Rivonia Trial 1963-1964
Often referred to as "the trial that changed South Africa,” in October 1963, ten leading opponents of apartheid went on trial for their lives on charges of sabotage. In arguably the most profound moment in the Nelson Mandela made a speech in the dock in which he condemned the very court he was appearing in as illegitimate. He then proceeded to argue that the laws in place were equally draconian and that defiance of these laws was justified.
The Rivonia Trial and the arrest of the MK high Command highlight a conundrum faced by those in the liberation struggle: the way that justice was often at odds with legality. Liberation movements, while rejecting the legitimacy of the racial minority state, were forced to deal with the legal system – when activists were apprehended they simply could not disregard it.
In the Rivonia Trial, the ‘accused’ addressed this problem by using the courts as a site of struggle. They argued that the law was drawn up without the consent of the majority; it was enforced to ensure the perpetuation of an unjust system, and therefore the struggle would be waged to establish a new system, including a legal system that would embody the values of a non-racial constitution that protected human rights.