Nelson Mandela is rightly celebrated because the inspiring chief and expert negotiator who united South Africans below a democratic structure following his launch from 27 years’ imprisonment. He was additionally a talented lawyer and forensic advocate.

Nelson Mandela

After evading seize because the ‘Black Pimpernel’ for 18 months, he was arrested in August 1962 and placed on trial. There have been two prices in opposition to him. The primary was that between 1 April and 31 Could 1961 he had incited staff to keep away from work illegally as a way of protesting in opposition to the apartheid legal guidelines. The second was that he had left the nation with out a legitimate passport for his go to to different African nations.

He determined to conduct his personal defence as a result of, as he informed the court docket, ‘this can be a case of the aspirations of the African individuals’. As a result of the trial could be carried out on a political foundation it was apparent that attorneys couldn’t put such a defence ahead. The companies of counsel had been, nevertheless, required to help him with numerous facets of the trial. His first alternative, Joe Slovo, was restricted by a banning order to Johannesburg, and was refused permission to journey to Pretoria to which the trial was moved on the final minute.

I used to be practising on the Johannesburg bar and knew Mandela. I had been one among his underground assist group.

After I arrived at court docket, I used to be shocked to search out Mandela carrying tribal costume, a kaross (animal-hide cloak), with a wide-bead necklace within the gold, inexperienced and black colors of the ANC. I used to be used to seeing him in court docket dressed as a lawyer in go well with and tie. My response was that of a white left-winger who considered tribal costume with suspicion: this, I believed to myself, is how the Afrikaners wish to painting Africans, as nonetheless dwelling in a tribal state and never as residents of a contemporary, industrial society. Mandela may sense my shock. He mentioned: ‘Winnie introduced these for me. I would like our individuals to see me as a black man in a white man’s court docket.’

Mandela made an software for the recusal of the senior regional Justice of the Peace whom he knew from authorized apply. Characteristically, he made it clear that there was no private reflection on the Justice of the Peace’s integrity. He put ahead two grounds for the Justice of the Peace to face down which he knew full nicely had no authorized foundation, and which I couldn’t have superior if I used to be talking as counsel.

The Justice of the Peace tried twice to interrupt him, saying that he was going ‘past the scope of your software’ however Mandela persevered and was allowed to proceed. His purpose was political, to make it clear from the beginning of the proceedings that he meant to place the white state on trial. ‘Why is it,’ he requested, ‘that on this courtroom I face a white Justice of the Peace, am confronted by a white prosecutor, and [am] escorted into the dock by a white orderly? Can anybody truthfully and severely recommend that in the sort of ambiance the scales of justice are evenly balanced?’

The second floor was that he thought of himself neither legally nor morally sure to obey legal guidelines made by a parliament wherein he had no illustration. The prosecutor barely bothered to answer, and Mandela’s software was summarily dismissed. He had set the tone – white supremacy was on trial. He pleaded not responsible to each prices.

A number of incidents throughout the trial illustrate Mandela’s most elementary high quality, his sense of empathy. On the morning of the day Mandela was to make his closing speech, we had been consulting in his room. There was a knock on the door. It was the prosecutor: ‘I’d like a personal phrase with Mandela.’ They knew one another from the times when Mandela practised within the Johannesburg magistrates’ court docket. ‘Don’t be loopy,’ I mentioned. ‘You may’t converse to him alone in the midst of a trial.’

However Mandela intervened and mentioned he didn’t thoughts. He requested me to attend outdoors. When the prosecutor got here out of the cell about 5 minutes later, I noticed tears streaming down his face. I requested Mandela: ‘What the hell’s happening?’ He replied: ‘You received’t imagine this however he requested me to forgive him.’ I exclaimed, ‘Nel, I hope you informed him to get stuffed.’ To my shock, Mandela responded: ‘No, I didn’t. I informed him I knew he was simply doing his job, and thanked him for his good needs.’ The qualities of understanding and empathy that Mandela displayed throughout his trial had been to face him in good stead within the 27 lengthy years of his imprisonment, and within the negotiations for a democratic South Africa. He additionally wanted the iron will and unshakeable perception in his trigger that he displayed when he went underground.

Mandela’s closing speech was one other alternative to problem white supremacy. It prefigured the extra well-known assertion from the dock that Mandela made within the Rivonia trial in 1964: ‘We had been impressed by the thought of bringing into being a democratic republic the place all South Africans will get pleasure from human rights with out the slightest discrimination’. It was the federal government that ‘had set the scene for violence by relying solely on violence with which to reply our individuals and their calls for’.

Sir Bob Hepple

The Justice of the Peace took 10 minutes to contemplate the sentence, which was the utmost allowed: a complete of 5 years’ imprisonment. He claimed that Mandela had proven no regret and that his important goal was to overthrow the federal government: ‘There is no such thing as a saying how far issues will go if they aren’t put down with a heavy hand.’

Eleven months later, Mandela and others, together with myself, had been placed on trial for trying to overthrow the federal government by violence. I managed to flee from the trial however Mandela and 7 others obtained a life sentence, from which Mandela emerged in 1990 to steer the negotiations for a democratic South Africa.


Sir Bob Hepple QC was a South African-born educational and chief within the fields of labour regulation, equality and human rights. He died in 2015. That is an excerpt from an article first printed by the Gazette in 2013