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The Rivonia Trial & Lilliesleaf Farm


http://ex.matrix.msu.edu/africa/ao_pics/Copyrighted_Images/africana-slaves.jpg Liliesleaf farm raid. © Alf Kumalo, Baileys African History Archives

After the ANC was banned, its leaders decided to form an underground wing of the ANC called Umkhonto we Sizwe or the MK (meaning spear of the Nation). The MK was formed to ‘be at the front line of the people's defence…’ and to ‘be the fighting arm of the people against the government and its policies of race oppression’ (taken from the MK manifesto).

Between December 1961 and July 1963, MK units undertook just over 200 operations, which were mainly home-made incendiary bomb attacks intended to damage public facilities. On the whole these were undertaken in such a way as to minimise the risk of hurting or killing people though MK members were also accused and convicted of attacking policemen and suspected informers. In addition, the organisation despatched more than 300 recruits abroad for military training.

The Lilliesleaf Farm Raid and Operation Mayibuye

Although the bustling suburb of Rivonia has since grown up around the old Lilliesleaf farm house, in the early 1960s it was an isolated farm location, and proved perfect for a time for banned members of the ANC to hide-out from the ubiquitous and highly efficient police and security services. It was also a meeting place for most of the luminaries of the struggle, and many of the defining policies that ultimately saw the overthrow of apartheid were devised on the Farm.

To view a list of the people involved in the trial with links to their biographies, click on the 'people' tab

In the early 1960s a security officer of the Nationalist era, Johan Coetzee, had infiltrated one of his agents, Gerard Ludi, into Umkhonto we Sizwe. Acting on his information, police surrounded Lilliesleaf Farm in Rivonia on 11 July 1963. When the police burst in, they found virtually the entire leadership of the MK: Walter Sisulu, who had skipped bail after facing a six-year jail term; Govan Mbeki; Raymond Mahlaba; Ahmed Kathrada; Lionel Bernstein, of the Congress of Democrats; and Bob Hepple, a lawyer.

At the moment the police came through the door, the six men were studying Operation Mayibuye, an Umkhonto proposal for guerrilla war, insurrection and revolution. Hundreds of incriminating documents were found. They were arrested immediately.  

After the raid more arrests followed, including that of Dennis Goldberg, a Cape Town engineer and Congress of Democrats leader; Arthur Goldreich, who lived on the farm; Harold Wolpe, the lawyer who had used SACP funds to buy the farm; and others. Goldreich and Wolpe later bribed their prison guards and made a spectacular escape.

At the time of their arrest, MK's commanders had met to discuss Operation Mayibuye, a proposal prepared by Joe Slovo and Mbeki for a guerrilla insurgency. The unfolding of the scheme depended on the 'simultaneous landing ... by ship or by air of four groups of 40 highly trained combatants in four different rural areas of South Africa’. In each of these locations these external forces would assume control over a much larger body of several thousand recruits whom they would then arm and train.

The scheme envisaged an initial stage of dispersed rural operations that would be supported by externally derived supplies. The scheme's prospects would depend on the collaboration of foreign governments capable of transporting guerrillas into South Africa by air and by sea.

At the time of the Rivonia raid both Slovo and Mbeki believed that they had already convinced their col­leagues to embrace the scheme. Slovo had left South Africa two months beforehand, travelling to the ANC's exile headquarters to brief Oliver Tambo about the plan. Tambo was enthusiastic about the project, according to Slovo, and certainly the ANC's guerrilla strategy for the next decade or so would reflect many of the strategic presumptions that were evident in Operation Mayibuye. Other important MK leaders, including Mandela, maintained that Mayibuye was just a proposal and an impractical one at that, a view shared by several SACP authorities, including Bram Fischer. Understandably, this was the line taken at the trial of the Rivonia leaders, but it may have been true. Later in prison Mandela would have a heated disagreement with Govan Mbeki over the merits of Operation Mayibuye.

