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51 Years Ago, Nelson Mandela Was Arrested And Charged With Treason


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Robert Siegel. We're going to remember Nelson Mandela now by airing part of a documentary that we first broadcast back in 2004. It's called "Mandela: An Audio History," by Joe Richman and Sue Johnson of Radio Diaries. It tells the story of the struggle against apartheid through the voices of Mandela and the people who fought with and against him.

The part we're going to hear now covers Mandela's treason trial. He was convicted and sentenced to serve life in prison on Robben Island.

BLOCK: In the early 1960s, South Africa's white minority government hoped to crush the struggle for black rights. It banned the African National Congress. In response, the once-peaceful movement against apartheid went underground. Facing a government crackdown, Mandela launched Umkhonto we Sizwe, a military wing of the ANC; and the armed struggle began.

In 1962, Mandela was arrested and charged with high treason along with his collaborators. The Rivonia Trial, as it came to be known, would turn Mandela into a symbol of the struggle against apartheid.



UNIDENTIFIED BROADCASTER: A remarkable demonstration by a crowd of several hundred outside the courthouse in Pretoria. Nelson Mandela, leader and founder of the sabotage movement Spear of the Nation and a leading member of the African National Congress, accused with the others of plotting sabotage to overthrow the South African government by force.

AHMED KATHRADA: There were eight of us in the trial. And the first day, the lawyer said chaps, prepare for the worst.

UNIDENTIFIED PROSECUTOR: Firstly, the state alleges the plain purpose thereof was to bring about chaos, disorder and turmoil in the battle to be waged against the white man in this country.

GEORGE BIZOS: They were called terrorists. We knew that there was no hope of getting an acquittal. The question was, what do we do with the trial?

KATHRADA: When the defense case started, Mandela, he was going to be the first defense witness. And the prosecution had prepared extensively to cross-examine Mandela and break him down. And they all got a shock when our lawyers announced that Mandela will not give evidence, but he'll make a statement from the dock.

BIZOS: The courtroom was absolutely packed. He stood up, and he proceeded to deliver this speech.

NELSON MANDELA: I have dedicated my life to this struggle of the African people. 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.

KATHRADA: It was a four-hour speech.

MANDELA: And I have fought...

KATHRADA: But that last bit, where he said "these are the ideas for which I am prepared to die," just that last bit...

DENIS GOLDBERG: I knew what he was going to say because we had all seen the speech. Everybody had made comments about it. And I knew he was going to say, in effect, hang me if you dare to, Mr. Judge. But only when he said it...

MANDELA: I have cherished the idea of a democratic and free society in which all persons will live together in harmony, and with equal opportunities. It is an idea for which I hope to live for. But my Lord, if it needs be, it is an idea for which I am prepared to die.

GOLDBERG: There was dead silence. Nobody said anything. Even the judge didn't know what to say. I knew it was a moment of history. He emerged then as a great leader.

THE HON. QUARTUS DE WET: ...Very well, the court will then adjourn.

MANDELA: The possibility of a death sentence, of course, worried me. And I remember we adjourned for lunch. It was a very hot day, and a friendly Afrikaner warder asked me the question: Mandela, what do you think is going to happen to you in this case? I said to him, ah, they are going to hang us.

Now, I was really expecting some word of encouragement from him. And I thought he was going to say, ah, man, that can never happen. But he became serious, and then he said: I think you are right; they're going to hang you.

UNIDENTIFIED BROADCASTER: The next day, armed police massed an even greater force as Mr. Justice de Wet was passing sentence.

DE WET: I am by no means convinced that the motive of the accused were as altruistic as they wish the court to believe...

KATHRADA: When they said, stand up for your sentence, we thought, well, here it comes.

DE WET: I have decided not to impose the supreme penalty, which in a case like this would usually be the proper penalty for the crime. That is the only leniency I can show. The sentence in the case of all the accused will be one of life imprisonment.

GOLDBERG: And we laughed. We turned to each other and laughed because we expected to be hanged.


UNIDENTIFIED BROADCASTER: At the back entrance to Pretoria Court, large crowds gather to watch the accused being driven away to start their life sentences.

UNIDENTIFIED BROADCASTER #2: There had been growing protests from all over the world today at the sentence of life imprisonment passed in South Africa on this man, Nelson Mandela.

MANDELA: As we were being flown to Robben Island, one tried to accept the reality that we may, in fact, spend years in prison. But we believed very strongly that we would not die in jail. We would return.


MANDELA: But we stayed there for 27 years.


SIEGEL: We've been listening to "Mandela: An Audio History" and the voices of Nelson Mandela, fellow defendants Ahmed Kathrada and Denis Goldberg, and lawyer George Bizos. The documentary was produced by Joe Richman and Sue Johnson, of Radio Diaries; with help from Ben Shapiro and Deborah George. For more information about Mandela's life and legacy and the people you heard in this story, you can visit And there's more coverage remembering Nelson Mandela, at This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Joe Richman