The Accused: "The Rivonia 11"
The Accused

Nelson Mandela
(1918-  )
Nelson Mandela was the son of a village chief from Mvezo, in the Transkeiean Territories.  The first in his family to attend school, Mandela was a good student.  After completing his B.A. degree he entered law studies at the University of Witwatersrand.  Mandela's life of political activism began with the apartheid-promoting National Party's victory in 1948.  In his early years with the ANC, Mandela supported a Gandhian policy of non-violent resistance to apartheid, but that changed with the government's banning of the ANC following the Sharpeville riot and shootings.  He saw armed struggle as the necessary last resort. Mandela co-founded the militant organization Umkhonto we Sizwe, planned a strategy of sabotage, raised funds for weapons, and arranged military training for possible guerrilla warfare.  In his clandestine role, Mandela lived and worked at Rivonia before traveling abroad (illegally) to win foreign support for his efforts.  Upon his return to South Africa, he was arrested, tried, and convicted for leaving the country without a passport and inciting a strike.  At the time of the Rivonia raid, Mandela had been imprisoned on Robben Island for over eight months.

Defense attorney Joel Joffe described Mandela as "a really great man." According to Joffe, Mandela had all the "attributes of a leader--the engaging personality, the ability, the stature, the calm, the diplomacy, the tact, and the conviction."  Even prison officials treated Mandela with respect, perhaps recognizing in him a bigger man than themselves.  Mandela was, without a doubt, the leader among the Rivonia defendants.

Although many of the charged acts of sabotage occurred after Mandela was in jail, his prominent role in both the ANC and Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) made a verdict of "guilty" all but inevitable.  Rather than be cross-examined about his contacts and specific underground work, Mandela chose to offer a statement from the dock.  He saw it as his duty as a leader in the liberation movement to explain its goals. In his four-hour long reading of his statement, Mandela outlined the history of racial oppression in South Africa, the rise of the ANC, and his felt necessity for turning to violence and the establishment of MK.  Mandela insisted that MK planned sabotage attacks against facilities at times and places so as to minimize the possibility that lives would be lost.  He ended his statement dramatically, telling the court, "I am prepared to die."

Mandela was convicted on all counts and sentenced to life in prison.  He served 18 years on Robben Island before transfer to a prison in Cape Town.  The last two years of his imprisonment, up to his release in 1990, were spent in a bungalow and included periods of secret negotiations with the South African government for a transition to a multi-racial democracy.  In May 1994, Nelson Mandela was inaugurated as the first black president of South Africa.

Walter Sisulu

Walter Sisulu's mother was a domestic worker, his father a white civil servant.  Sisulu joined the ANC in 1940 and became Secretary General of the ANC in 1949.  He was arrested seven times between 1953 and 1963.  He was present at a meeting of the Umkhonto High Command when Operation Mayibuye was first presented for consideration.  Sisulu was among those captured in Rivonia in July 1963.

Defense attorney Joel Joffe described Sisulu as "one of the most impressive personalities among the accused." Other defendants often turned to Sisulu for advice, as he was respected for his careful and deliberate judgment.  

Sisulu was the first defense witness to be questioned on the witness stand.  In his testimony, Sisulu outlined the history of the ANC and its military wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe.  He testified that Operation Mayibuye was presented to the High Command but never adopted.  He stated that he did not agree with many aspects of the proposed operation:  "My view was that conditions did not exist at that time for Operation Mayibuye."  Defense attorney Joffe called Sisulu's five days of cross-examination "a triumph": "The whole court had been impressed by this small man of meager education but tremendous sincerity, calm, conviction, and certainty."

Sisulu was convicted on all four counts and sentenced to life in prison.  He was released in 1989.

Govan Mbeki
Govan Mbeki, at 53, was grey-haired and the oldest of the 11 Rivonia accused.  After graduating from Fort Hare University in 1936, Mbeki began a life of political activism.  He served on the editorial board of the New Age, a liberation movement journal, and was a leader of the ANC and the South African Communist Party.

Defense attorney Joel Joffe wrote that Mbeki had "the softest voice and the quietest, calmest manner of any of the accused," but beneath that exterior was "a steel-hard interior."  In his cross-examination, Mbeki admitted to having "a ruthless determination" to emancipate black South Africans."

At the Rivonia trial, Mbeki presented much of the defense testimony relating to South Africa's history of race-based repression and the political goals of the ANC.  The prosecution presented 13 documents directly implicating Mbeki, and his "guilt" was never in serious question.  He was found guilty on all four charges and sentences to life in prison.

Mbeki was released in 1988 after serving 25 years in prison.  Following his release, he was chosen as Deputy President of the first multi-racial South African Senate.  His son, Thabo Mbeki, was elected president of South Africa.  Govan Mbeki died in 2001.

Elias Motsoaledi
Born in Nebo, Sekhukuneland, Elias Motsoaledi moved at age 17 to Johannesburg, where he found work in a boot factory.  He joined a trade union movement and soon was led into a life of political activism.  He joined the ANC in 1948.  After the organization was banned, he became active in Umkhonto we Sizwe which he joined because, he said, there was no other choice "but to suffer." 

