Nelson Mandela began his 27-year prison term in 1962, when he was convicted of illegally leaving the country and inciting workers to strike. He was brought back from his Robben Island imprisonment to face far more serious charges in 1963 under South Africa’s Sabotage Act. That time, he could have faced the death penalty. His trial became known as the Rivonia trial, named for the Johannesburg suburb where most of nine other defendants had been arrested.
The evidence against him at the Rivonia trial was overwhelming. A raid on the headquarters of Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), the militant organization formed by the leadership of the African National Congress and the Communist Party of South Africa, had yielded a treasure trove of incriminating documents – some of which were in Mandela’s handwriting.
Despite the fact that there had been no deaths or injuries resulting from any of the Rivonia defendants’ actions or plans, a death sentence was a real possibility. Indeed, when the trial began in October 1963, most observers within South Africa and abroad expected Mandela and the other principal leaders to be hanged.
The fact that the Rivonia trial ended instead with life sentences for Mandela and other leaders was the result of several factors. Superb advocacy from the defense team led by the brilliant Afrikaner advocate Bram Fischer played a major role. It may also be that the South African government came to believe that, in light of international opinion, a life sentence would serve its needs better than death.
One cannot discount the role that Mandela himself played in the trial. In a more than four-hour speech to the court, Mandela essentially admitted the actions that were the basis of the charges against him. But he also gave a brilliant exposition on the reasons the government’s actions had left him no choice other than militancy. Rather than seeking black power, he told the court, he was seeking was a nation in which no racial group was dominant. His struggle and that of the ANC was for the “right to live.”
He ended his speech:
“During my lifetime, I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for, and see realized. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”
Nelson Mandela has now left us, but his legacy remains important for South Africa and for the world. The fact that he was alive to walk out of prison to assume a leadership role in the largely peaceful transition from the oppression of apartheid to a struggling but viable democracy was critically important. His intellect, sturdy leadership and political savvy were crucial to the process that brought a peaceful end to apartheid.
But negotiation skills were not the only contribution that this extraordinary man made to the country that had treated him so harshly. As president of the newly constituted republic, he healed the wide racial divisions to an extent that few had thought possible. Mandela worked not only to ensure that the black people of the nation would achieve their political rights but also – as much as was possible given the history of the country – to convince the white population that they were still very much a part of the nation.
Mandela set the tone in his inaugural address, telling the nation: “We enter into a covenant that we shall build a society in which all South Africans, both black and white, will be able to walk tall, without any fear in their hearts, assured of their inalienable right to human dignity – a rainbow nation at peace with itself and the world.”
In Nelson Mandela’s passing, the world has lost one of its greatest leaders. We can only hope that the example of his life and his message will guide us all in the future.
Kenneth S. Broun is Henry Brandis Professor of Law Emeritus at the University of North Carolina School of Law and author of “Saving Nelson Mandela, The Rivonia Trial and the Fate of South Africa" (Oxford Univ. Press 2012).