Address by former president, H.E. Kgalema Motlanthe, on the occasion of the 56th anniversary of the Rivonia Trial
15 July 2019
I salute Isithwalandwe/Seaparankwe Andrew Mlangeni
I salute Isithwalandwe/Seaparankwe, Dennis Goldberg
Salute to Ministers
I salute the leadership of the ANC, COSATU and the SACP
Former Commanders and Commissars of MK
The Association of Ex Political Prisoners
Salute to the leadership of SANCO
Excellencies Ambassadors and High Commissioners
Veterans and Stalwarts of our Movement
Comrades and Compatriots:
The 56th anniversary of the Rivonia Treason Trial is an important milestone in the struggle for a South Africa that is free, democratic, non-racial, non-sexist and economically prosperous.
It is also an important time to reflect on what exactly is the message to all of us today by the actions and decisions taken by these titans of the liberation struggle of our country when they were faced with very difficult choices: to submit or fight – the latter leading probably to paying the ultimate price of losing their lives.
Indeed, it is a critical time to pause and ask each one of us who publicly display some venerated insignias of revolutionaries, comrades and cadres of our struggle.
We must ask ourselves whether we do indeed live and conduct ourselves, consistent with the ethos and values that defined the Rivonia Trialists and their peers.
The question is whether at any time today, any of us would be prepared to leave aside the comfort of our homes, the certainty of our professions and careers so that the rest of our people can have a possibility of a better life.
In posing this question and before engaging in the rich history that surrounds and characterises this place; Liliesleaf, let me quote in part from the statement from the dock delivered by Nelson Mandela which eloquently gives a critical context to the true character of the leaders of yesterday.
[“D]uring my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this 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…”
The afore-stated statement was an expression of the collective position adopted by the trialists. This is captured in a letter written by Braam Fischer dated the 24th June 1964 addressed to young comrades in exile. The letter captures the tenacity, bravery and selflessness of the Rivonia Trialists. I quote the letter in part:
[“I] must tell you of one important event. Some days before the arguments in court, Gavin, Walter and Nelson came to an early morning consultation to tell us about a decision they have taken with regards to the sentence if it turned out to be capital punishment. They have made up their minds that in that event, there was to be no appeal. Their line was that, should a death sentence be passed upon them, the political campaign around such a sentence should not be hampered by any appeal for mercy – or by raising any vain hopes. We lawyers were staggered at first, but soon realised the decision was politically unassailable. But I tell you the story not because of its political wisdom. I want to know what incredibly brave men, you and others, will have to be successors…”
These leaders were prepared to face the ultimate sacrifice for the greater benefit of the struggle. It is a matter of historical record that perhaps had the Rivonia trialists decided to appeal, at least Ahmed Kathrada, Andrew Mlangeni and Elias Motsoaledi may have either been acquitted or their sentences drastically reduced.
As we meet today to remember that trial and draw strength and inspiration from these selfless actions and decisions of our leaders, we must ask ourselves some very serious questions: who among us would be prepared to make sacrifices today for the greater benefit of our people? What is it we are prepared to do, not for selfish benefits but for the common good?
In reality, all these questions are directed at whether we are indeed true revolutionaries; whether the salutary words -“cadres” and “comrades” - have some true meaning or are merely some hollow concepts that are devoid of meaning.
If we are called leaders, what are the things that we are doing to signify that we are the legitimate heirs to the legacy established by these selfless freedom fighters?
More than at any time since we attained our freedom, today we have a responsibility to take stock of our actions, postures, attitudes and behaviour and hold the generation of the Rivonia trialists and their peers as a mirror through which we must reflect on ourselves.
At least, by doing so, we will be honestly commemorating and celebrating these heroes and heroines that have left us such a rich and fulfilling legacy. I will return to this matter later.
Comrades and Compatriots:
When the National Party came into power in 1948, it signalled its intention of unleashing fascist repression by promulgating the Suppression of Communism Act.
The entire democratic movement sensed, correctly so, that there would be serious repression as desperate attempts are made to incapacitate and destroy all revolutionary forces that were ranged against the inhuman system of apartheid and colonialism.
