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The Rivonia Trial and the Fate of South Africa

by Kenneth S. Broun

Pub Date: Feb. 3rd, 2012
ISBN: 978-0-19-974022-2
Publisher: Oxford Univ.

A law professor revisits the trial that “saved…the very soul” of South Africa.

This latest in the Pivotal Moments in World History series features the dramatic 1963–64 trial of 10 defendants, including Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu and Govan Mbeki, charged with sabotage against South Africa’s apartheid government. Named for the Johannesburg suburb in which all the conspirators except for the already imprisoned Mandela were arrested, Rivonia was a criminal trial with the life of each defendant at stake. It’s remembered, though, for its enormous political dimension, as the forum where the defendants, with considerable help from their extraordinarily talented team of advocates, helped frame the political and moral crisis wrought by the government’s apartheid system. For 25 years, Broun (Law/Univ. of North Carolina; Black Lawyers, White Courts: Soul of South African Law, 2000, etc.) has regularly traveled to South Africa helping to train young lawyers. His familiarity with the country, its legal system and three of the principal Rivonia defense attorneys lends special authority to his presentation and interpretation of the events. Rivonia featured its share of fireworks—an unlikely and successful pre-trial jailbreak by two of the arrestees, a stirring address to the court by Mandela—but Broun is at his best examining the legal subtleties of the trial and the strategies and agendas of the defense attorneys and government officials. All but two defendants were convicted and received life sentences. Dismantling apartheid, transforming South African law and ensuring the primacy of human rights would be the work of future decades, but, as the author demonstrates, all this would likely have unfolded far more violently but for Rivonia.

A taut, intelligent analysis of a dramatic turning point in South African and, indeed, world history.