Thabiso Ratsomo, accused No. 22 in the Delmas Treason Trial
The final chapter of the Delmas Treason trial — the longest political trial in the history of South Africa —« came to an end in December 1989 when five of the accused were released from Robben island prison, in this article Thabiso Ratsomo, one of the Delmas 22, shares some thoughts and memories of the trial with us.
It is 15 months now since I was found not guilty and discharged in the Delmas Treason trial. Even though many months have passed, it is not easy to forget the 442 days I spent as one of the accused in the trial.
Before I share my thoughts with you, I want to say that the story of the Delmas Trial is just one of many stories that can be told by people who have been on trial in one of apartheid’s courts.
Many thousands of freedom-loving South Africans have suffered because of their ideals. Many have been sent to jail and many have died. We know who some of these people are, but there are many others whose names have never ever been published in the newspapers. Only when the full history of the struggle is written will we know the sacrifices that our people have made in the struggle for liberation.
DETENTION AND TRIAL
In April 1985 I was detained in my room at Rhodes University. Some weeks later, on 11 June, I appeared with 21 other comrades in a packed courtroom at the Magistrate’s court in Pretoria. We were charged with treason, terrorism, subversion, murder and furthering the aims of the ANC.
In court an army of black policemen in “riot control” uniform used force to separate us from our relatives and supporters who we had not seen for many months.
Exactly seven months after our first appearance in court, we pleaded not guilty in front of Judge Van Dijkhorst and his two assessors, Mr. Krugel and Dr. Joubert in the small farming town of Delmas, 70 kilometres east of Johannesburg. The trial that followed came to be known as the “Delmas Treason Trial”.
From the start of the trial, we were aware that this was a political case and that we had to conduct our defence on that basis. We knew that it was not only us 22 on trial but our organisations and all people who stood for freedom and democracy in our country as well.
Throughout the trial we were conscious that a war of ideas was being fought. On the one hand were those ideas that defended apartheid, oppression and racism. On the other hand were those which called for non-racialism, equality, freedom and democracy for all the people of South Africa. The courtroom was the battleground.
THE UDF BLAMED
The state’s claim was that the executive committees of the UDF and its member organisations had an unlawful secret agreement — a conspiracy — with the ANC to overthrow the government by violent means.
In the Vaal area, the Vaal Civic Association (VCA) — a member organisation of the UDF — was blamed for the violence that swept the area in 1984. Most of the 22 accused, including myself, came from the Vaal and were members of the VCA.
When the Lekoa (Vaal) Town Council increased the rent and service charges in August 1984, the VCA called protest meetings. On 3 September, the VCA led the residents on a protest march to the council offices. But the marchers never reached the offices. The police shot at them — without giving any warning. After this, violence swept the area. Within days, it spread across the whole country.
The UDF and its member organisations were blamed for the ‘unrest’ in which councillors, policemen and government property were attacked. The state alleged that the UDF’s criticisms of government policy was the cause of this violence.
The documents used by the state to prove its case were the UDF Declaration, minutes of the UDF regional and national executive committee meetings, and videos and tape recordings of mass meetings of the UDF and its member organisations such as the VCA.
We were questioned at length about why the UDF had ANC leaders such as Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu as its patrons. The state also asked why many UDF executive committee members were people who were in jail for ANC or Umkhonto we Sizwe activities.
A SIMPLE ANSWER
Our answer to the charges against us was a simple one. The UDF was a coming together of many non-violent organisations and was formed in order to oppose the New Constitution and the Black Local Authorities. We were a legal organisation and we operated openly.
We said the UDF recognised the important role played by the ANC and its leaders in the struggle. So when the UDF was formed it saw fit to make these leaders its patrons.
August 1987: advocates, attorneys, accused and families keeping the bond strong
We were lucky to have a powerful and committed defense team. Even though the trial was long and called for a lot of work, nothing was too much for them. They worked until late at night, and often our attorneys had to go to the townships to find our comrades and to get information.
During the trial, I developed a great admiration for advocates Arthur Chaskalson SC, George Bizos SC, Karel Tip, Gilbert Marcus and Zac Yacoob for their patience and dedication. We got to know each more closely and as a result a strong bond between us and the lawyers developed. In many ways this good relationship made the defence strong.
We were not impressed at all with the state advocates. We felt that their arguments were often emotional and called for sympathy from the judge. I must say without any fear that they, were no match for the most junior of our defence team members.
However, Judge Van Dijkhorst did not find it difficult to accept some of those emotional arguments. Soon, we began to ask ourselves if Judge Van Dijkhorst was taking sides in this case. He seemed to favour the state. Seventeen months later we started to believe that we may have been right.
DISMISSING THE ASSESSOR
On 9 March 1987 one of the accused, Petrus Mokoena, was asked by the prosecutor about the UDFs Million Signature Campaign. This campaign was launched in 1984 to protest against the Tricameral parliament and the Black Local Authorities. During lunch time Dr Joubert told the judge that he also signed the petition.
On the morning of 10 March the judge shocked us all — he dismissed Joubert. The judge said that because Joubert signed the petition, he would not be able to decide fairly if we were guilty or not.
We challenged the judge. Our lawyers brought three applications as a result of the dismissal. They argued that the judge used the law incorrectly to dismiss Joubert and that he did so without asking us our opinion.
