On 14 April 1980 the nine accused appeared in the Pretoria Magistrate's Court in one of the most highly publicised South African guerrilla trials, the Silverton and Soekmekaar trial.
The charges brought against the accused were in connection with: the Silverton Bank Siege; alleged plans to attack the Port Natal Administration Board; and an attack on the Soekmekaar police station. The accused were charged with treason; two counts of murder and 21 of attempted murder; robbery with aggravating circumstances; and taking part in terrorist activity. Most of the charges related to the Soekmekaar attack.
All nine of the accused pleaded not guilty on all counts; they also denied that there were plans to attack the Port Natal Administration Board. None of the nine were present at the Silverton siege but they were all accused of the related crimes based on the controversial ‘doctrine of common purpose’ often used during the Apartheid years for political trials. The legal doctrine originates in English law, the general idea being that when a group of people embark on an unlawful or dangerous activity and someone gets hurt, they may be found jointly liable even if it is not clear precisely who caused specific harm.
One of the accused, Benjamin Tau, was additionally charged with conspiring with the Silverton Trio in carrying out the bank siege and of surveying the premises beforehand. Ironically, Tau had been in custody at the time he was meant to be busy surveying the scene.
Two of the accused, Ikanyeng ‘George’ Molebatsi and Benjamin Tau, were also accused of conspiring with the Silverton Trio to launch a sabotage attack on petrol tanks at Watloo near Mamelodi, and of planning to attack the Pretoria West and Villiera police stations.
Tau admitted he had infiltrated the country on a mission to carry out the ‘Watloo’ attacks but denied he had reconnoitred the bank for attack. He said he would not attack a bank as he knew it was against ANC policy. In trying to secure evidence, the police forced Tau to pose for a photograph while pointing at the bank. Ikanyeng Molebatsi further testified that they had decided against carrying out the attack on the Watloo tank farm because too many lives would be lost.
The attack on the Soekmekaar police station on 4 January 1980 was directly linked to support for a local community campaign that was resisting forced removals. The prosecution sought the maximum penalty for the three accused of carrying out the attack on the police station: Johnson Lubisi, Petrus Mashigo, and Naphtali Manana.
Mashigo told the court that the attack on Soekmekaar police station had been intended as ‘armed propaganda’ in protest against the forced removal of communities in the area. Manana added: 'Our intention was to support the residents of that particular local area, to show them that the ANC and Umkhonto we Sizwe will defend them and support them in their endeavor to remain in the place from which they (the police) want to move them forcefully.'
One of the most significant points of argument that kept coming up at the trial concerned the ANC’s policy to avoid bringing harm to civilians. Mashigo testified that during his training cadres were told not to use methods involving the killing of civilians, and that the ANC opposed methods such as the taking of hostages. However, on 28 August 1980, the prosecution managed to prove that one of the accused had held a child hostage in an attempt to avoid arrest, thereby implying that hostage-taking was a method used by the ANC.
The trial came to a close on 27 November, 1980. Johnson Lubisi, Petrus Mashigo, and Naphtali Manana were sentenced to death for the attack on the Soekmekaar police station, in which no one person was killed. The remaining six accused were found guilty of high treason and received jail sentences of between 10 and 20 years. In concluding, the court judge remarked that he considered ‘the rebels of today the leaders of tomorrow’.