In response, the Communist Party of South Africa (CPSA) pre-emptively decided to voluntarily disband. Rusty Bernstein records that the meeting to disband the CPSA was very short. He recalls that Moses Kotane just said; as from today the CPSA is dissolved.
As correctly sensed by the democratic movement and the CPSA in particular, the apartheid government wasted no time in banishing freedom fighters throughout the length and breadth of our country.
The leadership of the disbanded CPSA decided to reconstitute and rebuild it as the South African Communist Party which was to completely operate underground.
Members of this underground SACP, however, continued to participate in the legal component organisations of the Congress Alliance: the African National Congress, South African Indian Congress, South African Coloured People’s Organisation, Congress of Democrats and the South African Congress of Trade Unions.
However, there were other members of the party who did not accept the disbandment of the party as a tactic. They thought the leadership had a plan B and there was none.
They then constituted themselves as a faction that went by the name, ‘Bafa begiya’ – meaning ‘we will die singing and dancing in our boots’. They had a slogan saying: ‘the rule of the road is to always keep left’ and distinguished themselves with red ties. One of their leaders was Macdonald Maseko who ended up in exile in Swaziland: Eswatini. Madiba was tasked to investigate, through a committee, the activities of the group.
The ANC was banned together with the PAC in the wake of the Sharpeville massacre in 1960. However, the South African Indian Congress, the South African People’s Organisation, Congress of Democrats and South African Congress of Trade Unions were not banned.
Many activists and leaders found a political home in these organisations which were part of the Congress Alliance. Many comrades worked diligently to strengthen these organisations.
It is recorded that Madiba whispered to Walter Sisulu to investigate possibilities of mobilising support for the armed struggle when comrade Walter was about to leave for the World Youth Festival in 1953.
Internally within the country young Africans expressed their frustrations by putting aside some shillings to buy spray guns, using them to symbolise real guns and as an expression of their desire to pick up arms
As we know, the matter of the armed struggle was raised by Nelson Mandela in meetings of the ANC but it was decided that the ANC could not embark on an armed struggle as their programme. He was then allowed to pursue that initiative so long as it was not part of the ANC.
In the meantime, the SACP, as an underground organisation, had already taken a decision to establish armed units. It then detailed Joe Slovo to lead and recruit members of the armed units and to work with Mandela from the ANC to implement this initiative.
As these processes were unfolding, the SACP had already also taken another decision to establish safe venues where it could hold its meetings as an underground structure of the few and selected. That brought about the acquisition of the farm Liliesleaf.
The SACP mandated Vella Pillay who was based in the UK, together with Yusuf Dadoo to visit China and meet Mao Tse Tung to assist in the training of some selected members who will be sent to China to pursue the formation of the armed struggle unit.
It was then that a select group of leading cadres of the SACP were sent to China for training. These were Andrew Mlangeni, Raymond Mhlaba, Wilton Mkwayi, Patrick Mthembu, Stephen Naidoo and Joe Gcabi.
At the end of 1961, the first of the various MK sabotage campaigns coincided with the bestowment of the Nobel Peace Prize on Chief Albert Luthuli, something that worried some people that the violence or the pursuance of the armed struggle may communicate a negative message about the honour bestowed on the ANC President.
This is a matter that continues to send different messages about the stance of President General Luthuli so far as the issue of the armed struggle is concerned.
Luthuli’s reluctance to pronounce on the armed struggle should be understood from the point of view of a recipient of a Nobel Peace Prize, which was for leading a non-violent peaceful struggle.
Noting that Chief Albert Luthuli was already detailed by Moses Kotane, a member of the National Executive Committee of the ANC and a member of the Communist Party of South Africa, on the strategic importance of pursuing the establishment of a politically conscientized armed struggle.
But, as bombs of fury exploded at electric power stations and government buildings, it was clear that the tide had irreversibly turned and there was no going back.
In 1962, Nelson Mandela left the country and reconnected with his old colleague and comrade, O.R. Tambo and together canvassed for military and other forms of support for the liberation of South Africa.
