In December 1956, Nelson Mandela and hundreds of members of the ANC were arrested across South Africa. They were charged with high treason and transported to a jail in Johannesburg. This was a very serious charge which, if convicted, carried a death penalty. Mandela and the ANC had been accused of plotting an overthrow of the ruling, Apartheid supporting, National Party during its Defiance Campaign.
Through out the trial, which lasted until 1961, the South African Government attempted to use its power to ensure that these hundreds of accused were convicted. Mandela talks about many examples of a government conspiracy in this trial. One example is the false testimony of the state’s first witness, Solomon Ngubase. He stated that he witnessed the ANC send two members to the USSR to secure weapons for an overthrow of the government. Later it was revealed that Ngubase was lying and as Mandela says, “Ngubase’s dramatic testimony caused a stir in and out of the court. Here at long last was evidence of a conspiracy.” (211)
Another government action that hindered the accused ability to win the trial was the change of venue it ordered in 1958. The state ordered that the trial be moved from Johannesburg to Pretoria. This was devastating for Mandela, who lived and worked in Johannesburg.
In March of 1961, the Sharpeville Massacre occurred. This event caused anger throughout South Africa, killing 69 nonviolent protestors. This was a crisis for the National Party and South Africa in general.
On March 30, 1960 Mandela was arrested in the middle of the night and placed in unbearable prison conditions. He and hundreds of others were arrested after a State of Emergency was declared by the Government of South Africa. Throughout the next few months, he spent time in prisons that treated political prisoners as if they were animals. They were not given the same food as coloured and white prisoners and, because of the effects of the emergency regulations, were not able to consult with their legal team.
In protest, Mandela’s lawyers left the courthouse and withdrew from the case. This left Mandela and the others to defend themselves, which they accepted. He says about this, “we were angry and eager to take on the state.” (247)
In response to mounting pressure, the government decided to lift the State of Emergency and in early 1961, back under the counsel of his lawyers, Mandela and the other accused were found not guilty of High Treason.