They were good guys, but not terrorists. Why did it take so long for the West to support Mandela?

Sir Nick Stadlen, a former High Court Judge, has made a remarkable new film about the Rivonia trial called Life Is Wonderful: Mandela’s Unsung Heroes.

The 1955 Rivonia treason trial in South Africa was an event of monumental, almost biblical stature. Not just was – is. Nelson Mandela and his comrades were on trial for their lives. The African National Congress leaders had been caught red-handed at a house called Liliesleaf Farm north east of Johannesburg as they plotted a campaign of guerrilla warfare. They had realised that the Apartheid government would never concede democracy to black people in South Africa and that armed resistance was the only way forward. The police found detailed plans for a bombing campaign and details of many key members and activists. 30 of these were put on trial. After years of failed peaceful protest, the ANC had decided to take up arms against a race-based political and social system that deprived them of the rights of freedom and democracy, reduced human beings to brutal slavery and questioned their very humanity.

Sir Nick Stadlen, a former High Court Judge, has made a remarkable new film about the trial called Life Is Wonderful: Mandela’s Unsung Heroes. It’s a clever title because the accused were not executed, as they expected, but given life sentences. The film was recently shown at the British Museum and I hope it gets a global showing. It brought together many of those who were, in one way or another, part of the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa and the UK. Sir Sydney Kentridge, the last surviving lawyer for the accused, introduced the film. Most of the audience were old and grey but their straightforward self-confidence and simple attire suggested that many of them had resisted and fought against apartheid.

None of the accused had criminal records. They were not violent people. Their attempt to start urban guerrilla warfare was a total failure. They had planned to spark a rebellion, but it was not very effective though it gave some hope to black South Africans. We still do not know who betrayed them. They were caught in the middle of planning a campaign of explosions which would not endanger life, but the plans were laid out in their meeting room and attempts to burn them failed. They were good people but not very good “terrorists”.

The remarkable twist at the end of the trial was that the judge, Quartus de Wet, did not, as expected, order the death sentence but given life. Hence the title: Life Is Wonderful: Mandela’s Unsung Heroes.

There are two other aspects to the treason trial. Firstly, many of the white accused were Jewish. Their families had suffered in pogroms in Europe and they were not always welcome in British and Afrikaner South Africa. The Rand Club in Johannesburg for example did not allow Jews or blacks as members until the late 1980s. The white members of the ANC were largely Jewish, and their experience of pogroms in19th and early 20th Century Russia had turned them into hard-line Communists. Joe Slovo, who was one of Mandela’s lawyers, had fled from Russia with his family when he was a child. He was the chief link to the Soviet Union’s Politburo as well as to Castro’s Cuba. All the ANC’s weaponry was supplied by Communist Russian or Eastern Europe. This meant that the African National Congress’s formal speeches and statements were couched in Marxist language and concepts. So was the language of the anti-Apartheid movement. Racist South Africa was also dubbed imperialist, capitalist South Africa.

Incidentally and ironically South Africa’s richest family, the Oppenheimers, owned South Africa’s biggest businesses including De Beers, the diamond company, and Anglo American, the mining company that made South Africa rich. At the end Apartheid more than two thirds of South Africa’s economy was directly or indirectly owned by the Oppenheimer’s or under their control.

I have often wondered if the language of Marxist Leninism by the African National Congress and the Anti-Apartheid Movement was what prevented the UK government and large numbers of non-racist, liberal-minded people giving full support for the end of Apartheid in South Africa. Almost all politicians in Britain would condemn Apartheid but only the hard left shouted for the ANC. Peter Hain whose family were active members of the South African Liberal Party and were forced to leave South Africa, became a tireless campaigner against Apartheid. But he was shunned by the Anti-Apartheid Movement because he would not follow their Marxist jargon or give full support for making South Africa a socialist workers republic. I was told by the late Mike Terry, the Secretary of the Anti-Apartheid Movement, that Hain would not follow the official line.

So, did Apartheid end because of the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1986? I remember being summoned to a press conference in London in 1988 where Chet Crocker, the United States’ Assistant Secretary of State for Africa announced that his aim was to get both the South Africans and Cubans out of Angola and establish the independence of Namibia which was then under South African rule. This, I realised later, was only the beginning of a long march to rescue Southern Africa from apartheid and war. It began with Angola, but it ended in Cape Town.

Richard Dowden
I first went to Africa in 1971 as a volunteer teacher in Uganda and spent nearly two years there. It was the first two years of Idi Amin’s rule. My next trip to Africa was to South Africa in 1979. In 1980 I joined The Times Foreign Desk and then moved to The Independent as Africa Editor when it was founded in 1986. I joined the Economist as Africa Editor in 1995 and became Director of the Royal African Society in 2003. Throughout this time I travelled to Africa continuously and have now visited and written about almost every country on the continent. I made three television documentary films for the BBC and Channel 4 and continue to write and commentate on Africa for various media including The Times, The Guardian, BBC, Al Jazeera and Sky TV. My book: Africa – Altered States, Ordinary Miracles was published by Portobello Books in 2008.

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