From Brighton to Pretoria ‘we stand by our leaders’
Some key events from this week in history are reflected in the following reports from the archives of the Argus’s 160-year-old titles
RAGING storms and torrential rain pummelled the south west of England in the second week of June in 1964, but not enough to deter a group of students marching in protest from Brighton to London.
Their objective was to bring attention to a turn of events many thousands of kilometres away that would have farreaching effects that are still felt today.
Remarkably, one of those drenched but determined students would rise to become a president of a democratic South Africa and one among the subjects of that protest would be his predecessor.
The news report of June 13, 1964 – “Marches, petition and vigil in London” – was, of course, a part of the international reaction to the life sentences passed in Pretoria the day before in what the report called “the South African Rivonia sabotage trial”.
The convicted eight – Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Denis Goldberg, Govan Mbeki, Ahmed Kathrada, Raymond Mhlaba, Elias Motsoaledi and Andrew Mlangeni – were, it was thought at the time, lucky to avoid the death penalty. Nearly three decades later, the luck – if that’s what it was – was South Africa’s.
But it came at a cost, not least personally for those most directly affected by the outcome of the trial.
And one of those, back in June 1964, was 21-yearold Thabo Mbeki, one of the party of 60 students at Sussex University who marched in the rain from Brighton to London. He was the son of trialist Govan Mbeki and did not see his father again for decades.
In Pretoria, a sense of how the news was received – and perceived – is evident from the report, “Crowd sings as the sentences are known”.
“As soon as the sentences were heard a section of the crowd outside the court broke into song. Posters were unfolded. One read: ‘You will not serve these sentences as long as we live.’
“After a few minutes police linked arms and pressed the crowd off the streets in front of the Palace of Justice. Natives flowed out over the northwest side of Church Square following the slogan bearers.
“The police used dogs to get people out of an alley leading to the back of the court, where the convicted men will be removed from the building. Other posters read: ‘We are proud of our leaders’, ‘No tears will be shed’, and ‘Sentence or no sentence we stand by our leaders’.
“A troop carrier full of armed policemen left the court in front of a truck carrying the convicted men to jail just before one o’clock.
“As the truck emerged the men pushed their hands out of the barred windows and gave the clenched-fist sign. Hundreds of spectators, both black and white, shouted in recognition.
“The truck was followed by another truckload of armed police. There was no disturbance as the convoy moved off, but the police had to clear a path before Mrs Winnie Mandela could drive off. She was given a big send-off by the crowd which then slowly dispersed.”
If there’s some hint of resignation in that slow dispersal – and, doubtless, the Nationalist government must have felt it had finally wrenched the heart out of a revolutionary movement that had shown its mettle – the “crowd”, the people, were not done even if the setback was immense.
It is likely a different kind of politics would have been possible had different choices been made earlier on – perhaps from 1910.
After the mid-1960s, however, the apartheid juggernaut was all but unassailable for long enough to do immense harm, as reports from the early weeks of June in later years bear out.
In 1973, the implications of urban social engineering – the “apartheid spatial planning” of contemporary idiom – drew attention in a report on the Progressive Party’s Cape congress, which “adopted a resolution issuing a warning to municipal, divisional provincial and central government authorities of the grave crisis within coloured housing in greater Cape Town”.
It was a crisis, the June 11 report spelled out, born of forced removals.
The resolution “specifically called for the re-examination of the proposed Mitchells Plain’s scheme, with a projected total population of 250 000”.
Speaking on the motion, Cape Town councillors Tom Walters and Joan Kantey “said about half of the new houses built by the council were not to house people who urgently needed homes, but to accommodate people who had homes but had been ‘removed’ by the government for ideological reasons”.
The congress passed another resolution – one that is painfully resonant today – “expressing serious concern at the deterioration of social conditions in many areas of the Cape Peninsula, resulting in increased crime, vagrancy and anti-social behaviour”.
“It said the ‘unhappy and dangerous state of affairs’ was primarily the result of government policy, which had destroyed the social fabric of the mass of working people in the Peninsula by shifting thousands of people away from their communities and many miles from their places of work.”
All the while, apartheid itself was, perforce, entering a phase of political contortionism as its custodians sought to make it seem reasonable and workable.
Thus, on June 8, 1974, readers learned of then-sports minister JG Koornhof ’s calculation of an acceptable convergence of race and sport: “Boxing tournaments between whites and blacks could take place only on the basis of multinational international standards.”
However, there was no obscuring the damage or the danger in persisting with a political experiment that was failing even as it began.
Within a decade, the stakes were much higher than the racial politesse of boxing matches.
The second week of June 1986 brought news of the declaration of a national state of emergency “as the crisis in South Africa deepened internally and internationally”.
“Reports of a special cabinet meeting were confirmed as the rand plummeted and police made countrywide swoops on anti-apartheid activists. At the gates of Parliament more than 100 wailing and screaming women from Crossroads were arrested when they displayed placards.
“Sources in the Department of Finance were privately warning that the rand could be expected to dip even lower than 36 cents, particularly after announcements later in the day.”
A subsidiary report that day – “No singing, whistling in detention prisons” – told of Department of Justice regulations determining that “emergency detainees may not sing, whistle or make unnecessary noise”, the punishment for breaking these rules including “corporal punishment for those under 40, the withdrawal of some meals or solitary confinement”.
Singing or no singing, however, the writing was already on the wall.
The end game was initiated by the most prominent of the Rivonia trialists of 1964, Nelson Mandela, who, at about the time of the state of emergency in 1986, decided on his own initiative to engage the government.
The initial encounter did not break the logjam immediately, but, within four years, South Africa was a different country.
Nelson Mandela and his fellow convicted Rivonia Treason trialists, all former political prisoners on Robben Island, return on the fourth anniversary of Mandela’s release from jail. Here they are in the quarry in which the black prisoners were made to dig limestone daily. Some say Mandela’s eyes were damaged by the lime dust.