Statement from the dock
After the prosecution has spent some time blackening one’s name and attempting to portray what the accused in a political trial has done in villainous terms, there is a limited opportunity to hit back.
This is sometimes through evidence under cross-examination as with Walter Sislu in the Rivonia Trial, where he famously held his own with Dr Percy Yutar in 2 weeks of cross-examination.
More generally the statement of beliefs is through an unsworn statement from the dock. The most famous South African statements may be those of Nelson Mandela and Bram Fischer QC. While I knew from their demeanour that one could not make anything akin to an apology for what one had done, I could not make the type of statement that people in leadership had done. I had to find my own way of saying that I had not regretsand would make no apologies.
Statement from the Dock
Delivered by Raymond Suttner in the Supreme Court, Durban, on November 6, 1975:
I HAVE furthered the aims of the African National Congress and the South African Communist Party. This (course of action) was carefully considered. I want to tell the court why I acted in this way and still consider it correct.
From my earliest encounters with black people I have been aware of the contrast between my own living circumstances and theirs.
I felt, from the beginning, that it could not be right that some people, merely because they were black, should have to live with less than they needed.
In my home background, I was encouraged to treat all human beings with dignity and respect. I learned that a man’s colour is no indication of his worth. I learned that black people had hopes and worries like everyone else, that they needed health and security, food and shelter.
Nothing that I learned as I grew older seemed to justify the situation where the rights that people have, the disabilities they endure, the place where they live, where they can work and who they can love, should all be determined by the colour of their skin.
At school, and especially at university, I used every opportunity to argue against racism and for a common society where black and white could live together in peace and justice. Despite what I heard from most whites, I came to feel that equal rights were not something to be feared but the basis of real security. With all that was claimed for apartheid, there were, nevertheless, few who would argue that it could benefit all people, or that it could benefit all people equally or that it could even provide sufficient for all people.
Notwithstanding its re-christening as “separate development,” none of the main features of apartheid have changed. The black people have never sought “Bantustans” and similar unrepresentative institutions. Their real leaders have made it clear that they consider the whole of South Africa to be their homeland and that they will accept nothing less than their right to share fully in its power and prosperity.
The suppression of the ANC, the Communist Party and other allies in the liberation movement has meant that we do not hear calls for equality — in one, undivided South Africa — as frequently as we should. Their banning may have created the illusion of a wider acceptance of apartheid than there in fact is. We do not hear the most outspoken critiques of apartheid nor what the liberation movement would substitute for it. It is hard to find out what the ANC and its allies stand for. We generally only hear what their opponents say about these organisations.
I have been cut off from information about the ANC and Communist Party for most of my life. I was told of the evils of these organisations and heard all the charges of their alleged villainy. I was never allowed to hear their answer. In trying to find a meaningful political role in our situation, I have sought information about the ANC and its allies.
When I read their literature and heard their aims, I saw that they did not, as their detractors suggested, advocate indiscriminate violence or the setting up of a tyrannical regime. I found that they had simple aims — to make a new society that would benefit not a few, but all. “South Africa” in the words of the Freedom Charter, “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 all the people.”
My own political experience, mainly as a university student, and what I knew of our political history, had led me to conclude that radical criticism, no matter how valid, is either ignored, rejected as illegitimate or suppressed. Even in pursuing quite legal activities, militants stand a good chance of finding themselves banned, arrested without trial or having other restrictions placed upon them.
When I studied their backgrounds, I had little doubt that the banning of the ANC and Communist Party were undemocratic and unjustified acts. There had been no evidence of these organisations using violence before they were made unlawful bodies. Similarly, their turn to violence could hardly be called unprovoked or without cause. What response did they receive for their many years’ pursuit of non-violence? Chief Albert Luthuli, a man of peace, if ever there was one, gave this answer:
“Who will deny that thirty years of my life have been spent knocking in vain, patiently, moderately and modestly, at a closed and barred door? What have been the fruits of my many years of moderation? Has there been any reciprocal tolerance or moderation from the Government? No! On the contrary, the past thirty years have seen the greatest number of laws restricting our rights and progress, until today we have reached a stage where we have almost no rights at all.”
