In 1961, Nelson Mandela co-founded and became the first leader of Umkhonto we Sizwe (“Spear of the Nation”), also known as MK, a new armed wing of the ANC. Several years later, during the trial that would put him behind bars for nearly three decades, he described the reasoning for this radical departure from his party’s original tenets: “[I]t would be wrong and unrealistic for African leaders to continue preaching peace and nonviolence at a time when the government met our peaceful demands with force. It was only when all else had failed, when all channels of peaceful protest had been barred to us, that the decision was made to embark on violent forms of political struggle.”
Under Mandela’s leadership, MK launched a sabotage campaign against the government, which had recently declared South Africa a republic and withdrawn from the British Commonwealth. In January 1962, Mandela traveled abroad illegally to attend a conference of African nationalist leaders in Ethiopia, visit the exiled Oliver Tambo in London and undergo guerilla training in Algeria. On August 5, shortly after his return, he was arrested and subsequently sentenced to five years in prison for leaving the country and inciting a 1961 workers’ strike. The following July, police raided an ANC hideout in Rivonia, a suburb on the outskirts of Johannesburg, and arrested a racially diverse group of MK leaders who had gathered to debate the merits of a guerilla insurgency. Evidence was found implicating Mandela and other activists, who were brought to stand trial for sabotage, treason and violent conspiracy alongside their associates.
Mandela and seven other defendants narrowly escaped the gallows and were instead sentenced to life imprisonment during the so-called Rivonia Trial, which lasted eight months and attracted substantial international attention. In a stirring opening statement that sealed his iconic status around the world, Mandela admitted to some of the charges against him while defending the ANC’s actions and denouncing the injustices of apartheid. He ended with the following words: “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.”
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