Mandela and the Others

What can we learn from the 256 hours of audio recordings of the 1964 Rivonia Trial's proceedings?

Still from the film The State Against Mandela and the Others.

On April 30, 2020, Denis Goldberg, a key figure in the armed struggle against apartheid in South Africa, died at his home near Cape Town at the age of 87. In 1964, at the age of 31, Goldberg received a life sentence on charges of sabotage during the legal proceedings commonly referred to as the Rivonia Trial. Goldberg was the only white defendant. The eight other defendants were Ahmed Kathrada, Govan Mbeki, Raymond Mhlaba, Andrew Mlangeni, Elias Motsoaledi, Walter Sisulu, and, of course, Nelson Mandela. The Rivonia Trial occupies a central position in South African history, not only because it sent central members of the African National Congress (ANC) leadership to Robben Island, but also because it rocketed Nelson Mandela to international infamy.

In its obituary of Goldberg, The UK Guardian reminds readers of Goldberg’s defiance at the trial:

Goldberg’s demeanour in court was combative, and, like Mandela, he seemed almost to welcome the idea of a death sentence, which was what most observers were expecting. When the judge handed down life imprisonment, he was equally defiant. His mother, who was in court for sentencing, found herself unable to hear the judge properly, and shouted across to her son: “Denis, what is it? What did the judge say?”, to which Goldberg responded: “Life, and life is wonderful.”

Many studies have focused on Nelson Mandela and the trial, including Mandela’s own memoir, Long Walk to Freedom. While Mandela certainly occupied a central position in both the trial and in the movement prior to his arrest, the documentary The State Against Mandela and the Others (Le Procès Contre Mandela et les Autres), co-directed by French filmmakers Nicolas Champeaux and Gilles Porte, refocuses the narrative on figures often obscured in the shadow of his legacy.

Like Goldberg’s passing, this film shifts the spotlight on the eight other defendants and the legal teams on both sides. On the former especially: that Nelson Mandela did not fight South Africa’s struggle alone.

Still from the film The State Against Mandela and the Others.

The Rivonia Trial has been the subject of many texts, including in the memoirs of several of the defendants; in this sense, The State Against Mandela and the Others contributes little new information to supplement contemporary understandings of the legal proceedings. In other capacities, the film utilizes technological, artistic and narrative devices to connect the audience with the defendants in new and unexpected ways. The backbone of this documentary are the 256 hours of audio recordings of the trial’s proceedings which had never been heard prior to the documentary’s release. Originally recorded on dictabelts, French engineer and historian Henri Chamoux utilized a device known as an Archéophone, enabling him to digitize the delicate vinyl recordings without damaging the original medium. While scholars previously studied the trial by reading transcripts housed at archives throughout South Africa, these recordings shock the senses. The testimonies of Ahmed Kathrada and Walter Sisulu highlight their respective wit and charisma. Hearing Nelson Mandela deliver portions of his “I Am Prepared to Die” speech via these restored recordings strikes a different chord than simply reading the words on a page. His calm, determined delivery reflects even more grace and composure than one could think possible in the face of what he and his compatriots were sure would be death sentences. On the other side, the recordings center state prosecutor and deputy attorney-general of the Transvaal, Percy Yutar, in the middle of the maelstrom, mounting a prosecution against massive popular discontent. The recordings of Yutar, combined with interviews with his son David, highlight the pressures the son of Jewish Lithuanian immigrants faced in his position as state prosecutor (Mandela famously reconciled with Yutar in November 1995).

In addition to the emotional impact of the auditory innovations of this film, the creative team compensated for the absence of photos of the interior of the courtroom through effective and impactful means. Interspersed with newsreel footage and Ken Burns-style pans of historical images, directors Porte and Champeaux commissioned Dutch graphic artist Oerd van Cuijlenborg to animate the courtroom proceedings. As the court prohibited cameras inside the courtroom, these black and white, charcoal-style drawings add to the emotional impact of the documentary, as these eerie sequences highlight the interpersonal dynamics and emotional nature of the trial. The monochrome sketches show Justice Quartus de Wet looming over the defendants; a visual metaphor of the apartheid regime which hung over each of the defendants daily and the death penalties they faced. These visuals unsettle the senses as the voices of those long departed echo across the years and find new life in Cuijlenborg’s graphics.

Inarguably, the most powerful elements of The State Against Mandela and the Others come from interviews with surviving Rivonia defendants, their legal team, and family members of the deceased defendants. Over 55 years since the trial captivated the nation, seeing these icons of the liberation movement on screen engenders pride and awe at the sacrifice these men made in pursuit of freedom and racial equality. In many ways, this documentary is a time capsule. Ahmed Kathrada, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela and Joel Joffe all appear in the film but passed before production ended. In the wake of Goldberg’s passing, this documentary is more valuable than ever. At the age of 94, Mlangeni is the only living member of the Rivonia Trial defendants. Now, more than ever, this film provides an opportunity to revisit this historic moment and consider the lessons of this trial for contemporary South Africa.

Further Reading