An endless chain’ of political trials

In his memoir, The Sword and the Pen: Six Decades on the Political Frontier, the late journalist, editor and author Allister Sparks described his Eastern Cape court reports in the mid-1960s as his ‘most creditworthy achievement’.
Senior journalists seldom cover lower courts, and Sparks was a Rand Daily Mail political correspondent when given this assignment. But those were extraordinary times. Hendrik Verwoerd, the architect of apartheid, was prime minister. The African National Congress (ANC) and Pan-Africanist Congress were banned, their leaders in jail or exile. In the Eastern Cape, the main stronghold of these organisations, more than 900 rank-and-file members and supporters had been arrested by the Port Elizabeth security police, and 817 of these men and women were prosecuted.

Sparks was tipped off about the trial by activist and writer Mary Benson. The court cases were held in isolated small towns beyond the range and resources of Port Elizabeth attorneys and newspapers. It was largely due to Johannesburg-based advocates, appointed by the Defence and Aid Fund, that the trialists were defended. And it was largely due to Sparks’s two-part feature ‘The trial of 800’ on July 22/23 1965 that – to quote the Mail’s front-page editorial – ‘the full extent and intensity of the political trials’ was first exposed.

Part 1 (reprinted here) explained that magistrates were restricted to hearing cases that carried maximum sentences of three years. But in these trials, charges relating to ANC membership were split into several counts, each carrying penalties of three years’ imprisonment. Trialists who had been acquitted, or had served their time, were charged with another aspect of the same offence, denied bail, and tried and jailed again.

Part 2, ‘Operation Defence’, examined the efforts of the Defence and Aid Fund to secure advocates for the trialists and assist their families. After wage earners were jailed, many dependents subsisted on donations. Thirty-five families had been forced to leave Port Elizabeth, Sparks reported.
When reporting on individual trials, Sparks’s task was to expose legal irregularities without contravening contempt of court legislation.

‘All I needed to do was state the statutory limitations applying to magistrates’ court hearings early in my reports, then report straightforwardly what was actually happening in these cases, being careful not to relate the one to the other. That would leave readers able to relate the two aspects of the report for themselves without exposing me to a contempt charge for directly implying that the magistrates were cheating. It worked’ (Sparks, 2016: 235).
His memoir mentioned the case of 47-year-old Port Elizabeth nursing sister Zebia Mpendu, sole provider of three children, who was detained for 15 months before being brought to trial (Rand Daily Mail, 1 July 1965; 27 August 1965; 22 July 1965). ‘I still remember the look of bewilderment on Zibia Mpendu’s face as she was led away to the waiting prison van. Nine years in jail for going to a meeting. Unbelievable. Outrageous. But inescapable’ (Sparks, 2016: 237).

The power of this recollection is diluted by inaccuracies: the spelling of Mpendu’s name, the charges she faced and her sentence – four years. But these errors say more about memory and fact checking than the impression Mpendu’s trial made on Sparks. In 1968 his newspaper reported a further blow to the nursing sister: she was struck off the nurses roll for ‘disgraceful conduct’ as a result of her conviction.
Assessing the impact of his coverage, Sparks wrote:

My reports on this protracted violation of legal procedure attracted international attention. Both The Guardian in London and The New York Times ran lengthy articles on the trials, which in turn helped prompt the legal authorities to take a closer look at what had happened. The cases all went on review to the Supreme Court, which declared the splitting of charges to be illegal and lopped 2000 years off the collective sentences.

Looking back over 66 years of journalism, I guess that should rank as my most creditworthy achievement’ (2016: 238).
There are exaggerations in these paragraphs. The overseas reports appeared seven months after Sparks’ features and appear to have used the Defence
and Aid Fund as their primary source (Leyleveld 1966; Uys 1966). Sparks
provided no reference for his figure of 2000 years. Another source states the
Fund ‘got the sentences of 158 men reduced, keeping them out of prison for
a total of 258 years’ (SAHO: para 13).

