South Africa's Nelson Mandela Sentenced to Life

Nelson Mandela
Black youth hold up a poster of jailed leader Nelson Mandela at a mass meeting at Zwide township near Port Elizabeth. REUTERS

In the quiet city of Pretoria last week armed police were almost as thick as fallen jacaranda blossoms. The reason was to be found in the city's solid granite supreme court building where South Africa's most clamorous treason trial was reaching a dramatic climax.

Inside the packed courtroom, nine men (six Africans, two Jews, and one Indian) stood accused of trying to overthrow the South African Government--an offense which can carry the death penalty. The chief defendant was Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, a great hulk of a man, former head of the outlawed African National Congress and popularly known as "Black Pimpernel" for his uncommon skill at eluding the government police.

During the seven-month trial, Mandela told the court that he had acted as "a result of a calm and sober assessment of the situation after many years of oppression and tyranny of my people by the whites." Proudly he admitted that he had been one of the chief leaders of Umkhonto we Sizwe ("Spear of the Nation"), formed in the mid '50s to carry out intensive sabotage. Umkhonto was necessary, said Mandela in his booming voice, "because the government used violence against the Africans on every possible occasion. And government violence can only do one thing and that is to breed counterviolence."

Cash Contributions: The "counterviolence" was quite formidable. According to peppery prosecutor Dr. Percy Yutar, 192 acts of sabotage had been carried out by Umkhonto. Furthermore, the state charged that guerrilla-warfare training camps had been set up in remote corners of Cape Province and cash contributions had been accepted from other African states. But Mandela pleaded not guilty. Rather, he said, "the government should be in the dock."

But the government thought otherwise. Dressed in black and red robes Judge Quartus de Wet solemnly handed down the verdict. Mandela and seven other defendants were found guilty (the ninth man was released but later arrested on different charges) and sentenced to life imprisonment.

Curiously, however, as his sentence was read out, Nelson Mandela's face broke into a wide, triumphant grin. And just before he was led off to a prison truck amid encouraging cheers from the African crowd assembled outside the court, the Black Pimpernel raised his thumbs in a gesture of victory.