In a short space of time, they visited some numerous countries, especially on the African continent, where they had to work hard to convince most of the leaders from newly independent states, to support the ANC.
The two leaders visited countries such as Tanzania, Mali, Sierra Leonne, Liberia, Senegal, Sudan, Guinea, Ghana, Nigeria, Tunisia, Morocco, Ethiopia, Algeria and England. In Ethiopia, Mandela addressed the conference of the Pan-African Freedom Movement for East, Central and Southern Africa. This was before the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) was established.
While outside the country, Mandela found that in several countries, the PAC had managed to position itself better than the ANC. As Mandela observed, the Sharpeville massacre had given the then PAC much cloud than it had.
Also, to his dismay, he found that a lot of lies had been spread about the ANC as a tribal organisation and MK as the brainchild of the Communist Party and Liberal Party and that the idea was to use Africans as cannon fodder.
Mandela and Tambo had to refute many of these unfounded lies and propaganda being spread about the ANC. By the time he came back home, many countries and leaders had donated weapons and funding to the ANC.
This was to continue in later years and played a huge role in helping our people to make impressive advances in the struggle against apartheid, turning MK into a formidable fighting force that staged many daring and heroic attacks in the heart of the apartheid military and economic edifice.
When he came back, Madiba’s first briefing happened here at Liliesleaf. Walter Sisulu, Moses Kotane, Govan Mbeki, Dan Tloome, JB Marks and Duma Nokwe were in attendance. Mandela briefed his comrades about the false perceptions in several African countries on the non-racial nature of the ANC.
To counter those negative sentiments, he suggested that the ANC should be seen as the leader of the Congress Alliance but without departing from its non-racial principles and positions.
By this time, Liliesleaf was central to the planning, plotting and directing of the nascent sabotage campaigns. Although Michael Harmel also stayed in Liliesleaf at the time, Madiba, the ‘house servant’, kept his distance during the day and only engaged Harmel and worked on MK issues during the night.
Soon, Arthur Goldreich and his family moved into the house as their official residence. Goldreich was one of the first members of MK with his military history from the Jewish National Movement in Palestine. Other additions were several young workers recruited by Thoamas Mashifane from Sekhukhune.
To fully understand their new terrain of struggle, Madiba and others began to voraciously read materials on guerrilla struggles, sabotage and other forms of armed struggle.
As Mandela explains in his book, Long Walk to Freedom, he had to read widely on these matters, including authors such as Blas Roca, the general secretary of the Communist Party of Cuba in their struggle against the Batista regime, the Boer unconventional guerrilla tactics against the British in Deneys Reitz’s book, Commando, as well as writings by Che Guevara, Mao Tse-Tung, Fidel Castro, Edgar Snow and Menachem Begin. He also searched through literature about guerrilla struggles in Kenya, Algeria, Ethiopia and Cameroon.
A decision was taken for Mandela to travel to Natal to brief Chief Albert Luthuli – who was under a banning order. Govan Mbeki raised an objection on the trip, pointing to the potential security risk. But everyone, including Mandela himself, felt he had to go to Natal.
In meetings with Chief Luthuli and other leaders in Natal, Madiba corrected the misperceptions about the non-racial nature of the Congress Alliance held by many leaders on our continent and again made the suggestion of the tactical positioning to deal with those on the continent who were central to the support of the ANC. Luthuli expressed his opposition of outside people trying to dictate policy to the ANC. But it was agreed that more consultations would be made.
Mandela was arrested in Howick, coming back to the Transvaal. He was sentenced to a five year imprisonment for leaving the country illegally. After his arrest, there were attempts to try to divide the Congress Movement by suggestions that because Mandela wanted the ANC to play a leading role in the struggle, over and above other partners in the Alliance, he was betrayed by people who were not happy with his stance, these being especially, his comrades from minority groups. Mandela rejected all these insinuations and continued to commit himself and the ANC to its non-racial principles.
