THIS DAY IN HISTORY: On June 12, 1964, Nelson Mandela received a life sentence for committing sabotage against South Africa’s apartheid government.
Nelson Mandela, leader in the African National Congress, an organization dedicated to protesting the South African government’s policy of apartheid, had been arrested in 1956 on treason charges, but was acquitted.
The ANC was banned by the government in 1960, following the Sharpeville massacre. Mandela was forced underground, “adopting a number of disguises—sometimes a laborer, other times a chauffeur,” writes PBS. “The press dubbed him ‘the Black Pimpernel’ because of his ability to evade police.”
In 1961, believing that non-violent measures would not be successful, Mandela and other ANC leaders formed Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), a militant wing of the ANC. Beginning on Dec. 16, 1961, MK, with Mandela as its commander in chief, launched bombing attacks on government targets and made plans for guerilla warfare.
Mandela was arrested on Aug. 5, 1962, and sentenced to five years in prison for inciting a workers’ strike in 1961. A year later, in July 1963, the government launched a raid on the Lilliesleaf farm in Rivonia, which had been used as an ANC hideout. It arrested 19 ANC leaders and discovered documents describing MK’s plans for attacks and guerilla warfare.
The government charged 11 ANC leaders, including Mandela, with crimes under the 1962 Sabotage Act. At the Rivonia Trial, Mandela chose not to take the witness stand, instead making a long statement from the dock on April 20, 1964. In it, he explained the history and motives on the ANC and MK, admitting to many of the charges against him and defending his use of violence.
He concluded, “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 found guilty on four charges of sabotage on June 11. The following day, he and seven on his co-defendants were sentenced to life imprisonment, avoiding the death sentence. Mandela and the other six non-white defendants were sent to the prison on Robben Island, a former leper colony located off the coast of Cape Town.