Kenneth S. Broun, Henry Brandis Professor of Law Emeritus and former Chapel Hill mayor, first traveled to South Africa in 1986 to teach trial advocacy at the Black Lawyers Association. During his visit, Broun met lawyers from the defense team of Nelson Mandela, who at the time was serving a life sentence in prison for his anti-apartheid activism, and later served as president of South Africa from 1994 to 1999.
That trip initiated a 25-year research project for Broun, who became fascinated with the trial that resulted in Mandela’s imprisonment in 1963. His new book, “Saving Nelson Mandela: The Rivonia Trial and the Fate of South Africa” (Oxford University Press, 2012), is the culmination of his research, including interviews with many of the case's primary figures and portions of the trial transcript.
When South Africa's apartheid government charged Mandela with planning its overthrow, most observers feared that he would be sentenced to death. According to Broun, the support he and his fellow activists in the African National Congress received during his trial not only saved his life, but also enabled him to save his country.
“I tried to look at the trial from the standpoint of a trial lawyer, thinking about what happened during the course of the trial to find out what changed the outcome,” says Broun.
In the book, Broun recreates the trial — called the "Rivonia Trial" after the Johannesburg suburb where police arrested most of the defendants and seized important evidence. The charges against the Rivonia defendants were brought under the oppressive Sabotage Act, which eliminated many of the procedural safeguards that would have been available in other cases. Even with these limitations, Broun shows how outstanding advocacy, combined with widespread public support, backfired on apartheid leaders, who sealed their own fate.
Mandela's release from prison helped South Africa transition from apartheid to a fledgling democracy, Broun says. Furthermore, as Broun documents in his book, the Rivonia trial was a critical milestone that helped chart the end of apartheid and the future of a new South Africa.
-February 14, 2012