Six decades on, Rivonia Trial a cornerstone of SA’s constitutional democracy

Inside the Palace of Justice, Pretoria holding cell were the Rivonia Trialists were kept. Picture: Oupa Mokoena / Independent Newspapers

Inside the Palace of Justice, Pretoria holding cell were the Rivonia Trialists were kept. Picture: Oupa Mokoena / Independent Newspapers

Published Jun 14, 2024


Wednesday June 12 marked 60 years since anti-apartheid activist Ahmed Kathrada, Andrew Mlangeni, Nelson Mandela, Elias Motsoaledi, Walter Sisulu and Govan Mbeki were sentenced to life imprisonment on Robben Island.

The Ahmed Kathrada Foundation commemorated the 60th anniversary of the Rivonia Trial under the theme, “The Rivonia Trial – 60 years on: Reflections on the trial and the role of the judiciary in a constitutional democracy in 2024”.

The event took place at the Palace of Justice in Pretoria, where the actual trial took place in 1964. The sitting was attended by the Kathrada, Sisulu, Motsoaledi and Mlangeni families.

The families of the Rivonia Trialists commemorating the 60th anniversary of the trial at Palace of Justice in Pretoria on Wednesday. Picture: Oupa Mokoena / Independent Newspapers

The programme included a keynote address by Justice Jody Kollapen, reflections from family members of the trialists and a re-enactment of Kathrada’s cross-examination by the Ahmed Kathrada Foundation Youth.

It was a day of reflection for the family members of the Rivonia trialists who spent the day seated in the exact dock where the anti-apartheid activists were sentenced six decades ago.

Ahmed Kathrada Foundation director Neeshan Bolton said Rivonia Trial represented a trial of people who had everything to lose while facing a death sentence.

“I am happy that we were allowed the opportunity to use it. With dedicated people and resources, this court should be used as a centre of learning.” he said.

Justice Jody Kollapen speaking during the 60 years commemoration of the Rivonia Trial. Picture: Oupa Mokoena / Independent Newspapers

Judge Dunstan Mlambo, President of the High Court’s Gauteng Division, in his opening remarks, said the trial was a cornerstone of South Africa’s constitutional democracy.

In his keynote address, Justice Kollapen said the Rivonia Trial should be remembered and reflected upon more often, as it was such a significant event in the history of South Africa.

“The moment allows us as a nation to go back 60 years, unpack what happened in this courtroom and understand why our leaders were in the dock,” he said.

He added that the dock represented something historical, as the accused engraved their names on its benches over the years.

The son of Motsoaledi, Kokoi Motsoaledi, said he was proud that his father was part of those that fought for the liberation of South Africa.

He said when both his parents were arrested, his grandmother took care of him and the family.

“It was always disastrous and it was a difficult time in our lives as a family; people ran away from the us because they did not want to be associated with the Rivonia trialists and people who fought against apartheid,” he said.

Sello Mlangeni also reflected on the struggles they faced from 1962 after his father first went into exile.

“We were sent to Botswana to live with our maternal grandmother after my parents realised that they could both be arrested for their anti-apartheid activism,” he said

He added that he was active in the June 1976 uprising that swept through Soweto. “During the Soweto uprising, the police saw me and realised that I was the son of a trialist. They told me that they would send me to jail to join my father,” he added.

The event ended with a to visit the underground holding cells where Mandela and his comrades were held before when they were sentenced and transferred to Robben Island.

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