Defense attorney Joel Joffe described Motsoaledi as "a short, vivacious and charming personality."  At the time of the Rivonia trial, he was 39 and the father of seven young children.

At the time of the Rivonia raid, Motsoaledi was already held in detention.  Prosecution witness Bruno Mtolo testified that Motsoaledi showed him how to make explosive material for sabotage operations.  Witness English Mashiloane testified that Motsoaledi supervised operations that sent young recruits abroad for military training.  The defense chose not to subject Motsoaledi to questioning on the stand; instead, he read a prepared statement in which he said, "What I did, I did for my people."

Motsoaledi was convicted on charges of conspiracy and sabotage and sentenced to life in prison.  He was released in 1989 and died five years later.

Ahmed Kathrada
(1929-  )

Ahmed Kathrada was born in 1929 to immigrant parents from India living in a small village in the Western Transvaal.  Kathrada moved to Johannesburg to receive an education and became politically active by age 12 when he joined the Young Communist League.  He left school at age 17 to become a full-time political activist.  When the African and Indian Congresses entered an era of close cooperation in the 1950s, Kathrada worked with ANC leaders including Mandela and Sisulu.

Defense attorney Joel Joffe described Kathrada as having "a sharp tongue" and "an engaging personality.  He considered him more "a doer than a theorizer." 

Joffe described the case against Kathrada as "extremely weak."  He was arrested at Rivonia (disguised as a Portuguese) where he had drafted a couple of pamphlets and taped a broadcast for ANC radio.  There was no evidence directly tying him to Operation Mayibuye or sabotage.

Despite the weak case, Kathrada was convicted on one of the four charges against him and sentenced to life in prison.  He was released in 1989, after spending 26 years in prison.  He was elected as a member of the South African parliament in 1994.

Denis Goldberg
(1933-  )
Denis Goldberg was considered by South African authorities in 1963 to be "the most dangerous white man in the country."  Goldberg was born in Cape Town, where he studied civil engineering before joining the South African Communist Party.  In May 1963, Goldberg left Cape Town for Johannesburg, intending to flee the country.  Instead, he was asked by officials of Umkhonto we Sizwe to use his technical knowledge to explore the possibility of building large numbers of grenades, land mines, and other weapons that could be used in a coming guerrilla war.  He was captured at Rivonia in July 1963.  Weeks later, he made a failed attempt to escape from Vereeniging Prison.

Defense attorney Joel Joffe described Goldberg as an "easy-going" man who provided a steady flow of puns, jokes, and witticisms. 

The evidence against Goldberg was overwhelming.  Prosecution witness Cyril Davids testified that Goldberg ran a training camp for guerrillas (Goldberg maintained the camp was just political.)  More than twenty other prosecution witnesses, including manufacturers and merchants, testified that Goldberg, using a pseudonym,  inquired about the possibility of purchasing large numbers of castings and other parts that could be used in weapon construction.  With the massive case against him, Goldberg offered to plead guilty and take the blame for other defendants.  He took the stand only against the advice of his attorneys, who warned him that his testify might backfire and get him the death penalty.

Goldberg was convicted on all charges and sentenced to life in prison.  After his release in 1985 he moved to London.  He returned to South Africa in 2002 to become a special adviser to the Minister of Water Affairs and Forestry. 

Andrew Mlangeni
(1926-  )

Andrew Mlangeni grew up at the ninth child of fourteen in a Soweto family.  He worked as a caddy at a golf course, as a bus driver and as a factory worker before joining the ANC in 1954.  In October 1961 he left Johannesburg and received military training outside the country.  He joined Umkhonto we Sizwe in February 1963, but was not a member of the National High Command.  He was known in the movement as "Robot" for his single-minded determination to finish any task to which he was assigned.  Mlangeni was arrested weeks before the Rivonia raid.  While in detention, he was tortured with electrical shocks that left visible burn scars.

Prosecution witness English Mashiloane testified that Mlangeni arranged transportation for young military recruits and supervised their training.  In his closing argument, Percy Yutar called Mlangeni the "Minister of Transport" for Umkhonto we Sizwe.  In his statement before the court, Mlangeni said that he "found a political home" in the ANC and that "what I did was not for myself but for my people."

Mlangeni was convicted on all four counts and sentenced to life in prison.  He was released in 1989.  He was elected as a member of the South African parliament in 1994. 

James Kantor
James Kantor was a South African lawyer.  His law partner and brother-in-law, Harold Wolpe (who handled the affairs of various political activists), disappeared suddenly days after the Rivonia raid.  Wolpe and Arthur Goldreich, owner of the Rivonia estate, were arrested at the South African border and taken to a Pretoria jail.  When Wolpe and Goldreich managed a successful escape, authorities turned their attention to Kantor, who served essentially as a proxy for Wolpe at the trial.  In the view of defense lawyers, Kantor was "a hostage for his brother-in-law."  Kantor was clearly an "odd man out" among the eleven accused, and the evidence against him, such as it was, seemed unconnected to the other defendants.  During his period of detention, Kantor suffered what appeared to be a nervous breakdown and his law practice deteriorated.
Before the Rivonia trial began, prosecutor Percy Yutar insisted Kantor was involved in sabotage and the recruitment of men for military training.  (This assertion, it turned out, was based on the unsupported statement of a ANC supporter to had been subjected to torture.)  At trial virtually no evidence that incriminated Kantor was presented.  The prosecution attempted to suggest that funds from Kantor's firm were used for purchase of the Rivonia farm and that persons under communication bans met with lawyers in his office, but the witness who provided testimony on this point largely absolved Kantor on cross-examination.  Kantor was discharged from the case by Justice de Wet in December 1963 without even having to present evidence on his own behalf.

