Rivonia Days

R.W. Johnson

  • The State v. Nelson Mandela: The Trial That Changed South Africa by Joel Joffe
    Oneworld, 288 pp, £16.99, July 2007, ISBN 978 1 85168 500 4

The political climate in South Africa when the Rivonia trial began in November 1963 was so poisonous that Joel Joffe, then a young lawyer, took the case on only because he had already decided to emigrate. Two years later, he wrote up his lively insider’s view of the trial and allowed Lionel Bernstein, the only defendant to get off, to rewrite it to the point of virtual co-authorship. It was published somewhat obscurely in 1990 and is now reissued for the wider audience it deserves. Rivonia was the moment at which the African National Congress, having opted for armed revolt (a foolish decision, though one with which, as a young South African, I was wholly in sympathy), collided head-on with an Afrikaner nationalism still at its muscular zenith. The result was that Nelson Mandela and seven of his co-defendants were sent to jail for life – between 22 and 27 years, as it turned out.

Much about the trial was grossly unfair. It was held in Pretoria, the citadel of virulently anti-black nationalism, to make sure that ANC sympathisers at the trial would be few, and frightened. The Sabotage Act, under which the accused were tried, was a monstrous piece of legislation, putting much of the onus on the defence and removing the need for corroborating evidence. The defence team were kept in the dark: they didn’t even know when the trial would begin, let alone the evidence to be called, and were given inadequate time to prepare their case. Witnesses were held in solitary confinement – some were tortured – and told that they would be released only if they gave evidence ‘satisfactory to the state’. There was almost open coaching of witnesses by the prosecution, while the press and radio ignored the sub judice rule and campaigned hysterically against the accused. As if to show what a bad idea it was to annoy the state, the wholly apolitical James Kantor was held in detention as an act of revenge for his (highly political) brother-in-law’s escape from jail.

Above all there was Percy Yutar, the deputy attorney-general of the Transvaal and the state prosecutor. Yutar, the regime’s Vishinsky, shrieked theatrically, played to the press and continually forsook legal niceties to please the political gallery. Aware that most of the ANC’s white supporters were Jews, as were a number of their legal defence team, including Joffe, he was determined to show the regime that he was a ‘good Jew’, resolved as they were to crack down on the blacks and the bad Jews. As soon as he met Joffe he began praising the police, saying that he hadn’t heard one anti-semitic remark from them in three weeks. Knowing – as they both did – that the police would have stifled their prejudices only because Yutar was on their side, Joffe protested that this was no special cause for praise. Yutar disagreed strongly: wouldn’t it make anyone anti-semitic ‘to have people like Bernstein and Goldberg going around stirring up the Bantu’? Yutar, like many white South Africans of the time, saw blacks as perfectly happy with their lot unless got at by agitators.

The accused were kept in conditions that made it nearly impossible for their defence team to consult with them. Yutar obtained evidence from prison staff who’d spied on them, and bugged their privileged conversations with lawyers. He used against Bernstein a letter he’d written to his sister that the state had intercepted. In today’s South Africa the Jewish community boasts of the many Jews who opposed apartheid, but the fact is that many supported it. In Durban the synagogue was used by the police to spy on a radical Jewish lawyer, clearly with the consent of the synagogue authorities. But the Afrikaner National Party had for many years forbidden Jews to join it, so for most, collaboration had its limits. For Yutar there were no limits. Comparing him to Vishinsky perhaps conceals the extent to which he wanted to embrace the cause; to show that a small man, an intellectual with a doctorate and a high-pitched voice, might be received as a hero by huge rugby-playing Afrikaners and become their greatest propagandist. A better comparison might be with the weedy, club-footed intellectual (with a high-pitched voice) who became the stormtroopers’ greatest propagandist, Joseph Goebbels.

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[*] 19 August 1999.

[†] Shades of Difference. Mac Maharaj and the Struggle for South Africa (Viking, 648 pp., £19.99, March, 978 0 670 085233 8).