When Mandela died I had recently taken early retirement as an English High Court judge. I was intrigued by coverage of the Rivonia trial, where Mandela was sentenced to life in prison. I tracked down Denis Goldberg, one of Mandela’s codefendants and spent a life changing day in his flat in Hout Bay, listening to extraordinary tales of his role in the anti apartheid struggle, culminating in the Rivonia trial where he stood in the dock alongside Mandela and 9 others.
I learned that there were two other surviving codefendants and three surviving defence lawyers. I also learned of the extraordinary role of Bram Fischer, the Afrikaner QC who led the defence and saved Mandela and the others from the gallows ,before going on himself to be sentenced to life in prison in the same cell block as Denis for his part in the same conspiracy as Mandela, to overthrow apartheid.
I spent the most exciting month of my life in South Africa interviewing the survivors. This is an inspiring story of immense courage and self sacrifice. It is both timeless and very topical. What makes some people stand up and be counted in the face of injustice while others look the other way? At a time of disillusionment with corruption and patronage in South Africa it is vitally important to remind the heirs of the anti apartheid struggle that the freedoms they enjoy were hard fought and won by men and women who risked their liberty, torture and even their lives.
Denis Goldberg offered to sacrifice his own life to save Mandela and the others by pretending that he had exceeded his mandate by seeking to acquire munitions. Kathy Kathrada, an Indian, declined to appeal, despite being advised that he had an excellent prospect of a successful appeal, because he did not want the people who had heard him speak in the black townships think that he talked the talk but wouldn’t walk the walk. He chose to spend 26 years behind bars rather than break ranks with his comrades. And Bram Fischer, the QC who came from an elite Afrikaner Nationalist family and had been tipped as a future Prime Minister but had had a Road to Damascus conversion as a young man and ended up as acting chairman of the banned Communist Party, chose to spend the rest of his life in prison in order to show the black majority population that there were some whites, and in particular some Afrikaners, who believed in a multi racial democracy and were prepared to sacrifice their lives for it.
I was immensely impressed by the courage, integrity and vision of this small group of black, white and Indian idealists who said: Not on my watch. Not in my name. In the words of Andrew Mlangeni, they were a multi racial band of comrades who fought for a multi racial democracy. It has been a humbling and inspiring experience to learn their stories and share them with a wider audience.
Life is Wonderful Director
This look at the Rivonia Treason trial focuses, not on Nelson Mandela and the famous speech he made from the dock during that trial, but on the intricacies of the legal defence. It tells a familiar story of the trial in a fresh way by focusing on the lawyers who defended the trialists, and on Mandela’s surviving co-defendants Andrew Mlangeni and Denis Goldberg.
Stadlen, a former United Kingdom High Court Judge, has unearthed seldom seen or heard archival material, and in so doing has constructed an intimate portrait of many of the lesser known participants in the Rivonia trial. Of particular interest are several audio extracts from the trial, including presentations made to court by the hapless and bumbling state prosecutor Percy Yutar.