On 13 June 1964, Thabo Mbeki knocked on the door of 10 Downing Street to hand in a petition calling on the prime minister, Alec Douglas-Home, to try to save his father, Govan Mbeki, Nelson Mandela and six other ANC activists from being hanged in South Africa.
They had just been convicted at the Rivonia trial of conspiring to overthrow the apartheid state through sabotage. David Cameron has invited the three surviving Rivonia trial defendants – Denis Goldberg, Ahmed (“Kathy”) Kathrada and Andrew Mlangeni – to No 10 on Monday, together with their two surviving lawyers, Lord Joel Joffe and George Bizos SC, to honour them and recognise their contribution to the ending of apartheid and the country’s transition to democracy.
Unlike Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki, who went on to become the first two presidents of a free South Africa, Goldberg, Kathrada and Mlangeni are not household names. Nor did they go on to hold high office. The story of their courage, self-sacrifice and camaraderie 50 years ago, and their integrity and public service in the years since the end of apartheid, stands in stark contrast to the widespread disillusionment with a political establishment now seen as tainted with corruption and patronage. A lot has happened in 50 years, both in the history of South Africa and in the lives of the surviving defendants.
They came to the struggle from very different backgrounds. As Mlangeni has said, “we were a group of multiracial comrades whose aim was to establish a multiracial democracy”.
All three were radicalised very young. Goldberg, the son of communist working-class Jewish immigrants, says his opposition to racism began at the age of six when he and his parents would give food to striking workers. He read engineering at university in Cape Town, but turned his back on a comfortable white middle-class life and joined the Communist party. After the Sharpeville massacre in 1960, when the government introduced draconian legislation banning the ANC and introducing 90-day detention without trial, Mandela set up Umkhonto we Sizwe as an armed wing of the anti-apartheid struggle, and Goldberg went underground to set up a training camp for a campaign of non-lethal sabotage directed at government buildings.
Because there were no schools for Indians in the town where he lived, Kathrada had to leave home when he was eight to go to school in Johannesburg. At the age of 12 he joined the Young Communist League where he met many of the future leaders of the Communist party, and at 17 he left school to work full-time campaigning for Indian political rights. He formed the Picasso Club, a group of radical Indians who painted political slogans on public walls. The day after “Let us black folk read” was sandblasted off the wall of the Johannesburg library, it was replaced with: “We black folk ain’t reading yet.”
In the 1950s he worked closely with Walter Sisulu and Mandela, the three of them spending nearly five years as codefendants in the Treason Trial, at which all 156 defendants were eventually acquitted in 1961. When Mandela went underground that same year, Kathrada was in charge of organising his clandestine meetings.
Mlangeni was only six years old when his father, a labourer, died. The ninth of 12 siblings, he was brought up in a township in the Orange Free State. There were no government schools for black children there and he ended up in a church school when he was 12. He joined the Communist party after attending the offices of the Young Communist League, where he was served tea by a young white woman, an experience he later described as “already freedom”. He joined the ANC in 1954 and was among the first of its members to be sent overseas, to China, for military training in 1961. He was arrested shortly after his return.
The Rivonia trial came after police raided Liliesleaf farm, an ANC safe house, in Rivonia on 11 July 1963. Kathrada and Goldberg were arrested, put in solitary confinement and interrogated under 90-day detention along with Mlangeni, who had been arrested in bed at his home in Soweto. All were subjected to torture and told they would hang. Goldberg’s wife was told his children would be sent away and separated. Mlangeni was given electric shock treatment. But none of them talked.
Sabotage was a capital offence, but all the defendants told their lawyers their only aim was to put apartheid in the dock, whatever the cost to themselves. If sentenced to death they would not appeal. Their bravery was all the more remarkable since from the outset their lawyers warned them to expect the worst. Throughout the trial, once a week at 6am, condemned prisoners in Pretoria prison were hanged. From 6pm the night before, the whole prison would sing in solidarity until the trap door fell.
At the trial, Goldberg offered to take the blame to save his comrades from the gallows – an offer they refused. Mlangeni spoke movingly to the judge about being tortured, but was ignored. All the defendants approved Mandela’s challenge to the judge that if needs be he was prepared to die for a free and democratic South Africa. After life sentences were passed (and for political offences life meant life), Kathrada declined to appeal out of solidarity with the others, despite legal advice that he would probably succeed. He preferred what turned out to be 26 years in prison to breaking ranks.
Between them, the three men served 75 years in prison. Goldberg was not allowed to serve his sentence on Robben Island because he was white, a fate described by Kathrada as worse than his own as he at least had the company of his comrades. Goldberg did, however, share a cell block with Bram Fischer QC, who had led the defence legal team, but was sentenced to life 18 months later for the same offence as his clients. Mlangeni’s wife was hounded by the security police who forced all her employers to sack her, telling them her husband was a rapist and murderer. Goldberg’s parents died while he was in prison.
After his release, Kathrada served for a few years as a parliamentary adviser to Mandela and then became chairman of the Robben Island Museum. Mlangeni started his working life at the age of 69, serving 20 years as an ANC MP, and remains chairman of the ANC ethics commission. Goldberg worked for the ANC for a pittance in London and elsewhere, and after a spell as a government adviser devoted his life to lecturing around the world about the struggle, donating all his fees to the charities he supports in South Africa.
All three live in the most modest accommodation. Mlangeni still lives in the same house in Soweto in which he was arrested. Goldberg lives in a flat in Hout Bay, near Cape Town. Kathrada lives in a flat in a large block in Johannesburg.
On Monday they will be celebrated at a gala event at the Grosvenor House hotel where money will be raised for Global Citizen, a charity that fights poverty and seeks to inspire young people to change the world. On Wednesday, they will be given the freedom of the City of London.
As the student campaign Rhodes Must Fall shows, first in South Africa and now at Oxford, symbols matter. And just as they can inflame, so they have the power to inspire. In this case these men, two in their 80s and one in his 90s, are proof that ordinary people can change the world, and that some victors have no interest in spoils.
source: The Guardian