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Nelson Mandela in 2006 (SIPHIWE SIBEKO/REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko/Files)
Nelson Mandela in 2006 (SIPHIWE SIBEKO/REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko/Files)


Indelible global icon Nelson Mandela dies at 95 Add to ...

On March 21, 1960, a crowd of about 10,000 gathered illegally without their pass books at the police station in Sharpeville, a township on the edge of Johannesburg. The police inside panicked and opened fire, killing 69 and injuring almost 200, in a pivotal massacre in the struggle against apartheid.

In the furious aftermath, Verwoerd declared a state of emergency, giving security forces the right to detain people without trial, and banning the ANC along with the PAC. Facing destruction, the ANC responded quickly. Six days after Sharpeville, Tambo made his way to England, and set up an office in exile in London that kept the ANC alive for the next three decades.


In 1961, a year after Sharpeville and five years after it had begun, the Treason Trial finally ended – with a not-guilty verdict. “It is impossible for this court to come to the conclusion,” the judge ruled, “that the ANC had acquired or adopted a policy to overthrow the state by violence” and replace it with a communist regime.

Yet Mandela believed the case marked the beginning of an increasingly brutal and illegal (but officially sanctioned) persecution of blacks – a change that coincided with the country’s willful isolation from its traditional allies. In October, 1960, the Verwoerd government had held a referendum, in which only whites could vote, on whether South Africa should become a republic. When the proposal passed, the government replaced the Queen and the governor-general with a state president, withdrew from the Commonwealth (which had endorsed racial equality, a move engineered by Canadian prime minister John Diefenbaker) and on May 31, 1961, declared the Union of South Africa a thing of the past.

With his country moving inexorably toward totalitarianism, his law firm disbanded and his political organization outlawed, Mandela decided to go underground. Now closer to advocating violence than civil disobedience, he agreed to create a military wing for the ANC.

While in hiding and organizing the guerrilla force known as Umkhonto we Sizwe, or Spear of the Nation (MK for short), he read voraciously, consuming books on military strategy, such as Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz’s classic treatise On War. and liberation struggles written by Mao Zedong, Israel’s Menachem Begin and Filipino rebel hero Luis Taruc.

Early in 1962, Mandela secretly left the country in a bid to rouse support across Africa and in England, before undergoing six months of military training in Ethiopia – the first time he had held, let alone discharged, a firearm.

By July he was back in South Africa and living in a farmhouse in Rivonia, a semi-rural suburb of Johannesburg, that served as a safe house for both the ANC and the communists. He drove to Durban late that month to reconnoitre with some MK saboteurs and was stopped on the way home by police who’d been tipped off that the “Black Pimpernel” was disguised as a chauffeur.

After just 17 months, his escapades as a revolutionary were over. But the authorities didn’t know what he was really up to, and charged him with incitement to strike and leaving the country without a passport.

At his trial in November, 1962, he was found guilty on both charges, sentenced to five years in prison and sent to Robben Island, little suspecting it would be his home for most of the next quarter-century.

The following year, the police raided the ANC safe house in Rivonia, capturing Walter Sisulu and three other ANC saboteurs and seizing stacks of incriminating documents, including a six-page plan for an armed uprising called Operation Mayibuye and notes in Mandela’s handwriting. This time he and nine others were accused of sabotage, treason and plotting a foreign invasion – crimes that carried the death penalty.


The prospect of hanging is said to focus the mind, but in Mandela’s case it did something much more important: Even if it ended in execution, a show trial would give him a platform to plead his case and reach the international press. As a member of the defence team wrote later, “The heart and kernel of this case was not in this courtroom, but in the world outside.”

The trial opened in Pretoria in October, 1963, and concluded the following April with the case for the defence. The first of the accused, Mandela entered the courtroom thin and pale but flashed a huge smile and raised a clenched right fist as he boomed “Amandla,” or power. To which people in the observation gallery shouted “Ngawethu,” or to the people.

Rather than testifying, Mandela delivered a four-hour speech from the prisoners’ dock that concluded:

“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 with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to life for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

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