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).