Date with history: the arrest of Nelson Mandela

Thula Simpson recalls how Mandela’s gradual embrace of armed resistance made him apartheid’s public enemy No 1 and led to his arrest on August 5, 1962

The World Today
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Thula Simpson

Associate Professor of History, University of Pretoria

Nelson Mandela’s arrest near Howick in Natal province, South Africa, on August 5, 1962, ended his run as South Africa’s most wanted fugitive. Dubbed the Black Pimpernel by his Security Branch pursuers, he used disguises and aliases to evade the authorities for nearly a year and a half. 

Mandela was charged with having organized an illegal strike and with leaving the country without valid travel documents. On the trip in question, he had travelled to Addis Ababa to attend the Pan-African Freedom Movement of East and Central Africa conference in February 1962 to rally support for uMkhonto we Sizwe (MK), an underground wing of the African National Congress.

There, he secured pledges from Algerian, Egyptian, Ethiopian and Moroccan delegates to provide military training for MK, which had launched its first attacks in South Africa the previous December.

Disintegration of the revolutionary underground

Mandela’s path to armed resistance was a protracted one. A law graduate, he was elected general secretary of the ANC Youth League in 1948. Four years later he became volunteer-in-chief of the nationwide Defiance Campaign against Unjust Laws, launched to challenge apartheid through non-violent civil disobedience and protest. The campaign was fiercely suppressed, with more than 8,000 volunteers arrested, and in November 1952 Mandela was banned from attending meetings. 

The Defiance Campaign became a watershed for Mandela. A non-violent tradition had guided the ANC since its 1912 founding, but the violence Mandela witnessed during the campaign led to a change of heart: the underground would have to be armed. To that end, he sent his friend and fellow activist Walter Sisulu to China to lobby for support in the form of weapons. 

The mission failed, but further repression in South Africa strengthened the belief of Mandela and Sisulu that non-violence was futile. Following the banning of the ANC just 18 days after the Sharpeville massacre on March 21, 1960, when 69 people were killed after police opened fire on a crowd demonstrating against South Africa’s pass laws, Mandela formally broached the issue of armed struggle within ANC structures.

The ANC President Albert Luthuli, who would win the 1960 Nobel Peace Prize for standing firm that ‘violence should not be used’, rejected the adoption of violence. A compromise was reached that MK would operate autonomously from the ANC, to provide legal protection for those engaged in non-violent activities. 

However, Mandela’s arrest galvanized the ANC to escalate its efforts after having launched its armed struggle through MK in December 1961. 

In late 1962, MK’s high command developed Operation Mayibuye, a blueprint for guerrilla warfare; but in early June 1963, a convoy of recruits – including the future South African president Jacob Zuma – were apprehended. The interception led to the disintegration of the revolutionary underground: recruitment networks across the country were apprehended and members of MK’s high command were arrested at its headquarters, Liliesleaf Farm in Rivonia, just outside Johannesburg, on July 11, 1963.

Life imprisonment

Mandela had been sentenced to five years in prison on November 7, 1962 – three for incitement, two for the passport violation – but documents retrieved at Liliesleaf, including the diary of his African tour in the first half of 1962, and a scribbled note on a map of Johannesburg’s Fort prison, where he had once been held, reading ‘I need not mention the disastrous effects politically of an abortive attempt’, decisively linked him with the armed wing of the ANC.

This ensured that when the ‘Rivonia Trial’ began in October 1963, Mandela became the government’s ‘accused No 1’.

Mandela, along with seven other defendants, was sentenced to life imprisonment on June 12, 1964. Popular demoralization set in: it would be a decade before mass resistance revived within South Africa.

Mandela’s role as founder of the ANC’s armed wing contributed to the successful negotiated settlement in South Africa from 1990-94

By the time of Mandela’s release on February 11, 1990, the anti-apartheid movement’s global spread meant he had become the world’s most famous political prisoner. MK’s plans for guerrilla warfare may never have proceeded beyond the blueprint stage, but its sabotage and armed propaganda played a vital role in apartheid’s demise. 

MK’s actions fanned revolt among the many dislocated by the system, thus deepening the crisis of apartheid, and contributing to rendering the country ungovernable. Mandela’s role as MK founder also contributed to the successful negotiated settlement in South Africa from 1990-94.

The settlement established Mandela’s reputation as a statesman and peacemaker, but it was precisely his earlier militancy that accorded him the authority within the ANC to oversee the historic compromises that enabled the negotiations to succeed.