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When SA’s future Parliament sat in a wire cage

Apart from the lamentable tendency to misspell “Gandhi” as “Ghandi”, failing to distinguish between the Treason Trial and the Rivonia Trial would seem to be the most common error even reasonably educated people make when it comes to South African history. Usually, it is the second trial, where Nelson Mandela et al were famously put away for life, that is being discussed. The charge in that case was not treason but sabotage, but this has not prevented a long list of writers from referring to it as the “Rivonia Treason Trial”, or simply just as the “Treason Trial”.

To clarify, the Treason Trial commenced with the arrest of 156 anti-apartheid activists in late December 1956 and concluded on 31 March 1961 with the acquittal of the 30 accused who ended up actually standing trial. The Rivonia Trial, so-named because the evidence was seized and arrests largely made at the ANC’s clandestine headquarters at Lilliesleaf Farm in Rivonia, commenced in late 1963 and concluded around the middle of the following year. This time, all the accused barring Bernstein were found guilty. A number of Treason Trialists were also Rivonia Trialists, namely Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Lionel “Rusty” Bernstein and Ahmed Kathrada, while Bram Fischer acted as defence counsel in both cases. Otherwise, the two cases have little in common.

It is regrettable from a historiographical point of view that the Treason Trial has to a large extent been eclipsed by the subsequent Rivonia case since it was in its own right of enormous significance. The four-plus years of state-orchestrated judicial persecution, which was all that it was at the end of the day, helped weld the disparate elements of the congress movement into a formidable united whole. The apartheid regime quite obviously made a point of ensuring that dissident movements from every race group were represented in the dock. Thus, blacks were represented by the ANC, Indians by the SA Indian Congress, whites by the Congress of Democrats and coloureds by the SA Coloured People’s Organisation. Dissident trade unionists and women’s activists were further included through representatives of Sactu and the Federation of South African Women. Far from this cowing the burgeoning spirit of activism, it stimulated a degree of solidarity and cohesiveness that paid valuable dividends in the difficult years of imprisonment and exile that lay ahead.

Also of great significance was that the Treason Trial did much to kick-start the international anti-apartheid movement. The trial itself conscientised as never before the international community as to the injustice of the apartheid regime, funds were raised the world over to help meet the accused’s living expenses and legal costs and, above all perhaps, these supporting institutions continued to exist, indeed to flourish, long after the trial itself was over. Speaking at the opening of MuseumAfrika’s acclaimed “Tried for Treason” exhibition in 1995, Lionel Bernstein aptly referred to the episode as a “disastrous own goal” by the apartheid regime.

It was the above-mentioned exhibition that stirred my own particular interest in the Treason Trial. I was working at MuseumAfrica at the time, and spent a memorable few months trawling through the papers of Helen Joseph, Bram Fischer and the Rev. Douglas Thompson, as well as interviewing former trialists, in helping put it all together. What naturally also interested me was the disproportionate extent of Jewish involvement in the trial. Of the original 23 white accused, 15 were Jews, including the above-mentioned Bernstein, Joe Slovo, Ruth First, Ben Turok and the Levy twins, Leon and Norman. Moreover, Jews also were prominently represented on the defence team, which was headed by the legendary QC Isie Maisels and included at one time or another the important input of Sidney Kentridge, Norman Rosenberg and Maurice Franks.

What actually led to our exhibition was the availability of the sketches made of the trial’s personalities by Ike Horvitch, one of the Cape Town accused. Horvitch worked closely with us in putting the exhibition together and attended the opening. In the early 1960s, he had relocated to London, and in later life enthusiastically promoted the literary legacy of his late uncle, the famous World War I poet Isaac Rosenberg.

The Treason Trial itself was preceded by a grotesquely extended “Preparatory Examination”, in which evidence was presented to determine whether a trial was warranted. This took place at the old Johannesburg Drill Hall and lasted nearly a year. The 156 accused were forced to sit day in and day out watching documents being presented and handed over. Apart from the boredom they were made to endure, they had no way of earning a living, hence the crucial contribution made by such organisations as the Defence and Aid Fund.

A particularly scandalous incident at the start of the Preparatory Examination was when the accused were forced to sit inside a large iron and wire cage especially constructed for the purpose. It was dismantled after the outraged defence counsel threatened to walk out.

Remarkably, the ruling ANC’s Shell House headquarters are located within site of the old Drill Hall, where many of those destined to rule the country were unjustly confined all those years ago. Obviously, when South Africa made the transition to non-racial democracy in April 1994, many important figures had since died — Oliver Tambo, Helen Joseph and Chief Albert Luthuli among them. Nevertheless, the new government included many surviving former Treason Trialists, including Mandela, Slovo, John Nkadimeng, Reg September, Wilton Mkwayi, Bertha Mashaba and Ben Turok. (Interesting, in the dying years of white minority rule, one former trialist — John Mavuso — actually served in the Cabinet, as a member of the National Party).

One trialist who didn’t live long enough to witness the triumph of his cause was the unfortunately named Jacob Poo. It was my ill fortune to be tasked with contacting the Poo family to invite Jacob to the launch. I dialled the number, and when someone answered, stammered, “M- morning. Is Mr. pP… Mr. P…” I couldn’t do it. Finally, I managed, “Is Mr. P-Po available?”

Well, what would you have done?


  • David Saks has worked for the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) since April 1997, and is currently its associate director. Over the years, he has written extensively on aspects of South African history, Judaism and the Middle East for local and international newspapers and journals. David has an MA in history from Rhodes University. Prior to joining the SAJBD, he was curator -- history at MuseumAfrica in Johannesburg. He is editor of the journal Jewish Affairs, appears regularly on local radio discussing Jewish and Middle East subjects and is a contributor to various Jewish publications.