When put on trial in 1962 for sabotage and other charges, anti-apartheid activist Nelson Mandela expected to be executed. However, because of pressure from the U.S. and other countries, as well as the respect with which he was held by his fellow black South Africans, he and his co-defendants were sentenced to life in prison instead of death.
Kenneth Broun, UNC law professor and one-time Chapel Hill mayor, recently recreated that epochal but little known trial before an audience of 50 Carolina Meadows residents in the Gallery of the Fairways Assisted Living Center. Citing his recently published book, Saving Nelson Mandela: The Rivonia Trial and the Fate of South Africa, Broun explained the racist policies that precipitated the emergence of organized protest.
The trial itself was argued before a judge who had sole authority to declare a verdict and impose sentence. There was no jury. The rationale for that system, one which continues today in South Africa, is that one impartial person, schooled in the law, is in a better position to make a decision than a jury that might be biased or uninformed.
After their attorneys had presented their case, the defendants were permitted to make a statement. Mandela himself spoke for four hours, meticulously detailing the conditions under which black South Africans lived. He admitted that he had engaged in sabotage, although careful to avoid taking human life, insisting that what he did was a response to oppression. He declared with dignity and courage that if executed he would die as a man, his head held high, convinced that his life had been devoted to the cause of liberty.
As is widely known, Mandela was released from prison in 1990, led the negotiations which resulted in the ending of apartheid and, in 1994, was elected the country’s first democratically selected president. After serving for five years, the liberator of his people retired from public office. On July 18, 2012, Nelson Mandela will be 94 years old.
The program on Nelson Mandela was part of the monthly Thoughtful People series organized by Carolina Meadows resident Sam Baron.
By Bill Powers