Half a century after the historic trial at which Nelson Mandela escaped the gallows, one of his fellow former prisoners walked the Cannes red carpet on the French Riviera for the premiere of a documentary about those with him in the dock.
Andrew Mlangeni is one of the last surviving defendants of the 1963-1964 Rivonia trial of Mandela and nine others who faced the death sentence on charges of plotting guerrilla warfare and acts of sabotage against South Africa’s apartheid regime.
“I knew that one day I would come out of prison,” said the 92-year-old, who spent 27 years behind bars. “But I never thought in my life I would ever come to France, never mind appearing in a film which is seen by the entire world.”
Mandela’s impassioned three-hour address to the court, during which he declared that a democratic South Africa was an ideal “for which I am prepared to die,” was the most significant of his career.
The State Against Mandela and the Others, a French-funded documentary based on the recently released audio recordings of the proceedings, attempts to redress the balance by putting his comrades at center stage.
“Mandela was not expressing his view alone; he was expressing the view of all the accused,” Mlangeni said. “We were almost certain that we were going to hang. But we were prepared. We were prepared for anything.”
The film uses animation, interviews and archival footage to show how the defendants turned a trial aimed at dealing a knockout blow to the anti-apartheid movement into an indictment of white supremacist rule.
“We decided we had to conduct this not as a criminal trial but a political trial,” said Ahmed Kathrada, one of three former prisoners — one black (Mlangeni), one white (Denis Goldberg) and one of Asian origin (Kathrada) — interviewed for the feature.
Kathrada, who died in 2017, is one of the heroes of the documentary by journalist Nicolas Champeaux and filmmaker Gilles Porte.
Born into a family of Indian Muslim immigrants, he refused, like his comrades, to appeal his sabotage conviction to avoid the indignity of being seen to beg for clemency.
At the end of the eight-month trial, the men were spared the noose. Mandela and seven others were sentenced instead to life in prison, a verdict they greeted with relief.
“It’s life! And life is wonderful!” Goldberg recalls shouting across the courtroom to his mother.