Nelson Mandela’s 1962 Arrest

October 25, 2016
By William Gao, Hans Kloc, John Smith


Figure 1 – A Nelson Mandela mural in South Africa

One man’s vision frightens an entire nation

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Figure 2 – Photograph of a young Nelson Mandela

WHO: Nelson Mandela

WHAT: His arrest in 1962

WHERE: South Africa

WHEN: August 5, 1962

WHY: Engaging in anti-apartheid activities

Following World War II, the ruling National Party (a white South African political party) joined forces with Broederbond (a white Afrikaner nationalist group) to implement a system of racial segregation called “apartheid.” Apartheid classified citizens into various racial groups—including “black,” “white,” “coloured,” and “Indian” people—and curtailed the social and civil rights of many non-white citizens. The country’s white minority took exclusive control of the government, and between 1960 and 1983, over 3 million non-white citizens were expelled from their houses and placed into predetermined racial neighborhoods (“South Africa—Overcoming Apartheid”). During apartheid, non-white South Africans were reclassified as secondary citizens and provided with public services inferior to those of white citizens. Thus, millions of people lost not only their right to vote and to serve in politics, but also access to basic amenities of modern life, such as education. These inhabitants also had to carry their passports at all times due to random identity checks conducted by the authorities. They were also prohibited from crossing the border between rural areas and cities without permission. Finally, public facilities in South Africa, such as restrooms, beaches, restaurants and shops, were segregated according to race.

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Figure 3 – Segregation of public facilities in South Africa

Apartheid was not passively accepted by the non-white population. Many protests arose in the early years, the most well-known of which was led by the African National Congress (ANC), an anti-apartheid social justice party. It was around this time that Nelson Mandela began to become more actively involved in the revolutionary struggle. Previously, Mandela had studied law at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg but ended up not finishing his degree due to his involvement in politics (Sampson). By 1950, he was elected president of the Transvaal branch of the ANC, a provincial arm of the organization (Mandela 154-157). Mandela’s commitment to the revolutionary cause made him a target for persecution, and he would eventually be imprisoned for 27 years after his arrest in 1962. This arrest would serve as a critical event in South African history and monumentally impact the face of the revolution.


Figure 4 – First page of Suppression of Communist Act of 1950

To understand why Mandela was arrested in 1962, it is necessary to understand his arrest in 1956. On December 5, 1956, the police arrested Mandela and other leaders of the ANC on charges of treason. These members were charged under the Suppression of Communism Act of 1950, passed by the South African government six years prior. This act banned organizations from challenging policy decisions made by the ruling party. The following trial, known as the “Treason Trial,” would last a total of five years but result in a final verdict of “not guilty,” in large part due to Mandela’s powerful oratory skills and the logical, non-extremist stance he and his colleagues had taken (Oppenheim 378- 379). However, despite the defense’s emphasis on peace, frustrations over the course of the trial, especially the Sharpeville Massacre of 1960 where police fired into a crowd of peaceful protesters and killed 69 people, caused Mandela and other ANC members to question the effectiveness of nonviolent protest. Ironically, the trial in which the court determined the ANC to be nonviolent led them to become so (Sisulu).


Figure 5 – Mandela burning his passport in response to travel restrictions

After the trial, Mandela oversaw the formation of the ANC’s paramilitary wing: “uMkhonto we Sizwe” (abbreviated as MK). Initially tasked with sabotaging government operations, MK also sent members, as well as Mandela, abroad to receive military training for eventual warfare with the government. For this reason, and for violating travel restrictions, on August 5, 1962 police once again arrested Mandela when he arrived back in South Africa. Later on, police detained other members of the ANC at Liliesleaf farm in Rivonia, a suburb of Johannesburg, and discovered plans for Operation Mayibuye, an all-out guerilla warfare plan involving other neighboring African nations against the South African government (Oppenheim 379-380). Raids at other locations affiliated with the ANC also turned up plans for violent struggle, and the state was determined to prosecute the arrested figures, including Mandela, to the fullest extent of the law (Oppenheim 380). The following trial, dubbed the “Rivonia Trial,” would be scrutinized by both the people of South Africa and the entire world.

Wanting to exert pressure on the arrested, the state initially refused to reveal to the defense counsel the charges and who would be charged, making it nearly impossible for the defense to develop a coherent and unified tactic for the courtroom (Broun 30). It was not until the beginning of the judicial proceedings that the defense learned of the charges: 235, which would later be brought down to 193, counts of sabotage (under the newly created Sabotage Act of 1962) and aiding efforts to achieve “objects of communism” (as listed in the Suppression of Communism Act of 1950) (Broun 42). The definition of “objects of communism” was extremely broad, however, and many charges were for “crimes” committed before the Sabotage Act outlawed them. But for most of the accused, the case against them was strong as “many documents were seized which were seriously incriminating” and “some of the plans for sabotage envisaged munitions…which were sufficient to blow up a city the size of Johannesburg” (Nicholson 125). It was clear that many members of the ANC were guilty of criminal offenses and overthrowing the government. Nevertheless, Mandela’s arrest, along with his colleagues, was an act of systemic censorship. More than just a case against “communist elements,” the Rivonia Trial was a way for South Africa to affirm its anti-communist stance to the West and to eliminate the influential members of the ANC, including Mandela, in one fell swoop. It was a “mechanism through which the apartheid government attempted to silence the ANC who were fighting for the political rights of all” (Nicholson 123). As Michael Lobban, a South African academic scholar, argues in his book White Man’s Justice:

For the [apartheid] system to survive internal challenges… political dissidents who might pose any threat to the state had to be rooted out. When in the 1950s and early 1960s, there had been an upsurge of increasingly radical opposition in response to the development of apartheid, the state perceived that the only way to control it was by an intensive policy of prosecution and detention… (quoted in Nicholson 124)

That Mandela’s arrest was an act of censorship can be seen in the government’s reaction to his “I Am Prepared To Die” speech. When called to testify, Mandela instead passionately delivered the cause of the revolutionary movement and made clear his dedication. He highlighted the atrocities of the apartheid government and emphasized how the ANC was driven to violence because of the state. Fearing Mandela’s speech could expose the extent of the crimes of apartheid, the state officially censored Mandela’s speech by banning its publication (Mandela 43-57). Mandela’s arrest was indeed justified by criminal law, but at the root, this critical episode in history was a ruse for the South African state to suffocate a revolution that called for equality.

The politically-motivated arrest and trial of Mandela led to several developments that directly affected all of South Africa. Among these were condemnation from international bodies such as the United Nations and a long-term effect on Mandela himself.These effects impacted his goals as President, such as his efforts to establish a free and open press. However, it is also crucial to understand what the South African government had to gain from censoring Mandela’s ideas from the public, such as the guarantee of white dominance in the nation.

The Rivonia Trial was widely criticized by foreign leaders and international authorities around the world. Perhaps the most famous condemnation came in the form of a United Nations report that determined the South African government repressed activists, including Mandela, through internment, which refers to an indefinite detention without trial (Malhotra 63). This report was a contributing factor to the wide-scale disinvestment from South Africa. On August 7, 1963, during the Rivonia Trial proceedings, the United Nations adopted Resolution 181 calling on all member states to “cease the sale and shipment of arms, ammunition and military vehicles to South Africa,” a policy that was made mandatory in 1977.

The United States also imposed its own sanctions against South Africa to serve as responses to Mandela’s political imprisonment and the endurance of Apartheid, despite strong national and international opposition. Although initially vetoed by President Reagan, Congress passed the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act of 1986, which “banned new U.S. investment in South Africa, sales to the police and military, and new bank loans,” leading to increased pressure on the South African government to repeal apartheid legislation (Knight). These sanctions, propelled by Apartheid and the political imprisonment of Mandela, had devastating impacts on South Africa’s economic relations with the United States. Such macroeconomic disturbances were relayed on a microeconomic scale to all South African citizens. The following graph visually depicts the effect of US trade sanctions on US-South African trade relations.


Figure 6 – Annual trade between South Africa and the United States by sector (Knight)

After being sentenced to Robben Island prison, Mandela was still under constant surveillance and censorship by government officials. The prison actively censored his correspondence with the outside world, including his family (Mandela 202-208). These experiences affected his views on government censorship and shaped the policies he brought forth during his presidency. As president, one of Mandela’s first acts was putting an end to press censorship (Merdeith 547-548).

Mandela’s personal experiences during the Rivonia Trial also impacted the policies he would implement when he was elected president nearly three decades after his imprisonment. Mandela and his fellow imprisoned ANC activists spent much of their prison sentences imagining what a more ideal South Africa would look like (Soudien). During the Rivonia Trial, Mandela and other ANC activists faced charges stemming from the Sabotage Act of 1962 that allowed the court to try Mandela for actions committed legally before the law was enacted. In the legal lexicon, laws such as these are called “ex post facto” laws and constitute a violation of human rights under article 11 of the 1948 United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights

  1. No one shall be held guilty of any penal offence on account of any act or omission which did not constitute a penal offence, under national or international law, at the time when it was committed. Nor shall a heavier penalty be imposed than the one that was applicable at the time the penal offence was committed.

Section 35 of the 1994 constitution of South Africa, passed by the South African Parliament and signed into effect by Mandela, prohibits the ratifying of such “ex post facto” laws, and prohibits other legislative human rights violations such as double jeopardy, denial of the right to silence, and denial to the right to counsel (Constitution of South Africa Sec. 35).

The political arrest and censorship of Mandela’s voice provide insight into the fears of the South African government, including their concern with Mandela’s activism and the power of his words and ideas. The event also emphasizes the racial divide in the country at the time; a white minority reluctant to share power with a black majority.

There is little debate as to how vital a role Mandela and his arrest played in shaping South Africa into the democratic and free country it is today. He was a symbol of hope for the revolutionary struggle and later a global icon of peace and reconciliation. His ability to carry on and to fight for justice, no matter the difficult odds, becomes Mandela’s legacy.


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From Report of the Special Committee on the Policies of Apartheid of the Government of the Republic of South Africa, by Ram C. Malhotra, © 1964 United Nations. Reprinted with the permission of the United Nations.