1956 Treason Trial
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The Treason Trial was a trial in which 156 people, including Nelson Mandela, were arrested in a raid and accused of treason in South Africa in 1956.
The main trial lasted until 1961, when all of the defendants were found not guilty. During the trials, Oliver Tambo left the country and was exiled. Whilst in other European and African countries he started an organisation which helped bring publicity to the African National Congress's cause in South Africa. Some of the defendants were later convicted in the Rivonia Trial in 1964.
Chief Luthuli has said of the Treason Trial:
- "The treason trial must occupy a special place in South African history. That grim pre-dawn raid, deliberately calculated to strike terror into hesitant minds and impress upon the entire nation the determination of the governing clique to stifle all opposition, made one hundred and fifty-six of us, belonging to all the races of our land, into a group of accused facing one of the most serious charges in any legal system."
In December 1956 many key members of the Congress Alliance were arrested and charged with treason, including the almost entire executive committee of the ANC, as well as the SACP, SAIC, COD. 105 Africans, 21 Indians, 23 whites and 7 coloured leaders were arrested. Ten were women. Many arrestees, including Nelson Mandela, were detained in communal cells in Johannesburg Prison, known as the Fort, resulting in what Mandela described as "the largest and longest unbanned meeting of the Congress Alliance in years." However, white men, white women, black were all held in a separate parts of the jail.
Initially, 156 defendants were charged with high treason. The number of defendants was later reduced to 92. In November 1957, the prosecution reworded the indictment and proceeded a separate trial against 30 accused. Their trial commenced in August 1959. The remaining 61 accused were tried separately before the case against them was dismissed in mid 1960.
Treason trial defendants (during various stages of the trial) included:
- Nelson Mandela, ANC (one of the final 30 defendants)
- Ahmed Kathrada, accused number three, secretary-general of the Transvaal Indian Youth Congress (one of the final 30 defendants)
- Walter Sisulu, ANC (one of the final 30 defendants)
- Stanley Lollan, accused number four, SACPC (one of the final 30 defendants)
- Leon Levy (one of the final 30 defendants)
- Helen Joseph, white trade unionist and women's leader (one of the final 30 defendants)
- Lillian Ngoyi (one of the final 30 defendants)
- Joe Slovo, SACP lawyer (one of the final 30 defendants)
- Duma Nokwe (one of the final 30 defendants)
- Bertha Mashaba Gxowa (one of the final 30 defendants)
- Ida Flyo Mntwana, first national president of the Federation of South African Women, died March 1960 before verdict (one of the final 30 defendants)
- Farid Adams (one of the final 30 defendants)
- Elias Moretsele, ANC leader, died on a few weeks before the trial ended (one of the final 30 defendants)
- Chief Luthuli, known as Chief Luthuli, then-president of the ANC, later released for lack of evidence.
- Alex La Guma, journalist and writer
- Archie Gumede, now leader of the United Democratic Front.
- Ben Turok Academic, now member of Parliament
- Monty Naicker, the Gandhian leader of the Natal Indian Congress
- Ruth First, SACP, journalist and wife of Slovo
- Billy Nair, Trade Unionist in Natal
- Lionel Foreman, lawyer and journalist (indictment withdrawn) and died in 1959.
- Lionel Bernstein, known as Rusty, Congress of the People and Congress of Democrats
- Moosa Moolla, now ANC representative in India.
- Moses Kotane, ANC delegate to the Asian-African Conference in Bandung
- George Peake
- Nimrod Sejake
- Vuyisile Mini, Trade Union leader and musician
- Yusuf Dadoo, leader of the South African Indian Congress
- Z. K. Mathews, academic
- Oliver Tambo, released for lack of evidence, goes into exile to co-ordinate the ANC from abroad.
- Wilton Mkwayi, went into hiding during the 1960 State of Emergency while the other defendants were detained, later arrested and tried during the Rivonia Trial.
- Reggie September
- Piet Beyleveld
- M.B. Yengwa, Natal ANC
- Peter Nthite, ANC youth league
- Patrick Molaoa, ANC youth league
- Debi Singh, SAIC
- Arthur Letele
- Rev. James Calata
- Fish Keitseng
Lawyers for the defence included:
- Israel Maisels, known as Issy Maisels, led the defence team
- Sydney Kentridge
- Vernon Berrangé
- G. Nicholas
- Rex Welsh
- Ruth Hayman
- Bram Fischer
- Norman Rosenberg
- Maurice Franks
- Joe Slovo conducted his own defence
- Nelson Mandela and Duma Nokwe conducted the defence during the state of the emergency after the Sharpeville Massacre, when the trialists instructed their defence lawyers to temporarily withdraw from the case
Other notable figures involved in the treason trial
- Van Niekerk, chief prosecutor
- Oswald Pirow (from January 1958 onwards)
- De Vos, who replaced Pirow after his death in 1959
- Justice F.L. Rumpff, president, who was also a judge at the 1952 Defiance Trial
- Justice Kennedy
- Justice Ludorf, who withdrew when the defence argued he had a conflict of interest
- Justice Becker
- Professor Andrew Howson Murray, Department of Philosophy, University of Cape Town, brought in by the prosecution as an expert on communism.
