In the year of 1963 Walter Sisulu was on the run, He had ‘jumped’ bail — while he waited for his appeal against a six year sentence.
Like his friend Nelson Mandela, Sisulu decided not to leave the country. He was going “underground”. He would fight from the inside.
The police spent many hours trying to find him. One detective followed his wife Albertina everywhere. But Sisulu kept away from his family and friends.
The police could not find him anywhere. But they could hear him talking. His voice was loud and clear on Freedom Radio.
The police arrested his wife. They held Albertina under the 90 Day Act - a small cell, nobody to talk to, little exercise, and nothing to read but the bible. They thought she would soon talk.
But Albertina Sisulu said nothing.
Then, as the story goes, somebody spoke. After two weeks in jail, some body wanted to make a deal. Information for five thousand pounds. The police agreed to pay three thousand. The deal was made.
Sisulu was hiding on a small farm in the white suburb of Rivonia, the police were told. The farm belonged to an architect by the name of Arthur Goldreich.
The police decided to visit the farm. Lieutenant Petrus van Wyk was in charge. He would lead 40 policemen. They decided to raid the farm at one o’clock on the afternoon of the 12th June 1963.
But at the last minute, somebody reminded them of something. Maybe we should get a search warrant, a policeman said.
And so they quickly went to fetch a warrant at the Magistrate’s Court. The court was closed for lunch. At that very time, as the story tells us, Walter Sisulu was not at the house. Only Govan Mbeki and Raymond Mhlaba were there.
At quarter to three, a Volkswagen drove into the driveway of the house in Rivonia. Inside the car was Ahmed Kathrada, Dennis Goldberg – and Walter Sisulu. They were all in disguise.
Sisulu’s beard was gone and he now had a moustache. He was not wearing his glasses and he also had a new hairstyle. Kathrada was wearing dark glasses – and all of a sudden he had a beard. And so did Dennis Goldberg – a very long one.
And then two more cars arrived. The one was carrying Bob Hepple, the other “Rusty” Bernstein. They were going to meet the others.
The police arrived a few minutes later. Van Wyk led the way. He was driving in a dry-cleaners delivery van.
Rusty Bernstein was the first to see them coming – he was standing next to a window. He warned the others. Sisulu, followed by Kathrada, quickly left through the back window. But it was hopeless. The police were everywhere.
Everyone on the farm was arrested. And we mean everyone – the workers and their teenage children included. And when Goldreich and his wife Hazel came home later in the afternoon, they too were arrested.
The police found many things in the house – documents, plans and other secret papers. They said they saved the country from a communist revolution. And none was so proud as Lieutenant Van Wyk. They made him a captain a few months later.
And for some people, the police were heroes. But for many, they weren’t.
After the raid on the house in Rivonia more people were arrested. One of these was a lawyer by the name of Harold Wolpe. We mention his name now because just a month later, Wolpe escaped with three other men – one of whom was Arthur Goldreich, the owner of the farm in Rivonia.
The story of the escape is a long, exciting one. We do not have much space. But let us quickly give you a few of the facts.
A young policeman named Greef was one of the guards at Marshall Square. The 18 year old Greef borrowed a friend’s car one night and smashed it. He needed 45 pounds in a hurry to pay for repairs. So of all people, he asked Goldreich for the money. Goldreich quickly got him the money – he knew a cop who needs money could be very usefuI. And he was.
Goldreich and his friends offered Greeff two thousand pounds to help them escape. Greeff said he needed time to think about it. He only took four hours before he agreed. The plan was quite simple: Goldreich was to hit Greeff over the head with an iron bar, not too hard, of course. Then the four men – Goldreich, Wolpe, Moola and Jassat – would then grab the keys and run for it.
When they got outside, they were to seperate. Goldreich and Wolpe were to leave in a waiting car and go one way. And the other two men were to run another way – and hide themselves in an Indian suburb nearby. The plan was set for a Friday night. But at the last moment, Greeff changed the plan. Some big cops were making an inspection that night, he told them. They had to wait until Saturday midnight. But when the time came, Greeff had some work to do.
He had to lock up a couple of noisy drunks. The men had to wait for another hour. And when the time came, Greeff made another change to the plan. He didn’t want the men to knock him out. He would do it himself. And so he gave the men the keys and went away to knock himself on the head.
The four men left in a hurry – two on foot to the suburb nearby, and the other two to a waiting car outside. But when Goldreich and Wolpe got outside, the car had left already. The driver thought they weren’t coming. They decided to run to another friend’s house, four miles away. They ran for their lives – knowing the cops would be after them in a few minutes. But luck was with them.
