Nelson Mandela’s Living Legacy

Nelson Mandela’s Living Legacy | 1956: On Trial for Treason

The immediate after-effect of the adoption of the Freedom Charter was increasing paranoia in the Apartheid state. As Chief Albert Luthuli said of the Treason Trial which came shortly thereafter: “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.”

Nelson Mandela’s Living Legacy
public protest during treason trial
Part of the crowd near the Drill Hall on the opening day of the Treason Trial, December 19, 1956. Unidentified Photographer, Times Media Collection, Museum Africa, Johannesburg.

On 5 December 1956, Nelson Mandela was arrested alongside most of the ANC Executive for “high treason” against the state. Held in Johannesburg Prison amid mass protests, they underwent a preparatory examination in Drill Hall on 19 December, before being granted bail. The defence’s refutation began on 9 January 1957, overseen by defence lawyer Vernon Berrangé, and continued until adjourning in September.

In January 1958, judge (and committed Nazi admirer, who spent time with Hitler in 1938) Oswald Pirow, was appointed to the case, and in February he ruled that there was “sufficient reason” for the defendants to go on trial in the Transvaal Supreme Court. The formal Treason Trial began in Pretoria in August 1958, with the defendants successfully applying to have the three judges — all linked to the governing National Party — replaced.

By the low standards of the time, this was seen as a minor victory for the independence and dignity of the judiciary in South Africa.  In August, one charge was dropped, and in October the prosecution withdrew its indictment, submitting a reformulated version in November which argued that the ANC leadership committed high treason by advocating violent revolution, a charge the defendants denied.

The Treason Trial, which would go on until 1961, was a turning point in the history of the ANC as it marked the beginning of the ascendance of a younger generation — the Mandelas, the Tambos — who embraced armed resistance as the surest way to overthrow apartheid — against the old guard, exemplified by Chief Albert Luthuli, who maintained a belief in non-violent opposition in the spirit of Gandhi. The struggle within the ANC would continue for some years, and ultimately only an outside event — the Sharpeville massacre — would definitely tilt the organisation towards armed struggle.

Read more:

Nelson Mandela’s Living Legacy | 1955: The Freedom Charter and its aftermath

Nelson Mandela’s Living Legacy | 1953: In search of a ‘Freedom Charter’ for the Struggle

Nelson Mandela’s Living Legacy | Early Apartheid and the start of resistance 1947-1949 

Nelson Mandela’s Living Legacy | Marriage, Family…and the ANCYL 1944-1947

Nelson Mandela’s Living Legacy | The Early years in Johannesburg: ’40-’43

Nelson Mandela’s Living Legacy | Clarkebury, Healdtown and Fort Hare: ‘36-’40

Mandela’s Living Legacy | 1918-1928: The herdboy becomes a Thembu prince