United Democratic Front (UDF)

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The Pietermaritzburg Treason Trial, 1984

Context

In the early 1980s the government took steps to control the level of resistance in the country. Its solution was to arrest key people and charge sixteen of them for treason and contravention of the Internal Security Act. The sixteen were Mewalal Ramgobin, Chanderdeo Sewpersadh, Mooroogiah Naidoo, Essop Jassat, Aubrey Mokoena, Curtis Nkondo, Archibald Gumede, Devadas David, Albertina Sisulu, Frank Chikane, Ebrahim Saloojee, Ismail Mohammed, Richard Gqweta, Sisa Njikelana, Samuel Kikine and Isaac Ngcobo. The last four were all members of the South African Allied Workers Union (SAAWU), while the others were members of the United Democratic Front (UDF), the Transvaal or Natal Indian Congress (TIC and NIC) or affiliated organisations.

After the accusation of treason, it took the government five more months to compile a document detailing the treason of which they were accused. The treason charge was based on the accused singing liberation songs and making anti-government speeches, which they had either done themselves or had been on stage when others had done so.

Events before the Trial

The lead up to the trial began in 1984 following an anti-Tricameral Parliament protest, with the arrest of seven people, mainly UDF-connected. Three weeks later they were released after an application to the court. The five UDF members remained underground for five days in order to complete some political business, and then, accompanied by Paul David, took refuge in the British Consulate. This left the British government in a difficult position. It could not expel the UDF men into the hands of the police, but it sat with an embarrassing use of their consulate. The Labour opposition in the British Parliament watched Margaret Thatcher?s actions carefully.

In October 1984 Ramgobin, Sewpersadh and Naidoo decided to leave the consulate voluntarily, and were arrested immediately, while Gumede, David and Billy Nair remained. The arrested three were taken to Pietermartizburg, and were released in December when all political prisoners were released. However, within a few hours the government re-arrested the three together with Mokoena, Nkondo and Jassat from Johannesburg. These six were brought before the Durban magistrate, charged with treason and contravening security regulations and denied bail. The hearing was adjourned until 21 December.

On 13 December the other three decided to leave the consulate, and Gumede and David were arrested immediately and charged with treason together with the other six. On 21 December they all appeared in a packed court. Outside, UDF and NIC officials and supporters waited. The defence lawyer, Ismail Mohomed, tried to get the men released on bail, saying that state documents were completed incorrectly and that the men needed to return to their jobs and community. The hearing was adjourned to give the State time to respond.

On 15 January 1985 the case continued, and the men were denied bail. The state needed time to draw up all the charge sheets, which led to another adjournment. It was becoming clear that the state wished to draw the trial out. The state also arrested more people, adding their names to the accused group to bring their number to sixteen. While this was an organised attempt by the state to break the UDF, it had the opposite effect. Mass rallies and meetings were organised across the country in support of those accused of treason. Allan Boesak called on the government to arrest him as well as he had said similar statements.

Mohamed continued to work to get bail for the accused, and was repeatedly refused. In April 1985 the prosecution suddenly presented the court with the indictments against the men. Procedures were however, not followed properly, which led to chaos in the court. A date was set for the sixteen men to face trial in the Pietermaritzburg Supreme Court. Mohamed continued to object to the proceedings, but then realised that bail application would actually be easier in the Supreme Court. On 3 May 1985 the Supreme Court set bail at R170 000.

The accused and their families appreciated the eventual success of the bail applications, and the sum of money was quickly collected, although the bail conditions were unusually harsh. The accused were to report to a police station twice a day, could not leave the magisterial district, had to surrender their passports, could not communicate with witnesses and, without written permission, could not leave their homes between 9pm and 6am. The trial continued on 22 July under the watchful eye of the international press.

1984. The Star. UDF leaders speak out against the incarceration of fellow activists; Mr Nazeem Pahad(TIC), Rev Frank Chikane, Mr Mohammed Valli, Mr Cassim Saloojee. Photo by Juda Ngwenya

The Start of the Trial

The indictment did not charge the accused with any type of violent action, but suggested that their speeches and actions indicated violent intent. They were also considered guilty of terrorism as a result of their associations and sympathies. The case started in the violent atmosphere that developed after the brutal assassination of Victoria Mxenge, a member of the defence team. The defence argued that while the accused did not deny making speeches where they expressed opposition to apartheid, specific speeches were made by specific people in the group of sixteen, not by all the co-accused simultaneously. For this reason, the defence suggested, it would be better for the state to try them separately or to try only some of the accused. Mohamed further objected to other points, especially that they could not be guilty of violence just because they were members of a certain group. The judge, Justice Milne, agreed with some of the objections, and told the state to give the defence more information on some of the charges. The accused and their supporters saw the Judge?s comments as their second victory after the granting of bail. The state also adjusted the charges as necessary and withdrew some of the charges from certain of the accused.

The Case for the Prosecution

It was now the state?s chance to present their case, which depended primarily on a doctoral political science student, Izak Daniel de Vries. His interpretative testimony was based on the use of the transcripts, tapes and statements collected by the police in an attempt to show that the actions of the accused and their organisations were leading towards the violent overthrow of the government. Much time was spent viewing these tapes.

