The Israel State Archives presents a publication focusing on Israel’s mobilization in the international protest campaign to prevent the South African government from imposing the death sentence on Mandela during the Rivonia Trial in 1964.
"You will not silence their voices by hanging them. Their words will ring a thousand times more loudly if you do."
(Courtesy Israel State Archives)
On Thursday 5 December 2013, Nelson Mandela, leader of the fight for equal rights for blacks in South Africa and the first president of post apartheid South Africa, passed away. Mandela was considered one of the leading fighters for human rights in our generation, and his death brought a wave of mourning and tributes around the world.
To mark Mandela’s passing, the Israel State Archives presents a publication including six documents on Israel’s attitude towards the African National Congress leader in the 1960s. The documents focus on Israel’s mobilization in the international protest campaign to prevent the South African government from imposing the death sentence on Mandela during the Rivonia Trial in 1964. Israel also called on South Africa to stop the trial and to abolish the apartheid regime.
The Israel State Archives holds a document (not released for publication) showing that Mandela (under an assumed identity) met with an unofficial Israeli representative in Ethiopia as early as 1962. He had fled South Africa in 1961, and visited several African states, including Ethiopia, Algeria, Egypt and Ghana. The Israeli representative in Ethiopia was not aware of Mandela’s true identity. Instead the two discussed Israel’s problems in the Middle East, with Mandela displaying wide-ranging interest in the subject. Only after his arrest in 1962, on his return to South Africa, did Israel learn the truth.
In the coming weeks, the Israel State Archives will release a collection of documents about Israeli-South African relations between1961-1967. This collection is a part of a wider one on Israel’s relations with Africa during this period. Several documents relate to Nelson Mandela and Israel’s sympathy for his struggle, and they are presented here. All are in Hebrew except Document Number 3.
Most of these documents deal with the Rivonia Trial, and Israel’s reaction to it. The accused were 18 leaders of the African National Congress party. The defendants, who were arrested at a farm near the Johannesburg suburb of Rivonia, were charged with plotting armed sabotage of the apartheid government. Mandela, who had already been imprisoned on other charges, was not among those arrested, but his name was added to the list of defendants in the trial. The South African government was interested in a show trial which would discredit the African National Congress. The prosecution demanded the death sentence for the leading defendants, including Mandela.
The Israeli government became interested in the trial for several reasons. They were particularly concerned that the large number of Jews arrested (about a third of the defendants) in the incident would spark antisemitism in South Africa. The second reason for Israeli interest in the trial was its desire to strengthen ties with black African nations, who naturally rejected the apartheid regime in South Africa. Another contributing factor to Israel’s stand was then Foreign Minister Golda Meir’s opposition to racism and discrimination. She herself invested a large amount of time and attention to developing ties with African countries.
Golda Meir instructed senior Foreign Ministry officials to prepare a manifesto by leading intellectuals criticizing the trial. The Foreign Ministry appealed to philosopher Martin Buber to lend his voice to the campaign. Foreign Ministry Assistant Director-General Ehud Avriel asked Hanan Aynor, of the Israeli delegation to the United Nations in New York, to appeal to author Haim Hazaz to join Buber in signing a declaration on behalf of the Rivonia defendants. Buber and Hazaz’s declaration was published on May 20, 1964. They called on the South African government to release the defendants. "You will not silence their voices by hanging them. Their words will ring a thousand times more loudly if you do," the two wrote.
On June 12, 1964 the defendants were sentenced. Six of them including Mandela were sentenced to life imprisonment – but not to the death penalty.
Over the years the close relations between Israel and South Africa drew criticism by those who saw them as expressing Israeli support for South Africa’s racist apartheid government. The documents to be released, however, reveal that relations between the two countries in the 1960s were tense, problematic and complicated, and include many examples of Israeli criticism of the South African government.