On 11 July 1963, police raided Liliesleaf Farm at Rivonia, near Johannesburg, and arrested members of the high command of Umkhonto we Sizwe, the armed wing of the African National Congress (ANC). Aggrieved by a general escalation in apartheid policy, the Sharpeville massacre and the banning of the ANC in 1960, these men had resolved to pursue acts of sabotage against the South African regime. Indicted with conspiring to overthrow the government, they were put on trial in Pretoria in October 1963, alongside their co-founder and leader, Nelson Mandela (1918-2013), who was already serving a five-year sentence for related offences. If convicted, they faced the death penalty or life imprisonment.
Mandela declined to give evidence in his defence, but chose instead to make a statement from the dock, highlighting his grievances, outlining his politics and explaining his ideals. The statement took three hours to deliver and is considered a pivotal moment in the history of the development of South African democracy. In it Mandela took pains to deny accusations that he was a communist, or that he regarded the Western parliamentary system as undemocratic. ‘On the contrary, I am an admirer of such a system,’ stated Mandela. ‘The Magna Carta, the Petition of Rights [sic] and the Bill of Rights are documents which are held in veneration by democrats throughout the world.’ His use of Magna Carta, with reference to the British parliamentary and legal systems, purposefully aligned him with the ideals of Western liberal democracy. The whole tenor of the statement promoted a free society within a constitutional democracy, while at the same time using Magna Carta to challenge the authoritarian practices of the apartheid regime.
The Rivonia trial, as it became known, concluded on 11 June 1964. Mandela, together with seven others, was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment. He served a further 27 years before being released in 1990, and was subsequently elected President of South Africa (1994–99).
- Full title:
- I am prepared to die : this is virtually the complete text of the now famous speech in his defence by Nelson Mandela at the Rivonia trial which ended in 1964.
- Nelson Mandela
- Usage terms
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- British Library
- Article by:
- Zoë Laidlaw
The British Empire lasted more than 300 years and spanned the globe. During this time, Magna Carta was used by imperialists to justify global ambition and by indigenous people to demand liberty and justice. Dr Zoe Laidlaw considers the significance of Magna Carta in relation to imperialism.
- Article by:
- Hugh Starkey
- Magna Carta today
For 800 years, Magna Carta has inspired those struggling for rights and freedoms, and many of its core principles are echoed in contemporary human rights legislation. Here Professor Hugh Starkey explores Magna Carta’s legacy as reflected in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the European Convention on Human Rights and the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.
- Article by:
- Alex Lock
Throughout the 20th century, Magna Carta inspired figures across the political spectrum, from suffragists and fascists to those drafting human rights legislation. Dr Alexander Lock explores the charter’s relationship to the Second World War, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and modern America.