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The South African Treason Trial and the effect on Apartheid's success

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Apartheid was a system of racial segregation enforced in South Africa through legislation by the National Party after they one the election in 1948. The Treason Trial took place on 5th December, 1956, 156 Congress leaders were arrested and put on trial for high treason, those arrested were sent to Johannesburg, where they were imprisoned in Fort Prison. The governments aims were to make Apartheid stronger to ultimately have complete white supremacy and therefore set up these powerful leaders and other ANC members to face charges which claimed that they had participated actively in the campaign to draw up the Freedom Charter “Freedom in Our Lifetime”.

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The government’s aim was to completely break the power of the Congress Alliance, since the previous law enforcements and banishments had not worked to the extent the National Party had wanted. The treason trial was set up and unusual measures were taken to make sure of the verdict, including specific legislation being passed by parliament for the trial; this legislation authorised for a Special Court to be created, with three judges rather than one as well as the courts being granted the Minister of Justice to handpick the judges. However the consequences of the arrests actually gave the resistance leaders opportunity; they were confined to two adjoining cells where they could meet “openly and uninhibited”. According to Chief Luthuli “What distance other occupations, lack of funds, and police interference had made difficult – frequent meetings – the government had now insisted on.” — as the government had been trying to prohibit these meetings between them for years. Therefore the impact of Apartheid was neither strengthened or weakened during the arrest.

Another reason why the Treason Trial weakened the impact of Apartheid is because of the actual verdict of the trial. The initial indictment against the 156 arrested was dropped within two months and the Crown issued a new indictment against 30 people, threats were made to an additional 61 but were never followed through. Amongst these 30 people were Chief Albert Luthuli and Oliver Tambo who very released on the grounds of insufficient evidence and Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu were later found not-guilty and the remaining accused were discharged. Justice Rumpff stated; “On all the evidence presented to this court and on our findings of fact, it is impossible for this court to come to the conclusion that the African National Congress has acquired or adopted a policy to overthrow the state by violence, that is, in the sense that the masses had to be prepared or conditioned to commit direct acts of violence against the state.” The ruling was obviously good for the ANC even though they had been imprisoned because they were found not-guilty strengthening their appeal and weakening the National Party who had wrongly accused them. The time the National Party had given the ANC members to interact with the other races to strengthen the already strong anti-Apartheid organisations, made the National Party and Apartheid look weak and therefore weaken because the government’s strategy to eradicate the Freedom Charter had failed.

This sparked off more internal resistance within the ANC because the more radical members that weren’t prosecuted or were released before the other significant figures of the ANC; Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu and Oliver Tambo saw these members as being disloyal to the Party for interacting with other races and rebelled to form the PAC. This created distrust and weakness within the Party and the National Party used this to their advantage and quickly disbanded both Parties. Mandela however, in his biography stated how he thought the Treason Trials verdict was what inevitably led the African government to a “new level of conflict with anti-apartheid organisations”. Another event during the Treason Trial was the National Party being re-elected, conveying that the Whites were still very supportive of Apartheid, suggesting its strength in their principles of life.

Apartheid, was weakened by the Treason Trial because of two main factors. The failure of the Trial itself and the growing strength of the ANC as a result of it. The evidence of the trial conveys clearly that Apartheid was weakened as the ANC members became closely united to defeat Apartheid which did have an effect on some black members of the ANC who felt as if they were being betrayed but this small minority of people didn’t overshadow the growing support for the ANC. The ANC used the trial to their advantage and they succeeded with this as the future of South Africa was changed at this pinnacle moment in history.

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