For many years, I participated in protest activities — organising petitions, holding placards, marching — and various other demonstrations against racial discrimination. None of these protests, or any similar ones, had any effect. But, what is more, the government denied our right to oppose them — leaders were banned or arrested without trial.
Around 1969, I started to ask myself whether I was doing this out of habit or whether these activities were achieving anything. The Minister of Education had left few illusions about their impact when he said in one statement that student petitions went straight into his waste-paper basket.
Every year, new laws made protest more difficult. Yet, each year seemed to make opposition more necessary. Although black people grew increasingly dissatisfied, it made little impression. The white people did not have to consider the views of those who were disenfranchised.
I could see no possibility of ending apartheid through appeals to the government, and that was virtually the only course open to opponents who accepted our constitutional framework.
I continued to read about and discuss ANC policy. What I heard and read strengthened the admiration that I felt for the selflessness and dedication of men like Albert Luthuli, Bram Fischer, Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki, Ahmed Kathrada and Denis Goldberg — some of the leaders in the liberation movement.
I came to feel that I could contribute most by aiding the ANC and its allies. I came to believe that the course that they followed was the only way to achieve freedom in our country. It is true that this means supporting a policy that includes the use of violence.
The law under which I am charged does not ask the court to enquire what precipitated the violence. The court cannot dismiss these charges because the ANC and its allies were forced to take up arms. It cannot rule that ANC violence is a response to the violence of the apartheid regime.
Yet there are factors in the ANC decision that make it abundantly clear that they did not desire violence, that they use it reluctantly. ANC strategies are aimed at minimising conflict and promoting democracy. Violence is not seen as an instant answer to all problems. Certain types of actions, such as terrorism or undisciplined heroic acts, even if well motivated, are rejected as exacerbating the bitterness and hostility.
I am convinced that this policy responds to suppression and oppression in the only way possible.
The work that I have done for the freedom movement has made rigorous demands upon me. It was not pleasant to spend my spare time licking envelopes, duplicating, typing, and sticking on stamps. Most of the time I did this work on my own. It is true that I need not have done this. But I honestly concluded that this was the best way of contributing to our future. The goals for which I worked warranted whatever sacrifices were required.
It is obvious that these activities had to be carried out in secret, that I had to conceal them from my closest friends and family. Though I am used to being frank and open, the nature of the work forced me to be silent. Though I would have been pleased to debate these ideas freely, I could not jeopardize the security of my organisations and others who were involved. Also, I did not want to endanger others who were not involved but who could have been prejudiced by knowledge of my acts.
With regard to the evidence of Kuny and Roxburgh [state witnesses, who had been recruited shortly before my arrest], I acted on the basis of strong indications from them that they were willing to act in unlawful activities, that they knew the dangers and were prepared to accept the consequences of their involvement.
While I strongly discouraged their withdrawal for practical and security reasons, I never said that they could not withdraw.
Kuny has suggested that it was necessary to conceal from me his reading of a certain political work with which I would not have agreed. Since I would have considered a discussion of such a book valuable, in order to clarify his and my own views, I cannot understand that he had any reason for stealth.
Regarding the charge of training, this was for the most part ancillary to the production and distribution of the pamphlets…
I have no doubt that the policies of the ANC and Communist Party hold out a bright future for us. I know that the liberation movement is neither anti-white nor terrorist, that it works for the day when men and women will have all the comfort and security that they need.
I realize that this is not the picture presented to South Africans. But because I know that it is true, I could not obey a law expressly aimed at suppressing these democratic forces. It was my duty, I believe, to act honestly and for the benefit of all our people, to inform them of their situation and the way to an alternative, free society. That was the aim of my work.
I am not the first person, nor the last, to break the law for moral reasons. I realise that the Court may feel that I should have shown more respect for legality. Normally, I would show this respect. I would consider it wrong to break laws that serve the community. But I have acted against laws that do not serve the majority of South Africans, laws that inculcate hostility between our people and preclude the tolerance and cooperation that is necessary to a contented and peaceful community.
For this, I will go to prison. But I cannot accept that it is wrong to act, as I have done, for freedom and equality, for an end to racial discrimination and poverty. I have acted in the interests of the overwhelming majority of our people. I am confident that I have their support.