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  • Writer's pictureMatthew Hahn

The Rivonia Trial, a tribunal play




April 2024 marks the  60th anniversary of the start of the defense in the Rivonia Trial in South Africa, one of the most important political trials of the twentieth century and a turning point in South Africa’s struggle against apartheid [April 2024 also marks the 30th anniversary of the first democratic elections in South Africa]. 


Often referred to as "the trial that changed South Africa,” ten leading opponents of apartheid went on trial for their lives on charges of sabotage.  The ‘accused’ used the courts as a site of struggle. They argued that the law was drawn up without the consent of the majority and enforced to ensure the perpetuation of an unjust system.  Therefore, struggle was be waged to establish a new system, including a legal system that would embody the values of a non-racial constitution that protected human rights. 

The transcripts of the trial provide the basis of a new ‘tribunal’ play* by Mathew Hahn which pares down over 260 hours of testimony and focuses on the less well-known aspect of the trial, that is of Walter Sisulu’s testimony with his defence attorney Bram Fischer, the prosecutor, Percy Yutar, and the Judge, Justice de Wet:

 Registrar: Accused Number 2, how do you plead to the indictment served upon you?

Sisulu: It is the government which is guilty, not me.

Mr Justice de Wet: I don’t want any political speeches here. You may plead guilty or not guilty. But nothing else.

Sisulu: It is the government which is responsible for what is happening in the country.  I plead not guilty.

 

 ……

The more well-known aspect of the trial is Nelson Mandela’s ‘Speech from the Dock’ which concluded with the stirring ‘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 will live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal for which I hope to live for and to see realized. But, My Lord, if it needs to be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.’

The transcripts of the trial are as important today as they were 60 years ago because they speak of the continued need for racial equality, justice and ethical leadership not only in South Africa but throughout the world.   

In partnership with The Liliesleaf Trust UK’s Anti-Apartheid Legacy: Centre of Memory & Learning, The Joffe Trust** and the Royal College of Arts, this project includes a production of Hahn’s play, audio recordings from the original trial and a radio play featuring Tony Award winning actor and cultural activist John Kani [Beauty & the Beast, Black Panther] and Jack Klaff [Star Wars: A New Hope]. 

 

Through educational and participatory outreach workshops and events, the project will work locally with groups around the Centre of Memory & Learning, including students, young people and communities that have lived experience of the issues that are raised by the play and with activists from both the anti-apartheid era and today.

 

If you would like to hear extracts from the radio play, please visit here

 to hear John & Jack take on the roles of Walter Sisulu, Bram Fischer and Mr. Justice de Wet.


* A ‘tribunal play’ is a play created entirely from the verbatim court transcripts of a trial.  The Tricycle Theatre [now Kiln Theatre] in London produced several such plays including The Colour of Justice: the Stephen Lawrence Trial, Srebrenica, Justifying War, Guantanamo, Bloody Sunday & Called to Account.


** The Joffe Charitable Trust was set up by Joel and Vanetta Joffe in 1968.  As a young South African lawyer, Joel represented the defendants in the Rivonia Trial in 1963/4. 


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