American readers have a potent fascination with trials. Fictive or real, ancient or recent, local or foreign - in film or in print - we enjoy the tribulation of litigation. Socrates, Galileo, Luther, More, Salem, Scopes, Nuremberg, Simpson, Clinton, Pickwick, Finch, Webster, even the Devil himself. Conflict and character, cleverness and resolve, humanity and darkness are measured in collision before the bar.
"Saving Nelson Mandela: The Rivonia Trial and the Fate of South Africa" demonstrates, yet again, that the reality of human struggle bests - in drama, in inspiration, in sheer unpredictability - even the most masterful flights of creativity and imagination. Nothing lifts the spirit and emboldens the sense of the possible like realizing what has gone before.
Written by Ken Broun - UNC law professor, former dean, former mayor of Chapel Hill - "Saving Mandela" explores the 1963-64 trial of 10 defendants, including Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu and Govan Mbeki, charged with sabotage against the apartheid government of South Africa.
The Rivonia prosecution sought the death penalty for an array of eventual heroes of the South African liberation struggle. Most, including the defendants and their lawyers, expected exactly that outcome. The South African government had not hesitated to deploy extreme violence to thwart its adversaries - whether with the fig leaf of legal sanction or without.
Though all but two of those charged were convicted and received life sentences, Mandela and his colleagues escaped the death penalty. As a result, the future work of dismantling apartheid, transforming South Africa and assuring the ascendancy of human rights in a nation reborn was accomplished with far less violence and retribution than could have occurred otherwise. Broun masterfully recounts how the unexpected came to pass.
There is much to explore. We see the brilliance and heroism of a remarkable team of lawyers committed to a cause that came to define both their personal and professional lives. We examine the rulings of a trial judge who showed surprising independence from the apparent pressures of government overreaching, while remaining captive to the racism of his culture.
We meet a villainous prosecutor who repeatedly hurts his own cause by assuming, wildly incorrectly, his intellectual superiority over the defendants. And we review the embarrassing ambiguity of the British and American positions on the validity of the trial, as we trailed most of the world in pressing the cause of human liberty we say defines us.
But no matter how deeply Broun probes these ancillary attractions, "Saving Mandela" remains an astonishing tale of the defendants' personal courage.
They refused to answer questions that might jeopardize their colleagues - even if doing so increased their own chances of execution. They refused to fight fire with fire. They would not lie, no matter how much the state might do so. The justice of their cause was not to be tainted with retribution. They admitted to the bulk of charges raised against them. Mandela dared the initially condescending judge to hang him. Of course, it was hard to remain condescending throughout. Mandela and Justice Quartus de Wet, it turns out, were not moral peers.
And there are Mandela's famed words from the dock:
"During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to the struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination and black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic ... society in which all persons live together in harmony with equal opportunities. It is an ideal I hope to live for, and see realized. But, if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die."
Tactics, skill, strategy, diplomacy and legal maneuver pervade "Saving Mandela." Still, bold, breathtaking human bravery swamps all. I'm guessing Professor Broun wouldn't have it any other way.
Gene Nichol is Boyd Tinsley Distinguished Professor at UNC-Chapel Hill.