Nevertheless, Sparks’ contribution was significant. Other newspapers had covered individual trials, but his ‘Trial of 800’ was the first analysis of the government’s efforts to keep ordinary ANC supporters imprisoned. His reports were quoted in the Institute of Race Relations’ annual surveys (Horrell, 1966: 87–90; Horrell, 1967: 54–6) and were followed by questions in parliament (Horrell, 1966: 87). State repression continued. In March 1966, the Fund was declared an unlawful organisation. Police swooped on its branches and froze all accounts, including R3,000 in its Port Elizabeth coffers (Rand Daily Mail, 19 March 1966). In April – two months after his front-page story ‘South Africa set to reconvict foes’ (Lelyveld, 1966) – The New York Times correspondent was given a week to leave the country (Lelyveld, 1986; Rand Daily Mail, 23 April 1966). But by 1967, the endless chain of political trials had been broken (Horrell, 1968).


Lelyveld, Joseph. 1966. ‘South Africa set to reconvict foes; 162 ending terms face new trials in same cases’. The New York Times, 16 February. Lelyveld, Joseph. 1986. Move Your Shadow: South Africa Black and White. Johannesburg & London: Jonathan Ball Publishers in association with Michael Joseph. Horrell, Muriel (compiler). 1966. A Survey of Race Relations in South Africa. Johannesburg: South African Institute of Race Relations. Horrell, Muriel (compiler). 1967. A Survey of Race Relations in South Africa. Johannesburg: South African Institute of Race Relations. Horrell, Muriel (compiler). 1968. A Survey of Race Relations in South Africa. Johannesburg: South African Institute of Race Relations. Rand Daily Mail. 1965. ‘Sympathy for A.N.C. unchanged – witness’, 1 July. Rand Daily Mail. 1965. ‘Trial of 800’ (editorial), 24 July. Rand Daily Mail. 1965. ‘Police methods not in best tradition’, 27 August. Rand Daily Mail. 1966. ‘Defence and Aid’, 19 March. Rand Daily Mail. 1966. ‘Police swoop on Aid Fund’, 19 March. Rand Daily Mail. 1966. ‘Lelyveld moved to London: “I tried to do an honest job”’, 23 April. Rand Daily Mail. 1967. ‘Members of ANC get jail terms’, 29 September.

South African History Online, ‘The International Defence and Aid Fund’, para 13. Available at: 3, accessed on 27 April 2018. Sparks, Allister. 1965. ‘The Trial of 800’, Rand Daily Mail, 22 July. Sparks, Allister. 1965. ‘The Trial of 800: Operation Defence’, Rand Daily Mail, 23 July. Sparks, Allister. 2016. The Sword and the Pen: Six Decades on the Political Frontier. Johannesburg & Cape Town: Jonathan Ball. Uys, Stanley. 1966. ‘South Africa: New trials for 162 in jail’, The Observer, 20 February.

The trial of 800

Allister Sparks, Rand Daily Mail, Thursday, July 22, 1965

The Security Branch man spoke with quiet emphasis. ‘We mean,’ he said, ‘to have peace and quiet in this area for the next ten years.’ His meaning was plain enough. For years the Eastern Cape area, and especially Port Elizabeth, has been the main stronghold of the African National Congress. Now, with the national leaders of the A.N.C. already on Robben Island, the political police are moving in against the rank-and-file numbers in the Eastern Cape stronghold. In the last year and a half 918 people have been arrested in the two Port Elizabeth townships. Except for 101 who have had the charges against them withdrawn (mostly members who have turned against their comrades and given evidence for the State), few of these can have much hope of knowing freedom again within the next 10 years. It does not always mean

It does not always mean much for them to be acquitted by the courts. Of the 26 who have so far been found not guilty, at least 10 have been rearrested and recharged and are once more in jail either awaiting trial or serving sentences. There are three recorded cases of men rearrested a fourth time after being thrice freed either by the courts or by having the charges against them withdrawn. The only prisoner so far to complete his sentence (on appeal his 2½-year jail term was reduced to nine months) was brought to court the day before he was due for release, recharged, refused bail and taken back to jail as an awaiting-trial prisoner. So far 452 people have been sentenced to a total of 2,339 years. Not for sabotage or other forms of violence (there have been only 17 such cases, dealt with separately in the Grahamstown Supreme Court), but for what are in effect technical offences: mostly membership of the banned A.N.C., collecting funds for it, distributing pamphlets, attending meetings and allowing premises to be used for meetings.