The state prosecutor, Gey van Pittius, began the case by saying that it was not against the people because of their being anti-apartheid, or against the UDF, but was against the use of the UDF and other leadership by the Revolutionary Alliance to overthrow the state violently. The UDF was used by its leaders and by the African National Congress (ANC) for their own purposes. The State also saw the SAAWU as the same as the South African Congress of Trade Unions (SACTU). The NIC and TIC had also allegedly allied themselves with the ANC. Van Pittius concluded that certain non-violent actions, such as the singing of songs, were used in the development of the violent overthrowing of the government.

De Vries then began his testimony. He was considered an expert, as his field of study was the South African Revolutionary Movement. He said that a revolution did not just happen, but was preceded by certain activities such as the creation of an ideology, the establishment of certain organisations, criticism of the existing system and the creation of a violent climate. Not all actions in this lead up would be violent, but the final aim would be the violent overthrow of the state. De Vies said that it was impossible to prove the claim that the UDF was a front for the ANC, but that it was clear that the ANC saw it in this way as they called on people to support it. The TIC and NIC also helped operations from inside the country. This, he said, became clearer when the use of symbols of the banned ANC appeared at meetings.

The state?s case rested on De Vies? views and his understanding of the term revolution being accepted by the court. It also focused on the historical relationship between organisations and their present relations. De Vries however lacked knowledge on some important issues and made some confusing statements. He had no first hand knowledge of either the organisations to which he referred, or of the accused. He relied fully on the police reports and his own view on revolution.

The prosecution went on to show the videotapes to the court. Only sections of the tapes were shown, and De Vries made comments after the showing of the tapes. Commenting on the showing of this material, the Judge said that with some points nothing could be understood. The aim with the tapes was to show the revolutionary atmosphere at meetings, and in this way to give support to the analysis made by De Vries. The defence objected that by showing only parts of the videos, the full context was lost, and that comment was not always made immediately. Further legal technical problems revolved around disputes over what was actually said, and transcripts of the meetings.

After the showing of the videos, the Judge said that they had failed to establish violence, revolution and treason, and that De Vries? theory did not stand up to examination. The defence accused De Vies of forming opinions and then tying to find evidence to support the opinions. The Judge adjourned the court to give De Vries some more time to arrive at his conclusions. The defence objected to this on the grounds that such research should have been completed prior to the trial. On continuation of the trial, the defence accused De Vries of giving misleading information, as he was not an expert on the organisations. De Vries agreed that he was confused about his role as an expert witness, and admitted that he may have misled the court, as he was not an expert on revolutionary literature.

To protect the witnesses, the next part of the case was held in camera. The defence cancelled the appearance of the first witness after certain objections. The second witness had the press present but not the public, as there had been some case of violence by ANC supporters against another witness. Some of these witnesses admitted that their change in position had occurred during detention, and one cited police violence. The defence claimed it was clear that the witnesses had been ?fed? information in detention, and that other informers had made up information, since they were paid more for better information. By this time it had become quite clear that the state lacked a concrete case against the accused.

The State?s case falters, then collapses

On 9 December 1985, a year after the first seven had been brought to court, the state withdrew charges against all but the four SAAWU trade unionists, and the trial adjourned until 3 February. The state?s case to prove conspiracy and links to the ANC had failed.

When the trial continued, there was a lot less public interest, and it was left to junior lawyers. The prosecution presented a case against the way that the SAAWU had run its trade union. Alistair Lightbody of Wilson Rowntree complained about the change in relationship between employer and employee since SAAWU unionization of his workers. Relations were conflicted, workers lacked discipline and there were continuous work stoppages. Lightbody had written a letter to SAAWU without solution. He also reported cases of violence at Rowntree, and boycotts in New Zealand, Britain and Australia. The State planned to prove that SAAWU had organised strikes together with the Revolutionary Alliance.

The state?s argument on the first day was badly structured and did not keep to the indictment. They were asked to prepare for a continuation on 10 February. The state kept more to the indictment on that day, but still lacked structure. It focused on the fact that Gqweta had held meetings with the ANC and SACTU in Lesotho in 1984 and 1985, and Njikelana with the ANC and Revolutionary Alliance. All four were involved in labour disputes and strikes, and in this way they had furthered the aims of the Revolutionary Alliance. Major Oliver of the Security Police testified on trade union activity under SAAWU.

The defence complained about the way Gqweta had been detained and treated by the police, and got Johnson and Johnson to report on the good way that Gqweta had dealt with labour problems. The defence also questioned Oliver and his involvement in labour negotiations and the ideas he had spread about SAAWU. Another state witness was questioned, and it was found he had been given the choice either to work for the police or to face prosecution.

The state again brought in audio and audio-visual recording obtained by bugging SAAWU offices. The defence found that parts of the tapes were inaudible and that in transcription, only certain parts had been focused on. The Judge found the transcripts untrustworthy, as they contained incorrect translations and unrecorded phrases. The defence also pointed out that there was no way they could be certain that the tapes were originals, and that there was the possibility that the tapes had been tampered with. The Judge agreed with this possibility, and said that tapes should be set aside. As the state?s case relied heavily on the tapes, the defence called for charges to be dropped. This was done and all charges were withdrawn on 23 June 1986.

This brought to an end the lengthy Pietermaritzburg Treason Trial. The state had not succeeded in finding any of the 16 accused guilty of treason, but had managed to keep important leaders out of action for a long time. The State?s case lacked evidence and was badly structured, but still managed to cause problems for the accused and for the organizations of which they formed part.

Last updated : 31-Oct-2016

This article was produced for South African History Online on 30-Mar-2011