Shortly after returning to South Africa, in October of 1962, Nelson Mandela was captured by the police. Mandela had been at the top of the nation’s most-wanted fugitives list. He was put on trial and convicted of inciting people to strike, and leaving the country without a passport. At this time, the courts did not have evidence connecting him to Umkhonto we Sizwe. He was sentenced to five years in prison and began serving the sentence at the Pretoria local prison.
In May of 1963, Mandela and three other political prisoners were transferred to a prison facility on Robben Island. This was his first experience at Robben Island, which he described as the best prison he had ever seen. In July of 1963, just nine months into his sentence, Mandela was charged with sabotage and faced another long and well-publicized trial.
On October 9, 1963, the famous Rivonia Trial began at the Palace of Justice in Pretoria. The magnitude of this trial was enormous and was depicted as “the most significant political trial in the history of South Africa” (351). Mandela was charged with Sabotage after evidence was discovered that he, and others in the ANC, were planning for guerrilla warfare in South Africa. The main piece of evidence in this case was the plan, known as Operation Mayibuye. Mandela insisted that this was only a plan for guerrilla warfare and that it was not going to be implemented.
“We were not concerned with getting off or lessening our punishment, but with having the trial strengthen the cause for which we were all struggling – at whatever cost to ourselves” (360).
Mandela never denied that he planned acts of sabotage against the government, knowing that a conviction could result in the death penalty. He always contended that he believed violence had become necessary because decades of nonviolence by the ANC had not produced any positive results for blacks.
Mandela was the “first accused” at the Rivonia Trial and his testimony, as a witness for the defense, is possibly his most famous speech. He ended his testimony with this statement:
“During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. 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 live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die”
Mandela was convicted of sabotage, a crime of high treason. On June 12, 1964 he was sentenced by Justice De Wat to life in prison for his crimes.