While in prison and for security reasons, Mandela asked his comrades to destroy the notes he had left at Liliesleaf, especially on the armed struggle and the strategies and tactics that he had suggested for sabotage and guerrilla campaigns.
However, because Joe Slovo, Arthur Goldreich and Michael Harmel did not want to lose some of the valuable suggestions that Mandela had written, they decided to put them safe, reasoning that they were too valuable to be destroyed. Indeed, these comrades understood the importance of archival documents and thus tried to conceal the documents hoping that these would, in future, serve as some important sources of historical significance.
At the same time, in October 1962, an important ANC consultative conference took place in Lobatse, Botswana. This was the first such gathering of the ANC since the 1960 banning.
Several reports were presented at this Conference: O.R. Tambo gave a report on the challenges of establishing the ANC in exile; Dan Tloome gave a report on the state of ANC members in the country and Moses Kotane gave a report on the state of the organisation.
One of the far-reaching decisions of the Conference was that Umkhonto we Sizwe had to be under the political command of the ANC. Another decision was that the ANC must continue to intensify its political work among the masses of the people, recruiting more cadres to be part of the struggle for freedom. In other words, the strengthening and intensification of the armed struggle must not replace the political work of the movement.
Inside the country, the ANC continued to operate under very difficult conditions of illegality. But new and ingenious ways were utilised to continue to mobilise our people for freedom. These included the use of one of the state mouthpieces in the form of what was called Radio Fusion – Umsakazo – which beamed in buses, homes and train stations. The ANC found a way of intercepting the signal and then Walter Sisulu used the same government propaganda machinery to send out the movement’s messages.
At this time, the Party had discussed that Liliesleaf was not safe and a new hideout was purchased, called, Travellyne, near Maropeng in the Mogale City. The MK leadership had taken extraordinary precautions with regard to security. As they discreetly operated underground, they went to great lengths trying to ensure comprehensive measures for their safety.
Even though the MK Command had relocated to Travellyne, they came back to Liliesleaf for the last time to conclude their deliberations on Operation Mayibuye as well as to ensure that Sisulu’s distinctly visible tooth gap was addressed so that he could not be easily identifiable. Ahmed Kathrada was dropped at Liliesleaf by Sylvia Niel the previous night in order to attend this last meeting.
As the struggle intensified, with more bombings of government buildings and other economic targets, the apartheid government also increased its efforts to catch those responsible for the attacks. These included sophisticated wiretaps, recruitment of more spies and obviously infiltration of MK structures.
Meanwhile, Mandela was surprised when one day he was moved from Robben Island to Pretoria, where he was kept in solitary confinement. He was not aware of the reasons for this move. It was in Pretoria that Mandela was to realise that the MK High Command was arrested.
Indeed, as Madiba says in his book, the state’s star witness was Bruno Mtolo from Natal. Mandela explained Mtolo as having an excellent memory. Mtolo clearly remembered the time when he was here at Liliesleaf, the things that were discussed, the training he received and the instructions he got. It could also be that Mtolo was even recruited by the security cops before joining MK and was part of the original askaris.
The other star state witness was Patrick Mthembu – one of the first six MK members trained in China. In his testimony, he heaped all blame on Elias Motsoaledi. During one of the consultations with lawyers, Andrew Mlangeni was furious that all the allegation were being shifted to Mostoaledi.
Mlangeni told the lawyers that he was as guilty as Motsoaledi as the two of them worked together. He could not understand why Motsoaledi was made to bear the cross alone. The lawyers thanked him and advised that he should leave the matter to them. That was consummate comradeship!
Again, in any case, MK had already announced itself with leaflets and radio broadcastings that included the intercepting of state propaganda radios. So, there is no doubt that the special branch police would have closely monitored the movements of old ANC members as well as relatives of known and suspected MK leaders and members.
The combination of all these meant that on the on this day of the 11th July in 1963, a laundry van entered the long driveway of the Liliesleaf. It was full of heavily armed policemen. The desperate attempts of the guard at the gate to stop it were futile. All the MK’s High Command leaders who were discussing the document on Operation Mayibuye were arrested.
