L-R: Sisanda Lisa ( South Africa High Commission), Tony Dykes (ACTSA) Pumela Salela (CCELAT aluma / Brand South Africa), John Battersby (Canon Collins Trust), Lord Joel Joffe CBE, John Carlin and Matthew Hanhn. Photo by Helena Nogueira and supplied by John Battersby
Memories of Mandela: - The British Museum held on Friday 13 January 2017
Speech by Lord Joel Joffe CBE:
You can watch the video of his speech
My personal memories of Nelson Mandela are mainly about his leadership and indomitable courage in the 1963 Rivonia Trial. For nine months, I and the other defence lawyers worked with him almost every workday.
My first meeting with Nelson Mandela was in October 1963 in the Interview Room at Pretoria Jail. I as the attorney for the leaders of the banned ANC, and Bram Fischer, George Bizos and Arthur Chaskalson who were the Advocates had just begun our consultation with Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki and the other leaders of the ANC who had been arrested ninety days earlier at the Rivonia Farm in Johannesburg. Nelson Mandela was not present at the start of the consultation as he was already imprisoned on Robben Island serving a five-year sentence under the Suppression of Communism Act.
However, ten minutes into the consultation the door of the Interview Room suddenly was flung open and Nelson Mandela, flown from Robben Island earlier in the morning, strode into the room. Unlike the lawyers clothed in suits and the other prisoners who wore their own awaiting trial clothes, Mandela was clad in South African regulation prison garb for black prisoners – short trousers, open-toed ill-made sandals and a kahki open-necked shirt. He looked hollow cheeked and had lost a great deal of weight. His manner however was as always a friendly, confident leader adapting appropriately to any challenges. After embracing his co-accused and the other lawyers whom he already knew well, he in no way undeterred by his short trousers, quite naturally took charge of the consultation.
We explained to them exactly how serious the charges were against them. They were to be charged for attempting to overthrow the State by violent revolution. Under the Sabotage Act a person could be sentenced to death for throwing a stone through a window with political intent. Accordingly, it was clear that for the offence which Nelson Mandela and the others were charged, death by hanging was almost inevitable if they were found guilty.
Nelson Mandela and his co-accused did not seem phased about this. They explained that their lives were of secondary importance to the cause. They intended that their conduct in the trial would inspire their followers until freedom for all was achieved even if they were imprisoned or executed.
They were not concerned with the legalities of the charge. They were concerned with the politics. They readily admitted that almost all of them had taken part in a political campaign which was designed to bring about the overthrow of the Government. They had no intention of denying these facts in the witness box.
In the light of Nelson Mandela’s instructions, the strategy for the trial became clear. The Government intended the trial to be a ‘show trial’ aimed at discrediting the accused and all they stood for. Nelson Mandela also intended it to be a ‘show trial’, but it would be a trial which would show the world the justice of the cause for which he and his co-accused were fighting, and they would put the Government on trial in the Court of World Opinion.
On the day of the Trial, the Registrar of the Court read the charge “Accused Number One – Nelson Mandela – how do you plead to the indictments served upon you?” Mandela stood up in the dock and clearly and calmly answered “The Government should be in the dock, not me. I plead not guilty”. The other accused followed the same approach all fully aware that if found guilty the likely sentence would be death by hanging.
The prosecution case then began and five months later came to an end.
The defence strategy, driven by Nelson Mandela, was that he would speak from the dock outlining the evils of the apartheid system and the reasons why the ANC after 50 years of non-violent protest, which had achieved nothing other than more oppressive legislation, had no alternative other than to resort to violence against government institutions.
After he had spoken Walter Sisulu and the other accused would give evidence under oath of the appalling impact of the system of apartheid on the lives of the non-white population.
A few days before the defence case began, Nelson Mandela handed me his handwritten statement and asked me to have it typed. This I did and distributed the typescript to the other defence lawyers. It ended with his well known declaration that he was prepared to die for his beliefs.
In consultation with Mandela and the other accused on the proposed speech, we the defence lawyers, pointed out that it could be taken by the Judge as an invitation to sentence him to death and we tried to persuade him to leave it out. However, he was not willing to do this so the speech was handed back to me to be finally re-typed to take account of a few minor amendments.
I could not bear the thought of Mandela being hanged and decided that on the re-typed version I would leave out the “prepared to die” sentence and handed the re-typed speech back to Mandela.
The next day I received a handwritten note from Mandela asking for the sentence I had omitted to be put back with the addition of the words “IF NEEDS BE”, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.
On Monday 23 April 1964, Bram Fischer opening for the defence outlined the defence case and ended “The defence case my Lord, will commence with the statement from the dock by Nelson Mandela who personally took part in the establishment of Umkhonto, and who will be able to inform the Court of the beginning of that organisation and of its history up to August 1962 when he was arrested.”
The Courtroom was packed, divided into two sections – the one for whites, the other for blacks. Armed police stood at every door. Outside the Court in the Square the police dogs bayed and solid lines of policemen scowled at the crowd of singing ANC supporters.
Impeccably dressed in an elegant suit, tall and powerful, looking every bit the leader that he was. Nelson Mandela began very slowly and very quietly to read the statement which he had prepared in a flat even voice. At no stage did he raise his voice very much, or change from the slow, measured speech with which he had started. Gradually as he spoke, the silence became more and more profound until it seemed that no-one in the Court dared move or breathe.
