1956 Treason Trial

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The Treason Trial was a trial in Johannesburg in which 156 people, including Nelson Mandela, were arrested in a raid and accused of treason in South Africa in 1956.

The main trial lasted until 1961, when all of the defendants were found not guilty. During the trials, Oliver Tambo left the country and was exiled. Whilst in other European and African countries, he started an organisation which helped bring publicity to the African National Congress's cause in South Africa. Some of the defendants were later convicted in the Rivonia Trial in 1964.

Chief Luthuli has said of the Treason Trial:

The treason trial must occupy a special place in South African history. That grim pre-dawn raid, deliberately calculated to strike terror into hesitant minds and impress upon the entire nation the determination of the governing clique to stifle all opposition, made one hundred and fifty-six of us, belonging to all the races of our land, into a group of accused facing one of the most serious charges in any legal system.[1]


In December 1956, many key members of the Congress Alliance were arrested and charged with treason, including almost the entire executive committee of the ANC, as well as the SACP, the SAIC, and the COD. 105 Africans, 21 Indians, 23 whites and 7 coloured leaders were arrested. Ten were women.[2] Many arrestees, including Nelson Mandela, were detained in communal cells in Johannesburg Prison, known as the Fort, resulting in what Mandela described as "the largest and longest unbanned meeting of the Congress Alliance in years."[3] However, white men, white women, and black people were all held in a separate parts of the jail.

Initially, 156 defendants were charged with high treason. The number of defendants was later reduced to 92. In November 1957, the prosecution reworded the indictment and proceeded a separate trial against 30 accused. Their trial commenced in August 1959. The remaining 61 accused were tried separately before the case against them was dismissed in mid 1960.[4]

Treason trial defendants (during various stages of the trial) included:

Lawyers for the defence included:

Other notable figures involved in the treason trial

Prosecutors included:

  • J.C. Van Niekerk, chief prosecutor
  • Oswald Pirow (from January 1958 onwards)
  • De Vos, who replaced Pirow after his death in 1959

Judges included:

  • Justice F.L. Rumpff, president, who was also a judge at the 1952 Defiance Trial
  • Justice Kennedy
  • Justice Joseph Ludorf, who withdrew when the defence argued he had a conflict of interest
  • Justice Simon Becker

Witnesses included:

  • Professor Andrew Howson Murray, Department of Philosophy, University of Cape Town, brought in by the prosecution as an expert on communism.

Defence and Aid Fund

After the British Canon John Collins learnt about the trial, and the calls for the death penalty, he set up the Defence and Aid Fund for Southern Africa to pay all legal expenses and look after the families of those on trial. This was one of the first examples of foreign intervention against apartheid in South Africa and proved very successful with over £75,000 being raised towards defending those accused.[8]

In 1957, the campaigner Mary Benson joined the Defence Fund as its secretary.[9]

Significance of the trial

In many ways, the trial and prolonged periods in detention strengthened and solidified the relationships between members of the multi-racial Congress Alliance. Rusty Bernstein wrote:

Inter-racial trust and co-operation is a difficult plant to cultivate in the poisoned soil outside. It is somewhat easier in here where ... the leaders of all ethnic factions of the movement are together and explore each other's doubts and reservations, and speak about them without constraint. Coexistance in the Drill Hall deepens and recreates their relationships.[10]

The trial and resulting periods of detention also allowed ANC leaders to consult about the direction of their struggle and the possibility of armed struggle. Ironically, the court found that the ANC was nonviolent just as the ANC was starting to question the effectiveness of this strategy.[11] In court, the 156 defendants sat in alphabetical order, visibly displaying the multiracial nature of the anti-apartheid movement. While the defendants sat side by side in court, they were strictly segregated in jail. When the trialists took over their own defence during the State of Emergency, they eventually convinced prison authorities to let them meet to plan their defence and white female defendants, white male defendants and black women defendants were brought to the African men's prison. Yet the prison authorities still sought to physically separate these defendants by race and gender in their meeting space. Mandela describes the practical dilemma the proponents of apartheid faced:

The authorities erected an iron grille to separate Helen and Leon [Levy] (as whites) from us and a second partition to separate them from Lilian and Bertha [Mashaba Gxowa] (as African women) ... Even a master architect would have had trouble designing such a structure.[12]

Trial timeline

  • December 1956: 156 anti-apartheid leaders arrested
  • December 1956 – January 1958: Preparatory examination in a magistrates court to determine if there was sufficient evidence to warrant a trial.
  • November 1957: Prosecution rewords the indictment and proceeded a separate trial against 30 accused. The remaining 61 accused were to be tried separately before the case against them was dismissed in mid 1959.
  • August 1959: Trial against 30 defendants proceeds in the Supreme Court.
  • 5 March 1960: Chief Luthuli's testimony begins.[13]
  • 8 April 1960: ANC is declared banned in the wake of the State of Emergency declared after the Sharpeville massacre. Defendants retained in custody for five months and trial resumes without lawyers for several months.
  • May 1960: Helen Joseph and 21 left-wing white women detained during the State of Emergence embark on an eight-day hunger strike.[14] The children of detainees protest outside Johannesburg City Hall.[15]
  • 3 August 1960: Mandela's testimony begins.[16]
  • 7 October 1960: Defense closes.
  • 23 March 1961: Trial adjourned for a week.
  • 29 March 1961: Accused are found not guilty.

See also


  1. ^ Joseph 1963, p. 14.
  2. ^ Sampson 1958.
  3. ^ Mandela 1995, p. 149.
  4. ^ Mandela 1995, p. 196.
  5. ^ "Sonia Beryl Bunting (1922 - 2001)". The Presidency. Pretoria, South Africa: Government of South Africa. 2010. Archived from the original on 15 February 2018. Retrieved 1 March 2018. 
  6. ^ Mandela 1995.
  7. ^ Sisulu 2011, p. 176.
  8. ^ Interview with John Collins from the BBC documentary 'World Against Apartheid' (Episode 1 at 14 minutes).
  9. ^ "No Easy Walk to Freedom: Nelson Mandela in the Archives – Senate House Library". Retrieved 4 March 2017. 
  10. ^ Bernstein 1999, p. 179.
  11. ^ Sisulu 2011, pp. 178–181.
  12. ^ Mandela 1995, p. 293.
  13. ^ Albert Luthuli. "Testimony by Albert Luthuli in the Treason Trial". ANC official website. 
  14. ^ Sisulu 2011, p. 177.
  15. ^ Sisulu 2011, pp. 177–8.
  16. ^ Nelson, Mandela. "Testimony at the Treason Trial 1956–60". ANC website. 


External links

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