There are a further 298 awaiting trial – all in custody. And it can be a long business awaiting trial. The record is held by Tommy Charlieman, a Uitenhage man, who was held for 19 months in four different areas before being released (according to his attorney no formal charge was ever put) – only to be rearrested and returned to custody. Now he has at last been tried and is serving an eight-year sentence. Zebia Mpendu, a middle-aged nursing sister who is the sole support of three children, is now appearing in court after waiting in jail 15 months for the trial to begin. Many others have waited more than a year. And over them all, those in jail awaiting trial and those in jail after trial, hangs the widely used power of the Minister of Justice to place them under house arrest or other restrictions when their judicial punishment is over. Thus Operation Peace and Quiet. It is all strictly within the law – South African law. A striking feature of the trials themselves has been the severity of the sentences. Whereas three alleged members of the Central Committee of the Communist Party were sentenced in Johannesburg to five years, scores of rank-and-file members of the A.N.C. have been sentenced in the Eastern Cape to seven or eight years and some to as much as 12 years.Whereas alleged lay members of the Communist Party – found by the court to have collected subscriptions, distributed leaflets, painted slogans and attended more than 20 cell meetings – were sentenced to two years, an African schoolmaster, Barnett Chezi, was sentenced to three years for allowing his choir to perform at an A.N.C. fund-raising concert. On appeal Chezi’s sentence was reduced to one year.

One reason why the Eastern Cape sentences have been heavier is because the charges have been split into more counts. Allegations such as collecting subscriptions, distributing leaflets and attending meetings are set out as separate counts each carrying a possible three-year sentence (the maximum jurisdiction of a regional court). Thus, for example, an African charged with subscribing to the funds of the A.N.C., with allowing his house to be used for meetings and with distributing pamphlets on three separate occasions (he was not even charged with being a member) was sentenced recently to 10 years – 2½ for the subscriptions, 1½ and two for each distribution of pamphlets. Another possible reason is that, though the charges do not allege violence, many State witnesses have tended to emphasise the theme of violence in their evidence – testifying, for example, that an accused person advocated violence while attending an A.N.C. meeting, or that the subscriptions he collected were to buy guns and bombs. The justification for this was challenged by defence counsel in a recent case; he described it as a ‘heinous’ attempt by State witnesses to embroider the evidence so as to ‘aggravate sentences’. The point at issue in this case, as in many others, was the New Plan adopted by the A.N.C. in 1961. Accomplices giving evidence for the State said the New Plan ‘involved violence’; the defence claimed it was only an organizational device for working underground and that violence was limited to an elite corps in the Umkonto we Size sabotage movement. The defence also produced court records from other cases, including the Rivonia Trial, to support its claim that the same State witnesses had previously described the New Plan without mentioning violence. It was significant, said counsel, that in an earlier case in which no evidence had been led to associate the New Plan with violence, regional executive me only 18 months.

A number of accomplices have given evidence several times. One, described by a defending advocate as ‘a professional witness,’ has testified against more than 60 associates. The courts invariably order that their names may not be revealed in Press reports, and one of the prosecution’s most frequent grounds for opposing bail has been that to free a prisoner from custody would be to endanger the witnesses’ lives. If the prosecution is right about this, then the witnesses may well have a special interest in long sentences for the accused. Another striking feature of this operation is that it has so far gone almost unnoticed by the public. Even in Port Elizabeth itself there are few Whites who realise that a massive political crackdown is taking place around them. This is not due entirely to a comfortable White obtuseness. The trials themselves, though not secret, are the next best thing: almost invariably they are held in camera and in remote country courts – in Humansdorp, Cradock, Somerset East, Graaff- Reinet, Addo and Port Alfred. The official explanation is that this is to prevent demonstrations and avoid clogging the Port Elizabeth courts. But it has other results as well. Though the Press is entitled to attend, it often cannot. The Port Elizabeth newspapers are not large enough to be able to detach three or four experienced reporters to cover out-of-town courts continuously for two years or more. So many of the cases are left to inexperienced country correspondents, or are not reported at all.