The documents included the Operation Mayibuye one – the MK plan for guerrilla warfare in South Africa. Thus, in one fell swoop, almost the entire leadership of MK, the High Command, was arrested. Joe Slovo and Braam Fischer were fortunately not at Liliesleaf.
Clearly, the regime was over the moon and they really believed that they had struck a heavy blow to the fight against apartheid. And indeed they were right because Operation Mayibuye was a heroic and spectacular failure. It was to take a number of years before the ANC and MK were to regroup and be able to mount effective campaigns against the regime.
Comrades and Compatriots:
We can spend many hours and even days discussing the events of this place. Indeed, we must make sure that more of our children, our youth and students are brought here to learn about this history. This history belongs to all the people of this country and we must make sure that it is known in the townships and villages of this country. This is the history that must be taught at schools and colleges. We need to have more films about these stories so that the heroism of these leaders is known by each and every South Africans.
But what are the lessons from these leaders of the Rivonia Trial?
1. During the trial, the leadership used the opportunity to communicate a message that we have to fight for our freedom.
2. In his statement from the dock, Nelson Mandela gave a clear rationale for the people of this country to fight for their freedom. And for many years, his words inspired many freedom fighters. I urge all of you to read the whole statement as it gives a clear perspective on why there was the need to engage in the struggle for freedom.
3. Mandela used the court to communicate the message and articulate the values of the ANC as contained in the Freedom Charter and juxtaposed those with the racist ideology of apartheid.
4. By their decision not to appeal the death sentence as alluded to above, they communicated the message of highest level of sacrifice. That message is still relevant today where we see many people using the organisation of these heroes to get rich at the expense of the people; to steal from the masses and engage in corruption and maleficence while people wallow in poverty.
5. These were leaders who would not ask others to do things they were not prepared to do. They never believed that they were entitled to better treatment and better life while their people were subjected to oppression and exploitation.
6. The 56th anniversary of the Rivonia Trial is an occasion to call for leaders that are responsible; leaders that have morals; leaders that are guided by the highest ethos, ethics and standards.
7. Leaders have to properly plan ahead so as to liberate their people from oppression, from hunger, poverty and degradation.
8. Leaders must be bold to help our people and communities what freedom is; to help instil the sense of responsibility and ensure that all our people demonstrate in theory and action, that they are their own liberators.
9. The ANC and Alliance leaders at all levels, must be prepared to take extraordinary steps for the betterment of our people; do work not for personal gain but for the improvement of our localities, communities and society as a whole.
10. ANC and Alliance leaders must volunteer their time and sacrifice to do community work, not merely for elections. But to have programmes of volunteerism whereby every weekend, month, there are community activities, without using state resources and refuse to use these opportunities to give government money to friends and relatives.
11. Leaders must adopt young people and have mentoring programmes. This includes helping with extra lessons for students, helping in sporting activities and counselling drug and alcohol addicts. The best way to train young people is to give them responsibilities
12. The distinctive issue for us to learn, as the ANC and democratic formations, is that for the 30 years that the ANC was in exile, only three Consultative Conferences were held: in Lobaste Botswana, in Kabwe, Zambia and Morgoro, Tanzania. All these three Conferences were consultative Conferences which emerged with decisive and progressive resolutions and defined a substantive programme of action in matters of mass mobilisation, the internationalisation of the programme of the ANC as well as advancing political education within the membership and leadership of the ANC. This is a lesson for us to juxtapose with our current policy and elective conferences which to a larger extent have been eroded by leadership elections and not much implementation of the resolutions and programme of action.
13. I would also emphasise this last lesson as I conclude that; as a general rule, victory always goes to those with the clearest understanding of what the next step is. If you embark on any campaign without working out what the next step is, you are inviting defeat.
Lastly I wish to quite from the Freedom Charter that: “Let all who love their people and country now say, as we say here: “These freedoms we will fight for, side by side, throughout our lives, until we have won our liberty.”
Thank you for your kind attention.
Issued by Alex Mohubetswane Mashilo, National Spokesperson & Head of Communications, SACP, 15 July 2019