Defence and Aid Fund
After the British Canon John Collins (priest) learnt about the trial, and the calls for the death penalty, he set up the Defence and Aid Fund for Southern Africa to pay all legal expenses and look after the families of those on trial. This was one of the first examples of foreign intervention against apartheid in South Africa and proved very successful with over £75,000 being raised towards defending those accused.
Significance of the trial
In many ways, the trial and prolonged periods in detention strengthened and solidified the relationships between members of the multi-racial Congress Alliance. Rusty Bernstein wrote:
- "Inter-racial trust and co-operation is a difficult plant to cultivate in the poisoned soil outside. It is somewhat easier in here were ... the leaders of all ethnic factions of the movement are together and explore each other's doubts and reservations, and speak about them without constraint. Coexistance in the Drill Hall deepens and recreates their relationships."
The trial and resulting periods of detention also allowed ANC leaders to consult about the direction of their struggle and the possibility of armed struggle. Ironically, the court found that the ANC was nonviolent just as the ANC was starting to question the effectiveness of this strategy.
In court, the 156 defendants sat in alphabetical order, visibly displayed the multiracial nature of the anti-apartheid movement. While the defendants sat side by side in court, they were strictly segregated in jail. When the trialists took over their own defence during the State of Emergency, they eventually convinced prison authorities to let them meet to plan their defence and white female defendants, white male defendants and black women defendants were brought to the African men's prison. Yet the prison authorities still sought to physically separate these defendants by race and gender in their meeting space. Mandela describes the practical dilemma the proponents of apartheid faced:
- "The authorities erected an iron grille to separate Helen and Leon [Levy] (as whites) from us and a second partition to separate them from Lilian and Bertha [Mashaba Gxowa] (as African women) ... Even a master architect would have had trouble designing such a structure.".
Trial time line
December 1956: 156 anti-apartheid leaders arrested
December 1956 – January 1958: Preparatory examination in a magistrates court to determine if there was sufficient evidence to warrant a trial.
November 1957: Prosecution rewords the indictment and proceeded a separate trial against 30 accused. The remaining 61 accused were to be tried separately before the case against them was dismissed in mid 1959.
August 1959: Trial against 30 defendants proceeds in the Supreme Court.
5 March 1960: Chief Luthuli's testimony begins.
8 April 1960: ANC is declared banned in the wake of the State of Emergency declared after the Sharpeville massacre. Defendants retained in custody for five months and trial resumes without lawyers for several months.
May 1960: Helen Joseph and 21 left-wing white women detained during the State of Emergence embark on an eight-day hunger strike. The children of detainees protest outside Johannesburg city hall.
3 August 1960: Mandela's testimony begins.
7 October 1960: Defense closes.
23 March 1961: Trial adjourned for a week.
29 March 1961: Accused are found not guilty.
- Luthuli, Chief Albert. "The Treason Trial: Forward by Chief Albert Luthuli to a book by Helen Joseph, 1963". ANC official website.
- Sampson, A. (1958). The Treason Cage.
- Mandela, Nelson (1995). Long Walk To Freedom. Little, Brown. p. 149.
- Mandela, Nelson (1995). Long Walk to Freedom. Little, Brown. p. 196.
- Mandela, Nelson (1995). Long Walk to Freedom. Little, Brown, p. ???;
- Sisulu, Elinor (2003). Walter and Albertina Sisulu: In Our Lifetime. Abacus. p. 176.
- Interview with John Collins from the BBC documentary 'World Against Apartheid' (Episode 1 at 14 minutes); 
- Bernstein, Rusty (1999). Memory Against Forgetting: Memoirs of a Life in South African Politics 1938–1964. London: Viking. p. 179.
- Sisulu, Elinor (2003). Walter and Albertina Sisulu: In Our Lifetime. Abacus. pp. 178–181.
- Mandela, Nelson (1994). Long Walk To Freedom: The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela. p. 293.
- "Testimony by Albert Luthuli in the Treason Trial". ANC official website.
- Sisulu, Elinor (2003). Walter and Albertina Sisulu: In Our Lifetime. Abacus. p. 177.
- Sisulu, Elinor (2003). Walter and Albertina Sisulu: In Our Lifetime. Abacus. pp. 177–8.
- Nelson, Mandela. "Testimony at the Treason Trial 1956–60". ANC website.