A treasure trove of?detail, but some loose threads

For the first time, a former leader of the South African Communist Party (SACP) and Umkhonto weSizwe (MK) has given first-hand evidence of how the SACP founded MK in 1960 and 1961. This is a breakthrough in South African historical studies.

Bob Hepple, who was co-opted on to the central committee of the SACP prior to the Rivonia arrests and was arrested in the security police raid on Lilliesleaf farm in Rivonia on July 11 1963, launched his autobiography, Young Man with a Red Tie: A Memoir of Mandela and the Failed Revolution, 1960-1963 (Jacana), in Johannesburg this week, exactly 50 years after the raid.

The first half of the book, especially chapter five (“You Will All Be Hanged!”), provides a treasure trove of detail about the internal organisation of the SACP at leadership level in the period after the massacre at Sharpeville in 1960.

Yet some loose threads in the second half of the book place a question mark over Hepple’s account of his time in police custody and his agreement to give evidence against Nelson Mandela and his colleagues.

Hepple was saved from giving evidence by being removed from the country, together with his first wife, Shirley, by arrangement with Bram Fischer QC, head of the Rivonia trial defence team and the underground chairman of the then banned SACP.

Hepple says he was co-opted on to the SACP’s central committee after attending an enlarged meeting of the committee in May 1960. The meeting discussed a transition to armed struggle. Hepple writes: “In December 1960, a conference of the SACP attended by [Moses] Kotane had resolved to establish military units and had instructed the central committee to take all necessary steps to that end.

“About 25 people attended the conference, including Mandela and [Walter] Sisulu, Govan Mbeki, Ray Mhlaba, Dan Tloome, Ben Turok, John Nkadimeng, MP Naicker, Fred Carneson, Bram Fischer, Joe Slovo and Michael Harmel. Also present was Piet Beyleveld, who later … become a state witness against Fischer and other members of the party.” He adds that it was “taken for granted that the party would directly control these units”.

On Mandela’s relationship with the SACP and the relationship between the SACP and the ANC in the formation of MK, he writes: “I was told (I believe by Slovo) that Mandela had been invited as an observer. He was not one of the district committee ­delegates, nor had he been a member of the central committee during the time (up to December 1960) when I was co-opted to it.

“I do not know if he was co-opted to the central committee after the December 1960 conference. Several other members of the party have claimed that he did become a member in 1960, and I recall one occasion in 1961 while he was in hiding when I took him with me as an observer to a meeting of the Johannesburg district committee [of the SACP] held in a suburban house. …

“It was after the SACP’s secret resolution that Mandela persuaded a tumultuous meeting of the national executive committee of the ANC, in June 1961, to establish a military organisation … Mandela was authorised to go ahead and form Umkhonto weSizwe. The military units that the SACP had begun to set up under Slovo’s leadership were merged into MK.”

Here Hepple — now Sir Bob Hepple QC, barrister and law professor — provides confirmation of research by Stephen Ellis of the Free University, Amsterdam, which showed how MK was created by the SACP, and that all leaders of the ANC (including Mandela) who participated in its formation did so as members of the SACP.

After rigorous research in South African archives and interviews with individuals across the political spectrum, Ellis provided that evidence in a 2011 paper (The Genesis of the ANC’s Armed Struggle, 1948-1961, Journal of Southern African Studies), and followed that up with his book, External Mission: The ANC in Exile, 1960-1990 (2012). Ellis’s research, which extended to the Stasi archives in the former East Berlin, has not been challenged.

In Young Man with a Red Tie, Hepple confirms what he told David James Smith in 2008 about the overlap in the leadership of the ANC, the SACP and MK in 1961. In Young Mandela (2010), Smith quotes Hepple as saying he was brought into the secretariat of the SACP central committee by Fischer and Slovo; Hepple “quickly concluded that the whole set-up was blurred, that at the top the party, and the ANC — the central committee of the former and the national executive of the other — were virtually as one, indivisible from MK.”

Hepple’s account of events leading up to his and his wife’s escape from South Africa is less secure. His autobiography is the fifth to be published by a member of the accused in the Rivonia Trial, preceded by James Kantor (1967), Mandela (1994), Rusty Bernstein (1999) and Denis Goldberg (2010). These are complemented by another first-hand memoir of the trial, The Rivonia Story, by its principal instructing attorney, Joel Joffe, now Lord Joffe (1995).

In Young Man with a Red Tie, Hepple states that during his interrogation he was “kept standing in front of the desk” where the security police were sitting, “not allowed to sit down or go to the toilet. My mind and body are exhausted … eventually, I am taken back to my cell. That night warders or police (I am not sure which) keep coming into my cell, unlocking and locking the door, shouting and depriving me of sleep.