We said both the judge and Krugel were biased against us and that they seemed to favour the state. Krugel was a member of the Afrikaner Broeder-bond. This organisation was known to have influenced past policies of the government. We said Krugel’s judgement could not be fair to us.
We asked that the case be stopped. Judge Van Dijkhorst was not impressed by our arguments and we lost the applications. This was a heavy blow to us. But we were able to fight on, mainly because we gave each other strength and support. We were also organised.
WITH ONE STEP
I remember comrade “Terror” Lekota — UDF publicity secretary — saying to us at the beginning of the trial: “Comrades, we must organise ourselves so that we can move together with one step.”
We chose a cell chairman, a treasurer, a timekeeper and a committee for dealing with prison officials at Modderbee Prison where we were kept. We also arranged ourselves into groups of three for cleaning the cell and for preparing meals.
During our free time we played games. Soccer was the favourite day sport, but in the evenings we played monopoly, cards, dominoes and snooker. It still amazes me that the 22 of us could share one ‘cell’ — a small hospital ward at Modderbee prison — with very few problems.
The 22 accused in the courtyard at Delmas in April 1986
There was never a day that went by without us thinking what would happen to our families and loved ones if we got the death penalty or a long sentence. We worried about who would support them. Often, we wished that the trial would end for once and for all so that we could know where we stood. But time seemed to drag and the tensions and anxieties increased.
THE ‘DELMAS BUS’
These were difficult times. But the support we got from our people and organisations such as the South African Council of Churches (SACC) helped us more than I can say. We knew that our organisations and our people were behind us and they would never dump us at the time when we needed them most.
I will never forget the grannies and grandfathers who came to give us support every Tuesday and Thursday.
They never once missed the Delmas Bus in the three years we were on trial. Most were pensioners from the Anglican’s Cyprian church in Sharpeville — the church of Reverend Moselane, one of the accused.
They never got tired of waking up in the early hours of the morning and making it through the cold winter wind. They were a real source of inspiration and in the absence of relatives — who were often at work or simply could not attend the trial regularly — they filled the gap.
WEDDING OF THE YEAR
There were also some happy moments during the trial. Like the wedding of the year!’
Bride Makgauta and bridegroom Lazarus More are congratulated by Archbishop Tutu and Terry Waite. The priest next to them was Rev. Moselane
None of us will forget the afternoon of 20 June 1986 when one of the trialists, Lazarus More, got married in the same courtroom we appeared in at Delmas. “Terror” and Oupa Hlomuka were the two best men! I remember that the night before the wedding “Terror” and Oupa spent hours shaving their.faces. They looked much younger the following day!
Many people came to Delmas for this special event. The late Bishop Simeon Nkoane of the Anglican Church conducted the service, helped by Reverend Moselane.
Bishop Tutu came to the wedding together with Mr. Terry Waite who was sent to South Africa by the head of the Anglican Church in Britain. (Mr. Waite disappeared while in Beirut, Lebanon in January 1987 and has not been seen since. He went there to try and promote peace in the area).
The wedding was a joyous occasion, but we couldn’t help wondering what life would be like for the new bride if Lazarus was given a long sentence. Again, we wished for a speedy end to the trial.
Three former accused – Simon Vilakazi, Gcina Malindi and Thabiso – sharing a joke outside the courtroom at Delmas in 1987
BURYING THE GHOST
Finally, after three long years — on 18 November 1988— I was found not guilty and discharged. In all, 11 of us were found not guilty. The other 11 comrades were found guilty and sentenced.
In December 1988 Popo Molefe, United Democratic Front (UDF) national general secretary, Patrick “Terror” Lekota, UDF publicity secretary, Moss Chikane, former UDF Transvaal regional secretary and Tom Manthata, former secretary of the Soweto Civic Association, were sentenced to prison for periods of between six and twelve years.
Gcina Malindi, a youth and civic leader in the Vaal and six other members of the VCA were found guilty of terrorism. All were given five years each. Gcina went to jail with the other four. The other six got suspended sentences.
One year later, in December 1989, the Appeal Court buried the Delmas trial ghost when five judges threw out all the convictions and sentences and released the five comrades. The Court found that the judge had dismissed Joubert without first giving us an opportunity to express our opinion. Judge Van Dijkhorst may not have been impressed by our lawyers’ arguments, but the Appeal Court judges were!
In the judgement, Chief Justice Corbett said: “In general… the judge in a criminal court should not make rulings or give direction in regard to the trial affecting the interests of the parties without giving them the opportunity to be heard.”
Moss Chikane, “Terror” Lekota and Tom Manthata – still in prison clothes – are welcomed home by UDF President Albertina Sisulu (centre) and relatives and friends
The five comrades came home on 15 December after spending one year on Robben Island. When they got off the plane at Jan Smuts airport, they were greeted by hundreds of supporters who gave them a big welcome home. The case was finally over!
Despite the hardship suffered in those long years, I have no regrets. I am proud to have been put on trial for the noble ideals of freedom and democracy. I believe that the work of the UDF and its member organisations has contributed to the changes in South Africa that we see now. Today I feel more confident than ever before that we will see “FREEDOM IN OUR LIFETIME!”
ideal — an idea that seems so perfect that you try to achieve it
conscious — aware
patrons — an important person honoured by an organisation
assessor — when there is a chance of the death sentence, two assessors must help the judge listen to the case
attorney — a lawyer who cannot defend an accused person in the Supreme Court
advocate — a lawyer who can defend accused people in court. Judges are chosen from among the advocates