After two and a half hours, he ended:
“Our struggle is a truly national one. It is a struggle of the African people, inspired by their own suffering and their own experience, it is a struggle for the right to live. During my lifetime, I dedicated myself to the struggle of the African people. I fought against white domination and I fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities.”
At this moment, he paused, a long pause, in which one could hear a pin drop in the Court, and then looking squarely at the Judge, he finished, “It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve,” and then dropping his voice very low, he added “but if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die”.
Walter Sisulu then entered the witness box followed by the other accused. All of them stood up brilliantly to cross-examination. Walter’s evidence in a three-day cross-examination was masterful.
At the end of the defence case Justice de Wet found all the accused guilty, except for Rusty Bernstein who was discharged, and adjourned the Court for sentence. The accused were then sent back to Pretoria Jail where we went to consult with them about leading evidence in mitigation of sentence. They were calm, living now in the shadow of death. The strain and tension was becoming almost unbearable, yet the only matter Nelson Mandela and his co-accused wanted to discuss was how they should behave in court when the death sentence was passed. We told them that the Judge would ask the first accused, Nelson Mandela, “Have you any reason why the death sentence should not be passed?” Mandela decided that he would have a lot to say.
He would tell the Court that if they thought by sentencing him to death this would oust the liberation movement, they were wrong; that he was prepared to die for his believes and knew that his death would be an inspiration to his people in their struggle. We pointed out to him that such an address was hardly designed to facilitate an appeal. His answer was simple. If sentenced to death, he would not appeal. He thought that such an appeal might be interpreted by their supporters as an act of weakness.
At the adjournment, all the accused were all sentenced to life-imprisonment.
Bram Fischer and I went to Robben Island to see Mandela and the other accused about an appeal against their life imprisonment sentences, which we recommended as there was every prospect of getting an acquittal for Kathy Kathrada and Raymond Mhlaba.
However they had decided that an appeal would be seen by their followers as a sign of weakness and they wanted their conduct to be an inspiration to their followers.
Such was their solidarity with each other that a decision was made that no appeal by any accused would be made.
It was Mandela’s leadership that saved his own life and those of his co-accused. He was the leader of the other leaders of the ANC and he treated all the accused as co-leaders. No important decision was ever made without the agreement of all the accused. Almost always when there was a discussion with different views, Mandela would turn to Walter Sisulu who had been his Mentor and say “Walter, what is your view on the issue?” and he would listen very carefully and normally follow Walter’s advice.
Throughout the Trial Mandela remained calm, and although angry at times at the behavior of the prosecution and the police, would never raise his voice or in any way become emotional.
Such was his aura as a leader that even the prisoner officials respected him and never dared to treat him in the way that they treated non-white prisoners.
The solidarity of all the accused was incredible. The strain of living together in the shadow of death ought to have been impossible to deal with. There was never any friction amongst the accused, they all supported one another and all looked up to Mandela as their leader and followed his example.
When Mandela was released after 27 years and became President of South Africa, I only saw him on a handful of occasions. I particularly remember two such occasions.
The one was when he was talking at a meeting in London, and noticed me on the outskirts of the audience. With his mischievous sense of humour, he loudly interrupted his speech to say “Oh, I see Joel Joffe there, the man who sent me to jail for 27 years!”.
The other occasion was about two years before his death when his memory and health was failing, he invited my wife and myself to visit him at his home in Houghton. When I was about to leave, he said to me “Joel, when you return to England, would you please pass on my best wishes to Elizabeth”. I said “Elizabeth who?” to which he responded “Elizabeth, the Queen” and went on to say “When I first met her privately at Buckingham Palace, she asked if she could call me Nelson and I said yes. I than asked could I call her Elizabeth and she said yes”. I explained that the Queen and I were not on visiting terms but I would write to her sending his warm regards.
In conclusion, I would mention that this book I have the copy of the typescript of the speech which Mandela gave at his trial which he signed and handed back to me. I also have the note here which he sent me asking me to re-insert his willingness to die. I also have the notes in his own handwriting of what he would have said to the Judge if sentenced to death. They read:
“I meant everything I said. The blood of many patriots in this country has been shed for democracy in conformity with civilized standards.
If I must die, I declare to all that I will meet my fate like a man”.
With thanks to John Battersby for sharing Lord Joffe's speech and these images by Helena Nogueira with us.
ADDITIONAL SPEECHES FROM THE EVENING
Pumela Salela met Mandela after being awarded a Canon Collins Nelson Mandela Scholarship to study for an MBA in the UK. She was particularly inspired by his passion for scholarship and education and she credits Mandela with inspiring her to change career paths, moving towards a role that allows her to represent her country. Pumela is now the UK Country Head of Brand South Africa.
If you would like to listen to the speech by Pumela please click here
John Battersby, who is a former editor of The Sunday Independent in Johannesburg, was the very first person to shake Mandela's hand after his release from prison and he interviewed him many times in the following years. He reminisced about Mandela's humanity, spirituality, and his unique ability to see the "extraordinary" in the "ordinary".
If you would like to listen to the speech by John please click here