acted as mediator between Libya and the United Kingdom in the Pan Am Flight 103 bombing trial, and oversaw military intervention in Lesotho. He declined to run for a second term, and was succeeded by his deputy Thabo Mbeki, subsequently becoming an elder statesman, focusing on charitable work in combating poverty and HIV/AIDS through the Nelson Mandela Foundation.

 

Controversial for much of his life, right-wing critics denounced Mandela as a terrorist and communist sympathiser. He has nevertheless received international acclaim for his anti-colonial and anti-apartheid stance, having received over 250 awards, including the 1993 Nobel Peace Prize, the US Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Soviet Order of Lenin. He is held in deep respect within South Africa, and has been described as "the father of the nation". He is often referred to by his Xhosa clan name of Madiba.

 

Arrest and Rivonia trial: 1962–1964


Monument erected in 1996 marking the site where Mandela was arrested near Howick, KwaZulu-Natal

On 5 August 1962, police captured Mandela along with Cecil Williams near Howick. Jailed in Johannesburg's Marshall Square prison, he was charged with inciting workers' strikes and leaving the country without permission. Representing himself with Slovo as legal advisor, Mandela intended to use the trial to showcase "the ANC's moral opposition to racism" while supporters demonstrated outside the court. Moved to Pretoria, where Winnie could visit him, in his cell he began correspondence studies for a Bachelor of Laws (LLB) degree from the University of London. His hearing began on 15 October, but he disrupted proceedings by wearing a traditional kaross, refusing to call any witnesses, and turning his plea of mitigation into a political speech. Found guilty, he was sentenced to five years' imprisonment; as he left the courtroom, supporters sang Nkosi Sikelel iAfrika.

"In a way I had never quite comprehended before, I realized the role I could play in court and the possibilities before me as a defendant. I was the symbol of justice in the court of the oppressor, the representative of the great ideals of freedom, fairness and democracy in a society that dishonoured those virtues. I realized then and there that I could carry on the fight even in the fortress of the enemy."

— Mandela, 1994

On 11 July 1963, police raided Liliesleaf Farm, arresting those they found there and uncovering paperwork documenting MK's activities, some of which mentioned Mandela. The subsequent Rivonia Trialbegan at Pretoria Supreme Court on 9 October, with Mandela and his comrades charged with four counts of sabotage and conspiracy to violently overthrow the government. Their chief prosecutor was Percy Yutar, who called for them to receive the death penalty. Judge Quartus de Wetsoon threw out the prosecution's case for insufficient evidence, but Yutar reformulated the charges, presenting his new case from December until February 1964, calling 173 witnesses and bringing thousands of documents and photographs to the trial.

With the exception of James Kantor, who was innocent of all charges, Mandela and the accused admitted sabotage but denied that they had ever agreed to initiate guerilla war against the government. They used the trial to highlight their political cause; one of Mandela's speeches – inspired by Castro's "History Will Absolve Me" speech – was widely reported in the press despite official censorship. The trial gained international attention, with global calls for the release of the accused from such institutions as the United Nations and World Peace Council. The University of London Union voted Mandela to its presidency, and nightly vigils for him were held in St. Paul's Cathedral, London. However, deeming them to be violent communist agitators, South Africa's government ignored all calls for clemency, and on 12 June 1964 de Wet found Mandela and two of his co-accused guilty on all four charges, sentencing them to life imprisonment rather than death.

Robben Island: 1962–1982


The lime quarry at Robben Island

Mandela and his co-accused were transferred from Pretoria to the prison on Robben Island, remaining there for the next 18 years. Isolated from non-political prisoners in Section B, Mandela was imprisoned in a damp concrete cell measuring 8 feet (2.4 m) by 7 feet (2.1 m), with a straw mat on which to sleep. Verbally and physically harassed by several white prison warders, the Rivonia Trial prisoners spent their days breaking rocks into gravel, until being reassinged in January 1965 to work in a lime quarry. Mandela was initially forbidden to wear sunglasses, and the glare from the lime permanently damaged his eyesight. At night, he worked on his LLB degree, but newspapers were forbidden, and he was locked in solitary confinement on several occasions for possessing smuggled news clippings. Classified as the lowest grade of prisoner, Class D, he was permitted one visit and one letter every six months, although all mail was heavily censored.

