JOHANNESBURG (AFP) – As Nelson Mandela spent a fifth day in hospital Wednesday, one of his anti-apartheid comrades recalled the day exactly 49 years ago when they were sentenced to life imprisonment by the apartheid regime.
Mandela’s co-accused Andrew Mlangeni, 87, remembers June 12, 1964, the day of their sentencing, “like yesterday.”
“It is still so clear,” he told AFP, it was a “turning point in the history of South Africa.”
“On that day Mandela accepted his fate and made it clear that he was prepared to die” for the struggle to empower non-white South Africans.
Mlangeni, and a half dozen others, had been arrested almost a year earlier on a farm in Rivonia, north of Johannesburg, during a police raid.
Mandela was already in custody, but Liliesleaf, as the farm was known, was a meeting place for activists plotting against the regime.
It was also the headquarters of Umkhonto we Sizwe, the military wing of the ANC and crucially for Mandela, where he left his diary.
After being convicted by the Pretoria court on June 11, eight men reappeared in the dock to hear their sentence, with some, including Mandela, expecting to hang.
But instead Mandela and seven other anti-apartheid activists were sentenced to life imprisonment.
“As a top suspect, we expected Mandela to get a stiff sentence, but a life sentence still came as a shock,” said Mlangeni who was to himself spend 26 years on Robben Island prison.
“The mood was that of acceptance,” he said, adding that Mandela took the sentence in his stride.
Mlangeni acknowledged the pressure piled on the apartheid regime by the international community likely helped to avoid the death sentence.
“I think they relented. After all they didn’t want us to become the martyrs of the black struggle.”
Ten men initially stood trial. Eight of them were convicted including Mandela, Mlangeni, Walter Sisulu, Ahmed Kathrada, Govan Mbeki, Denis Goldberg, Raymond Mhlaba and Elias Motsoaledi.
Only Goldberg, who was white, was not sent to Robben Island.
But the trial was, in the words of the Mandela Centre of Memory, “arguably the most significant political trial in South African history”.
During his defence, instead of responding to the charges, Mandela chose to make speech that was to electrify the courtroom, South Africa and the world.
It ended with the words: “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.”
The speech was to become the manifesto of the anti-apartheid movement.
“Mandela’s speech on the dock was not only directed to the South African white rulers. He addressed the entire world,” said Political analyst Zamikhaya Maseti.
“He managed to get the attention of the world before disappearing for decades,” he added.
But the sentencing also had a “demobilising effect” on the anti-apartheid struggle.
“The imprisonment of leaders like Mandela, Sisulu and Mbeki created a leadership vacuum,” said Maseti.
Mandela and others were flown to Robben Island off the coast of Cape Town on a military aircraft.
He spent 18 of his 27 years in prison on the island.
On February 11, 1990 he walked free from a Paarl prison just outside Cape Town where he was later moved, to lead political negotiations that paved the way for the country’s first democratic elections in 1994.
The elections saw him elected the country’s first black president, a job he held for a single four-year term.
Today only Mlangeni, Goldberg, Kathrada and Mandela survive.