Kantor fled the country after the trial.  He died of a heart attack in 1975. 

Lionel (Rusty) Bernstein
Lionel Bernstein was the son of Jewish emigres.  Orphaned at age 8, Bernstein was sent to an exclusive boy's boarding school.  Upon graduating, he moved to Johannesburg were he found work as an continued his education and eventually became an architect. After serving in the South African army in WW II, Bernstein supported a strike of African miners in 1946.  He wrote extensively for various Communist Party (which he had joined in 1939), ANC, and liberation journals and newspapers.  In 1956, he was charged with treason, but eventually found not guilty.  He was arrested at Rivonia in July 1963 where he had gone to plan remodeling for a storeroom.

Defense attorney Joel Joffe described Bernstein as "depressed, listless, and nervous" after his 90-day detention.  He "spoke little" and "seemed to sparkle only in his writing."

Joel Joffe wrote there "was less evidence against [Bernstein] than anyone else."  Joseph Mashifane, a Rivonia servant and prosecution witness, testified he saw Bernstein up on the roof helping to erect a radio antenna.  Testifying at the trial, Bernstein proved himself to be an almost "ideal witness," in Joffe's view.  He gave "clear, concise answers" in a "polite and unruffled" manner and conceded nothing.  Cross-examination of Bernstein was mishandled by the prosecutor, who focused mainly on Bernstein's Communist Party ties while failed to establish elements of the alleged crime.  According to Joffe, after cross, "the case against him had disappeared."

Bernstein was found "not guilty" by Justice de Wet.  Writing in 1988, Bernstein said: "It is believed that the judge decided in advance to acquit one [of three defendants, including himself, Kathrada, and Mlaba, against whom the case was flimsy], thus proving the fairness of the trial."  "Being white and middle-class," Bernstein wrote, probably won him "the lottery."  After the trial, Bernstein fled South Africa, making his way to Zambia and then to London, where he worked as an architect.   He died in 2002.

Raymond Mhlaba
Raymond Mhlaba was born in the Fort Beaufort district and took work in a Port Elizabeth laundry after leaving school.  From trade union work he gravitated to the Communist Party, which he joined in 1943, and the ANC, which he joined the following year.  He served as chair of the Port Elizabeth ANC branch for six years and, after the ANC's banning in 1960, received military training in China.  He was arrested at Rivonia in July 1963.

Defense attorney Joel Joffe described Mhlaba as a large man with a "stolid immovable determination" and a trademark "great shrieking laugh." 

The prosecution case against Mhlaba was weak.  A taxi driver testified that Mhlaba was among a group of people that he drove to an electricity sub-station on the night it was sabotaged.  This evidence, however, was contradicted by the prosecutor's own apparent acknowledgment later in the trial that Mhlaba was outside the country at the time of the attack on the sub-station.  Joffe believes the taxi driver's testimony was perjury calculated "to fill an obvious weakness in the state's case."  In his testimony, Mhaba testified that he was on a mission for the ANC at the time of the sabotage, but refused to answer a question about exactly where he was and what he was doing.

Despite the weak case against him, Mhlaba was convicted and sentenced to life in prison.  He was released in 1989.  In 1994, Mhlaba was selected as Premier of the Eastern Cape and later served as High Commissioner to Uganda and Rwanda.  In 2005, he died following a diagnosis of liver cancer.

Bob Hepple
(1934-  )
Alexander (Bob) Hepple was a lawyer and Communist Party member.  He served as a member of the law faculty at the University of Witwatersrand before resigning to practice law full-time.  He was arrested at Rivonia in July 1963.

While in detention, authorities approached Hepple about turning state's witness.  Hepple seemingly agreed, typed a confessional statement for police and identified the hiding place of Goldreich and Wolpe.  In return, Hepple was released from detention on his promise that he would not abscond.  Much to prosecutor Percy Yutar's disgust, he did--"Such is the reliance one can place on the honor of a Communist!", Yutar later wrote.

At the first session of the trial in October 1963, Percy Yutar announced that the state was withdrawing charges against Hepple and that he would be the state's star witness in the upcoming trial.  Leaving the courtroom that day, Hepple told his former fellow defendants, "Good luck." 

Hepple's escape took him to Kenya.  From the safety of Kenya, Hepple told reporters that he never had any intention to testify against any of the accused, whose values and aims he shared.  He later taught labor and comparative social law in England until 2001, and was knighted in 2004.  He told an interviewer in 2005 that he considered himself  to be "tremendously lucky."

Nelson Mandela Trial Homepage