South African’s National Liberation Movement

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Rivonia trial

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Evidence in the Rivonia Trial, 1964: Excerpts - W.M. Sisulu

1 March 1964

Born at Ngcobo in the Transkei in 1912 and largely self-educated, Sisulu was a miner, kitchen “boy” and baker`s “boy”, before he joined the African National Congress in 1940 and played a dynamic part in the new policies that led to the campaign to defy unjust laws in 1952. His wife, Albertina, a nurse, became a widely loved and respected leader of women. For many years Secretary-General of the ANC, Sisulu was banned, house arrested and repeatedly harassed by the police. With his close friend Mandela he was one of the accused in the Treason Trial and, in the Rivonia Trial, was the main defence witness, coming under prolonged attack from the prosecutor. An observer commented: “Once Sisulu had taken the measure of the prosecution, it was as if he forgot he was in the witness box. It must have been eleven years since he had last appeared on a public platform and now again he dominated the situation”.

In the course of Sisulu`s evidence, he spoke with authority about ANC policy:

“Since its inception, the ANC adopted a democratic policy. That is, it advocated that there was room in South Africa for all racial groups which existed. It advocated that it should participate in the Government councils of this country. This policy was clearly stated in a document drawn up during the war years in 1943. The document was called `African Claims`. The drawing up of this document was inspired by the Atlantic Charter which was proclaimed then, which inspired many nations of the world that all peoples, irrespective of their colour, will have a future and a stake in their respective countries … (The committee that drafted the document) was the cream of the African leadership, leading intellectuals, leading businessmen, conservatives and communists, all united by their desire to achieve freedom for themselves and for all the people who have made South Africa their home”.

Advocate Bram Fischer, leading Sisulu`s evidence, asked: “Now, Mr. Sisulu, as a background to what eventually made the ANC agree to permit sabotage what happened to all those efforts which had been put forward in 1945?”

Sisulu replied:

“Well, I`d like to mention that both in policy, programme and practice, the ANC adopted the most reasonable and sober attitude for the unity and harmony of its citizens . . . but the Europeans of this country, through their political representatives, were not prepared to accept the line we have chosen to a peaceful settlement of all problems by negotiations. Instead they chose to make South Africa an armed camp . . . With the banning of meetings, banning of organisations and suppressing of all legal methods, it was not possible for Africans to accept this situation. No self-respecting African would accept this situation….

“The Africans in South Africa are among the best informed about events, particularly in their own country. (By 1960) they were aware that in Africa, one country after another was getting freedom and that the ANC, although it was one of the oldest organisations, was not coming anywhere near their cherished ideals. It did not surprise some of us that the people should become impatient…. I was myself convinced that civil war would eventually become inevitable unless the Government changed its policy…. I felt that in the interest of my own people it would be better that we should bring about a state of affairs whereby such violence would be controlled”.

That was the background to the founding of the sabotage organisation, Umkhonto we Sizwe. Since it was felt that the ANC could not afford both Mandela and Sisulu in this organisation, Sisulu himself had remained in the political field. When, in April 1963, he was placed under 24-hour house arrest, it was decided that he should go underground, and continue to organise.

In the course of cross-examination by the prosecutor, Dr. Percy Yutar, Sisulu had an opportunity to expound on ANC attitudes to other races:

YUTAR: . . . that is your solution of the problems of this country-the concept of black and white co-operation?

SISULU: Oh yes. We have absolutely no doubt that as a feasible proposition it is the only answer–no other. The question of what Africa says or anybody else is not the real issue. The question is, what do we feel in this country?

YUTAR: And yet the rest of Africa–I am putting it a bit too high, but many States of Africa are the countries to whom you have appealed for assistance, military and financial?

SISULU: Yes, that is correct.

YUTAR: And they are the countries that are supporting you militarily and financially ?

SISULU: In spite of our policies . . .

YUTAR: And they are the countries who are against this concept of partnership between black and white ?


YUTAR: And notwithstanding that, you still say that can be the position in this country?

SISULU: Of course. I am saying that the position is decided by the people of South Africa, not the people outside…. It merely emphasises the difficulties, and the problems of our organisation, of our policy, and yet we are prepared to stand by it. We educate other people in this country and abroad, that the only solution in South Africa is living together of black and white, and no other….

YUTAR: Sisulu . . . perhaps it is pertinent at this stage just to ask you this: if eventually the non-Europeans got control of the country, what would be the position if the responsible leadership made a few more mistakes and dropped a few more bombs in houses of the whites ?

SISULU: Well, on the question of responsibility insofar as this line is concerned, it is not a question of colour. Europeans have done worse things in this country, they have bombed each other.

YUTAR: I am talking about the responsible leadership that you have referred to that made mistakes–what if they cut away some more railway lines ?

SISULU: I said that the question of being irresponsible is not a question of colour. The leadership of the ANC has demonstrated for the last fifty years that they are most responsible.

YUTAR: Most responsible?

SISULU: Oh yes.

YUTAR: And notwithstanding it, you gave your benign blessing to the creation of Umkhonto and allowed them carte blanche to commit acts of sabotage ?

SISULU: Very much against our feeling. We have tried, by all means, not to get into this situation . . .

THE COURT: And you also have a duty to persuade the people that they are oppressed, is that so?

SISULU: If it`s so, I don`t know if it`s merely a question of persuading the people. It would be a strange thing that the Africans in South Africa are the only people who do not know that they are oppressed….

In re-examination, Advocate Fischer took Sisulu through the record of harassment he had undergone: convicted in 1952 in the Defiance Campaign; convicted a second time for continuing to organise and thus risking ten years in jail; banned from gatherings and again arrested in 1954 for attending a gathering; from 1956 to 1961 one of the accused in the Treason Trial; in 1960 detained during the post-Sharpeville emergency; 1961, twice convicted; 1962, arrested six times, once on the occasion of his mother`s death when people had come to sympathise yet police arrested him for breaking his ban; placed under house arrest; and in 1963 captured at Rivonia and held under the 90-day detention law, during which time he was interrogated by members of the Special Branch several times and offered his freedom if he would give information confidentially about his comrades.

Towards the end of Dr. Yutar`s cross-examination, Sisulu`s anger surfaced. The prosecutor made the remark: “The police don`t arrest indiscriminately”.

SISULU: They arrest many people indiscriminately. For no offence people have been arrested.

YUTAR: Would you like to make a political speech?

SISULU: I`m not making a political speech, I`m replying to your question.

YUTAR: How do you know they arrest people innocently?

SISULU: I know.

YUTAR: How do you know?

SISULU: They arrested my wife, they arrested my son…. They arrest other people.

YUTAR: Yes, without any evidence whatsoever?

SISULU: What evidence?

YUTAR: I don`t know, I`m asking . . .

SISULU: I have been persecuted by the police, Special Branch. If there is a man who has been persecuted it`s myself. In 1962 I was arrested six times. I know the position in this country.

YUTAR: You do?

SISULU: I wish you were in the position of an African. I wish you were an African to know the position in this country!

Sisulu was sentenced to life imprisonment.