On the way they saw a car stop in front of them. A man, on his way home from a party, got out to empty his bladder. Goldreich, can you believe it, knew the man. He ran up to the car – and a few seconds later the two men were on their way to freedom.
Soon every cop in the country was looking for them. Two weeks later, Goldreich and Wolpe, drove over the border into Swaziland. From there, dressed up as two priests, they hired a plane and flew into Botswana. They were free. The other two, Moosa and Jassat, also made it out of the country. But nobody seemed to notice – everybody was too busy looking for the two “big” guys,
Wolpe and Goldreich. Greeff never got his two thousand. He got six years in jail instead. Nobody believed his story mainly because there was such a small bump on his head.
The Rivonia Trial took place in the “palace of justice” in Pretoria. It is a tall grey building and one of the oldest courts in South Africa. The court faces Pretoria’s church square and a huge statue of Paul Kruger.
Those before the court were: Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Dennis Goldberg, Govan Mbeki, Ahmed Kathrada, Lionel Bernstein, James Kantor, Raymond Mhlaba, Elias Motsoaledi and Andrew Mlangeni. the charge was: 192 acts of sabotage, trying to overthrow the government by revolution, and helping a “foreign army” to attack South Africa.
Nelson Mandela was not one of the men arrested at the farm in Rivonia. At that time, he was already in jail he had already served two years of a five year sentence. But he was one of the leaders and he was charged with the others.
At the beginning of the trial, the men were asked to plead guilty or not guilty. Nelson Mandela stood up first and said: “My lord, it is not I, but the government that should be in the dock today. I plead not guilty,”
Then it was Walter Sisulu’s turn. “The government is responsible for what has happened in this country,” he said. “I plead not guilty.”
The judge spoke: “I am not interested in hearing political speeches in answer to the charges,” he said angrily. “You will plead not guilty or guilty, that is all”
But the other men did not listen to the judge. They answered in the same way as their leaders. The judge kept quiet.
The trial lasted for 86 days. State witness after state witness gave evidence against the men. Most of the witnesses had spent at least 90 days in jail.
And nobody will ever forget the witness called Mr X. He was from Durban and had joined the ANC in 1957. People trusted him and he quickly got a high position in the organization. But now he stood in the court and told everything – and more.
And then each of the men in the dock spoke. Nelson Mandela made his famous speech. He told the court and the world about the suffering of his people. He said he did what he had to do. The government left him with no other choice, he said.
After speaking for many hours Mandela ended with the words. “During 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 other men also told the court why they had joined the struggle. They too spoke about the suffering of their people. And they too told the court they did what they had to do. They said some things the court had heard were lies. And other things were true.
But they said nothing about anyone else. They did not want to get other people into trouble . For example, when the prosecutor asked Walter Sisulu about Chief Albert Luthuli, he refused to answer. “I will not say anything about that man,” he told the court.
The judge found all but two of the men guilty. He found Kantor and Bernstein not guilty. And on the morning of the 12th June 1964 the judge passed sentence on the other men. He took only two minutes. He said he did not believe the men were really fighting for the good of their people. He used the words “personal ambition” and finished by saying: ” … the sentence is life imprisonment for all the accused.”
There was silence for a full minute. And then Judge Quartus de Wet stood up and left the court.
The seven men stood up. There were no tears in their eyes. They turned around and waved goodbye. And then they were gone.
Five minutes later, Winnie Mandela stood outside on the court steps. She bravely held the hand of her old mother-in-law. The old woman had come all the way from Umtata. She wanted to be near her son on judgement day. Now she was leaving with a heavy heart” She had lost a son.
But as they stood there, a thousand people began to sing. The police and their dogs pushed the people back. But they sang on – and then the old woman knew they were not alone.
TWENTY YEARS LATER
A full 20 years has passed since that day in Pretoria. But the people have not forgotten. They still demand the freedom of Mandela and the others.
“It’s time they were let free,” say people on the Release Mandela Committee. “In most other countries people do not spend more than 20 years in jail. If they do, you can’t say they are serving life sentences. You must say they are serving death sentences.
“If the government wants lasting peace, they must talk to our real leaders – and not the leaders they choose for us. We all know that Mandela and those with him are the real leaders. We call on the government to let them free – so they can live with their families, with their friends, and with their nation.”
But let us end with the words of Oscar Mpetha, the brave old warrior. Speaking last month at a special meeting in Soweto to remember the men of Rivonia, he said. “The release of Mandela means the freedom of the black man. Let there be action and it is only after we unite that our dreams will come true.”.