When the Rivonia raid occurred Mandela was already in prison. He had been convicted in November for incitement and leaving South Africa illegally, and was sentenced to three years. During the Lilliesleaf raid the police had discovered documentation implicating Mandela in MK's activities, including notes he made from his readings about guerrilla warfare and a diary he had kept during his African trip. According to Mandela during his trial in late 1962, he had asked Joe Slovo to destroy this material but unaccountably Slovo had failed to do so. In mid-July Mandela was taken from his prison cell on Robben Island to join the group arrested at Lilliesleaf. In October 1963 ten accused, including Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu and Govan Mbeki, appeared in what subsequently came to be known as the Rivonia Trial before Justice Quartus de Wet.

The Rivonia Trial

Before the trial, for nearly ninety days, the men arrested in the Rivonia cottage on Lilliesleaf Farm had been interrogated and detained in solitary confinement. Besides Mandela, Sisulu, Mbeki, the others detained under the 90-day law who became defendants the trial were: Dennis Goldberg; Elias Motsoaledi and Andrew Mlangeni, minor figures in Umkhonto who had been arrested some weeks earlier; Arthur Goldreich, the tenant at Rivonia, an industrial designer who had learned guerrilla tactics in Israel; Harold Wolpe, a lawyer involved in handling the Communist Party's money for purchase of the Rivonia property; and James Kantor, who was not involved in Umkhonto or in politics but was a legal colleague and brother-in-law of Wolpe. Kantor was discharged at the end of the prosecution's case.

Goldreich, Wolpe, and two Indian detainees, Moosa Moolla and A. Jassat, bribed a young guard and escaped from jail on August 11, eventually making their way to Swaziland and then to Tanzania. Probably the most dramatic escape in South African history, their exit from the country infuriated the prosecutors and police who considered Goldreich to be "the arch-conspirator."

The trial started in October 1963 in Pretoria before Justice Quartus de Wet. Ten defendants were brought to trial and charged four counts.  The offenses alleged were: (1) recruiting persons for training in the preparation and use of explosives and in guerrilla warfare for the purpose of violent revolution and committing acts of sabotage, (2) conspiring to commit the aforementioned acts and to aid foreign military units when they invaded the Republic, (3) acting in these ways to further the objects of communism, and (4) soliciting and receiving money for these purposes from sympathizers in Algeria, Ethiopia, Liberia, Nigeria, Tunisia, and elsewhere.

All ten accused were defended by Bram Fischer, who would himself later be jailed for his role in the Communist Party and would remain in prison until he contracted cancer, and the authorities released him to die at home. The chief prosecutor was Dr. Percy Yutar, deputy attorney-general of the Transvaal, a Jew whose intense emotional involvement in the case was said to be due, in part, to his animus toward Jews who were Communists.

Crowds outside the court at the Rivonia Trial. © Bailey African History Archives

Twenty four co-conspirators were listed, including Oliver Tambo, JB Marks, Moses Kotane and Alfred Nokwe, who had all left the country. Surprisingly, Lutuli's name was not listed. One defense attorney thought the exclusion was designed to drive a wedge between Lutuli and the accused.

At the trial, Nelson Mandela chose to make a statement from the dock rather than the witness stand. It provided the scope for a clear and uninterrupted statement of principle. He, his co-accused and their lawyers may also have been worried that if he had submitted himself to cross-examination he would have faced awkward questions. For example, among the documents that the police discovered at Rivonia was his diary of his African journey, with entries indicating that the ANC's plans for guerrilla warfare were already quite advanced by early 1962. In their defence, to avoid the death penalty, the accused were going to insist that Operation Mayibuye, the guer­rilla warfare blueprint, was only a draft and that it had yet to be adopted by the Umkhonto weSizwe (MK) command.

In the opening passages of his defence, Mandela admitted much of the substance of the state's case. He had helped to form MK and he had helped to plan its sabotage campaign. 'Civil war', though, remained an optional 'last resort', one that had yet to be decided upon. The ANC had formed an alliance with the multiracial Communist Party, though the two organisations did not share 'a complete community of interests'.

