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Nelson Mandela is spared from a death sentence


This is an entry in the cover feature 10 trials that changed the world.

Nelson Mandela rose to prominence in the 1950s as a leader of the African National Congress, a key opposition group to the apartheid policy of the government in South Africa. In 1963, Mandela and several other ANC leaders were charged with planning to commit sabotage and overthrow the government. Convictions could have resulted in the death penalty.

On Feb. 14, 1995, President Nelson Mandela inaugurated the new Constitutional Court of South Africa. His opening words were: “The last time I appeared in court was to hear whether I would be sentenced to death.” He was referring to the trial in 1963-64 in which he and his comrades had been found guilty of sabotage.

The court was to hear arguments the next day on the constitutionality of the death sentence under our new Bill of Rights. Mandela’s words moved the 11 new justices (including this writer) who had just taken their oaths of office to contemplate how radically different our history would have been if the three judges who had found Mandela and his comrades guilty of sabotage had imposed the death penalty as requested by the prosecutor. At the conclusion of that trial, Mandela addressed the court. He closed with this statement: “This is the struggle of the African people, inspired by their own suffering and experience. It is a struggle for the right to live. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society, in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunity. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and achieve. But, if needs be, my Lord, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

All but one of the defendants were convicted, but Judge Quartus de Wet stopped short of ordering their executions and instead sentenced them to life in prison. There was a collective sigh of relief in the court. The oppressed majority in our country celebrated the sparing of the life of their hero, and they were joined by millions in the international community. In the Constitutional Court on that day in 1995 we were all conscious that our new constitution and the relatively peaceful transition from apartheid to democracy would not have been possible without Mandela’s leadership, vision and personality. That vision has been a beacon for not only South Africans but also freedom-loving people on all continents.

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