Nelson Mandela the ‘Champion of African Nationalism’ and a Changed South Africa

02 October 2014

Cultural Studies | Ethnic Studies | History

As many of us have been gripped in recent months by the ongoing trial of Oscar Pistorius, a little over fifty years ago the eyes of the world were again trained on a high profile South African court case. At the height of the Apartheid era, in 1964, ten leaders of the African National Congress (ANC) stood accused of a number of charges, including acts of sabotage, which was, in extreme cases, punishable by death. In what was known as the Rivonia Trial, one of the accused was a man called Nelson Mandela.

Image © The National Archive. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

While millions of people watched the spectacle, one particularly interested party was the British Foreign Office, as seen in documents contained in the recently published Adam Matthew resource, Apartheid South Africa, 1948‒1980, part of the Archives Direct portal. As events unfolded, British officials, together with their US counterparts and much of the world, breathed a collective sigh of relief when a verdict of life imprisonment was passed down, rather than the death sentence, and congratulated each other for not getting involved.

‘I have discussed with my American colleague. We are both profoundly relieved that in the event no death sentences have been passed. In our view this outcome fully demonstrates the wisdom and correctness of British and American action in abstaining in Security Council on the resolution of Rivonia.’

Image © The National Archive. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

It is also interesting to note that British officials clearly saw Nelson Mandela, despite possible communist ties, as an important African leader in a period of growing worldwide condemnation of Apartheid and the advancing anti-Apartheid movement. One highlight of the Apartheid South Africa, 1948‒1980 resource are the biographies and correspondence concerning Mandela and the other accused men.

‘Mandela is a champion of African nationalism and is going to be a popular figure over the whole continent whether we like it or not.’

Image © The National Archive. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

Nelson Mandela would be freed in 1990 and continue the fight to end Apartheid in South Africa and push for equality. In the highly publicised court case of Oscar Pistorius, it is telling that the trial is presided over by a black judge, a clear sign of how things have changed in South Africa following Mandela’s life work. As South Africa and the world mourned the loss of Nelson Mandela in December 2013, his legacy lives on.

‘During my life-time I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.’

Nelson Mandela, in a speech made in his defence at the Rivonia Trial, 20 April 1964. All documents and annotated copies of this speech can be found in Apartheid South Africa, 1948‒1980*, out now.

Full access restricted to authenticated academic institutions who have purchased a license.*

About the Author

Joe Pettican

I am a Development Editor at Adam Matthew Digital, an academic digital publisher of primary source collections for the arts and humanities. Since joining the team, I have worked on a number of great projects across a variety of subjects.