In his statement, Mandela defended the ANC's alliance with the Communist Party in what was certainly the most explicit commentary on this subject by an ANC leader to date. Mandela said he had been influenced by Marxism but unlike communists he retained admiration for the Western and particularly the British parliamentary system, 'the most democratic in the world'. MK was an African movement, fighting for dignity, for decent livelihoods, and for equal rights.

Mandela ended his statement with an exposition of his personal standpoint:

'Africans want to be paid a living wage. Africans want to perform work which they are capable of ... Africans want to be allowed to live where they obtain work, and not be endorsed out of an area because they were not born there. Africans want to be allowed to own land in places where they work ... Africans want to be part of the general population and not confined to living in their own ghettoes. African men want to have their wives and children with them where they work ...

Above all, we want equal political rights ... I know it sounds revolutionary to the whites in this country, because the majority of voters will be African. But this fear cannot be allowed to stand in the way of the only solution which will guarantee racial harmony and freedom for all...

During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to the 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 to achieve. But if needs be it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die'.

This eloquent testimonial was reproduced in virtually every important newspaper world wide. It would remain for decades to come the definitive expression of liberal African nationalism, cementing Mandela's iconic status in South Africa and - importantly for the ANC - internationally.

June 12, 1964 - The Trial Ends

The gates of the jail on Robben Island

The court sentenced eight of the convicted to life imprisonment. Mandela, Sisulu, Mbeki, Motsoaledi, Mlangeni, and Goldberg were found guilty on all four counts. The defense had hoped that Mahlaba , Kathrada, and Bernstein might escape conviction because of the skimpiness of evidence that they were parties to the conspiracy, although undoubtedly they could be prosecuted on other charges. But Mhlaba too was found guilty on all counts, and Kathrada, on one charge of conspiracy. Bernstein, however, was found not guilty. He was rearrested, released on bail, and placed under house arrest. Later he fled the country.

Below is an extract from the book, From Protest to Challenge, A Documentary History of South African Politics.

‘The accused waved to the audience as they descended below the dock. Outside, as on the preceding day, large numbers of police, some with dogs, stood ready to control the crowds and avoid any embarrassing incidents or disorder. Among some 2,000 people present there were only a few hundred Africans who showed their emotions. They responded to news of the verdict with shouts of Amandla Ngawethu! and the clenched fist and upright thumb of the ANC. Some unfurled banners - "We Are Proud of Our Leaders" - which the police seized. Many sang the African anthem. On the preceding day, the singing of Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika had been led by Mrs. Albertina Sisulu, resplendent in a Xhosa robe and headdress. When Mandela and the others were finally driven away, the crowd again shouted and saluted as the convicted men thrust their fists through the bars and shouted back: "Amandla!" On the same day, all except Goldberg, the one white, were flown to Robben Island, the maximum security prison some seven miles from the shores of Cape Town’.

Denis Goldberg went to Pretoria Central Prison instead of Robben Island (at that time the only security wing for white political prisoners in South Africa) where he served 22 years.

The Impact of the Trial

By imprisoning leaders of MK and the ANC, the government was able to break the strength of the ANC inside South Africa. At the same time this increased international criticism of apartheid. The United Nations condemned the trial and began taking steps to introduce sanctions. Over the next few years there were a few acts of sabotage while the ANC worked on how they could infiltrate South Africa in the absence of an internal structure.

The government's attempt to crush the resistance was effective for the time being. But the end of the 1960s, new organisations and ideas would form to challenge apartheid, and in 1976 the world's attention would be drawn to South Africa again with the June 16 uprising in Soweto.


  • Hermann Giliomee and Bernard Mbenga. (2007). New History of South Africa. Tafelberg Publishers, Cape Town.
  • Bulpin, T.V. (1985). Reader’s Digest Illustrated Guide to Southern Africa, Cape Town: Reader’s Digest Association South Africa, pg 412.
  • Thomas Karis and Gail M. Gerhart. From Protest to Challenge. A Documentary History of South African Politics in South Africa, 1882-1964. Volume 3, Challenge and Violence, 1953-1964, pp. 673-684, Hoover Institution Press, 1977.