The political prisoners took part in work and hunger strikes – the latter considered largely ineffective by Mandela – to improve prison conditions, viewing this as a microcosm of the anti-apartheid struggle. ANC prisoners elected him to their four-man "High Organ" along with Sisulu, Govan Mbeki and Raymond Mhlaba, while he also involved himself in a group representing all political prisoners on the island, Ulundi, through which he forged links with PAC and Yu Chi Chan Club members. Initiating the "University of Robben Island," whereby prisoners lectured on their own areas of expertise, he debated topics such as homosexuality and politics with his comrades, getting into fierce arguments on the latter with Marxists like Mbeki and Harry Gwala. Though attending Christian Sunday services, Mandela studied Islam. He also studied Afrikaans, hoping to build a mutual respect with the warders and convert them to his cause. Various official visitors met with Mandela; most significant was the liberal parliamentary representative Helen Suzman of the Progressive Party, who championed Mandela's cause outside prison. In September 1970 he met British Labour Party MP Dennis Healey. South African Minister of Justice Jimmy Kruger visited in December 1974, but he and Mandela did not get on. His mother visited in 1968, dying shortly after, and his firstborn son Thembi died in a car accident the following year; Mandela was forbidden from attending either funeral. His wife was rarely able to visit, being regularly imprisoned for political activity, while his daughters first visited in December 1975; Winnie got out of prison in 1977 but was forcibly settled in Brandfort, still unable to visit him.

 
Mandela's cell and the prison yard at Robben Island, where he was imprisoned

From 1967, prison conditions improved, with black prisoners given trousers rather than shorts, games being permitted, and food quality increasing. In 1969, an escape plan for Mandela was developed by Gordon Bruce, but it was abandoned after being infiltrated by an agent of the South African Bureau of State Security(BOSS), who hoped to see Mandela shot during the escape. In 1970, Commander Piet Badenhost became commanding officer. Mandela, seeing an increase in the physical and mental abuse of prisoners, complained to visiting judges, who had Badenost reassigned. He was replaced by Commander Willie Willemse, who developed a co-operative relationship with Mandela and was keen to improve prison standards. By 1975, Mandela had become a Class A prisoner,allowing greater numbers of visits and letters; he corresponded with anti-apartheid activists like Mangosuthu Buthelezi and Desmond Tutu. That year, he began his autobiography, which was smuggled to London, but remained unpublished at the time; prison authorities discovered several pages, and his study privileges were stopped for four years. Instead he devoted his spare time to gardening and reading until he resumed his LLB degree studies in 1980.

By the late 1960s, Mandela's fame had been eclipsed by Steve Biko and the Black Consciousness Movement (BCM). Seeing the ANC as ineffectual, the BCM called for militant action, but following the Soweto uprising of 1976, many BCM activists were imprisoned on Robben Island. Mandela tried to build a relationship with these young radicals, although he was critical of their racialism and contempt for white anti-apartheid activists. Renewed international interest in his plight came in July 1978, when he celebrated his 60th birthday. He was awarded an honourary doctorate in Lesotho, the Nehru Prize for International Understanding in India in 1970, and the Freedom of the City of Glasgow, Scotland in 1980. In March 1980 the slogan "Free Mandela!" was developed by journalist Percy Qoboza, sparking an international campaign that led the UN Security Council to call for his release. Despite increasing foreign pressure, the government refused, relying on powerful foreign Cold War allies in US President Ronald Reagan and UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher; Thatcher considered Mandela a communist terrorist and supported the suppression of the ANC.