North Gauteng High Court: Rivonia Trial and Judge Cynthia Pretorius by Molly Schmiege, 16 March 2011

“I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

These were the final words that Nelson Mandela spoke during the course of the Rivonia Trial. Nelson Mandela and ten others were charged with sabotage, and the trial lasted eight months. All but two of the accused were found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment on June 12, 1964.

On Tuesday, March 15 we visited the North Gauteng High Court in Pretoria where the Rivonia Trial was held. It was a beautiful, old building on historic Church Square. While there, we met with Judge Cynthia Pretorius, who serves on the High Court.

We had the extremely rare privilege of entering the cell where Nelson Mandela and the other defendants were held during the course of the trial. It was absolutely amazing to be in a place that has so much historical significance. The cell was in the basement of the courthouse, and there was only one small window. The walls were covered with graffiti written by former occupants, including the defendants in the Rivonia Trial. These very words were used in the Freedom Charter and the South African Constitution. The first draft of the Freedom Charter appears on one of the walls and the first words state: ”South Africa belongs to all who live in it, Black and White and no government can justly claim authority unless it is based on the will of the people.”

To see these words written on the walls was incredible, and will be an experience that none of us will forget.

After viewing the cell, Judge Pretorius took us on a tour of the rest of this courthouse that was used as a hospital during World War II. She told us about her experiences as a judge, and how things had changed since the end of apartheid. In 1993, there were fifty-two judges in North and South Gauteng High Courts and all but one was white. Today, there are seventy-two judges and minorities represent fifty-seven and women represent fourteen of the judges. Judge Pretorius also emphasized the importance of not shying away from South Africa’s history, but instead consider it while deciding cases.  Additionally, she told us how she always looks at what has led a person to commit a crime because everyone has their own story. She also acknowledged that until there are enough jobs in the country, there will be a high level of violent crime. I found this acknowledgment remarkable, because this was another example of the individuals we’ve encountered recognizing the country’s current problems and that it is most likely related to their past. They will never forget what their country has gone through, and will continue to use it to improve as they move forward.

This visit was an amazing opportunity, and we’re so appreciative to Judge Pretorius for accommodating us and letting us tour this incredibly historically significant place.

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