“For the next three days interrogation by various policemen continues in the same way for hours on end … During another sleepless night on 8 August, I decide that I will have to make a more incriminating statement if I am to have any hope of release.”

This repeats Hepple’s account in Rivonia: The Story of Accused No 11, a paper published in Social Dynamics in 2004, and in an interview published in June 2009 by Legal Information Management, Cambridge.

Under the heading Legalised Torture, an important and valuable section of Young Man with a Red Tie surveys the introduction of torture after the coming into effect of the 90-day detention law in South Africa in mid-1963, two months before the Rivonia arrests.

To this section, Hepple brings a lifetime’s experience in law — at the bar, as a scholar and as a former political prisoner.

He states that its “most devastating effect came through psychological torture”, and that it was “in Stalin’s Russia that these techniques were most wickedly refined”. A photograph of Hepple, taken by the security police during his detention, is included in the book, and is captioned: “Note the heavy eyelids and stare due to sleep deprivation.” Discussing this, Hepple implies that he was tortured.

The difficulty is that since James Kantor published A Healthy Grave in 1967, no previous first-hand account has said that any of the white Rivonia accused suffered sleep deprivation or standing torture at the hands of the security police. Kantor reports no mention of standing torture by Hepple, and there was no public mention of standing torture or sleep deprivation relating to the Rivonia accused, whether during or after the trial, by Hepple or anyone else.

In a statement in Dar es Salaam in November 1963, cited in the 1964 United Nations report on torture in South Africa, Hepple cited first-hand evidence of physical torture of black prisoners, but made no reference to having suffered sleep deprivation or standing torture himself. There is no mention of it in Joffe’s book, and the SACP gave no information on such tortures to any of its white members. My wife, Flo Duncan, and I heard nothing of this in the year between the Rivonia arrests and our own arrests in July 1964, a month after the end of the Rivonia Trial.

The earliest affidavits about standing torture were made in August and September 1964, by me and two other male accused, at the start of our trial for membership of the SACP, in which the number-one accused was Bram Fischer. We submitted that we had been subjected to long periods of standing torture in Compol Buildings in Pretoria in July 1964.

During the Rivonia Trial itself, I helped Hilda Bernstein (a member of the SACP central committee, whose husband Rusty was on trial with the others) to produce the illegal MK news sheet, Freedom Fighter. In it, we printed the names of those who had given evidence for the state. Bernstein did not mention standing torture to me. Yet, with Fischer, then head of the SACP, leading the Rivonia defence team, it would have been unthinkable for the central committee not to warn members about this new form of torture. The party would also have publicised it in propaganda concerning the trial.

Later, as a convicted political prisoner in Pretoria Local Prison, I was in contact with Fischer, Goldberg and Ivan Schermbrucker, all members of the SACP central committee during the Rivonia Trial. None made any mention of Hepple having been tortured. It would have been a staple of our prison conversations.

The first book by an activist close to the Rivonia Trial to mention standing torture was Hilda Bernstein’s autobiography, The World that was Ours, published in London in 1967 after Hilda and Rusty’s escape from South Africa in August 1964. The book referred to the experience of my colleagues and myself in July 1964. There are several references to Hepple, but none suggests he was tortured.

There is a further very puzzling feature about Hepple’s autobiography. In trialist James Kantor’s book, A Healthy Grave (1967), Kantor reported his own pretrial prison conversations with Hepple. Hepple cites Kantor in his bibliography, but makes no reference to Kantor’s account of these pretrial conversations in the book.

He did not challenge Kantor’s account during the man’s lifetime, when both were living in Britain. (Kantor died in 1974.)

In the most relevant passage, Kantor writes: “Bob and I discussed his decision to give evidence. He felt that none of the people caught during the Rivonia raid had the slightest chance of an acquittal, and while he sympathised with the plight of the nonwhites in South Africa, he did not feel sufficiently dedicated to … sacrifice himself. The statement he had made went no further, he said, than information already available to the police.”

Hepple does not report this talk with Kantor. Nor does he report a conversation with Goldberg, in a cell beneath the court on the first day of the Rivonia Trial. It was a day of dramatic events: the prosecutor, Dr Percy Yutar, announced that Hepple would be the first witness for the prosecution, and that the charges against him were withdrawn. Hepple withdrew from the courtroom to a cell beneath the court.

The entire trial was then unexpectedly dissolved when Judge Quartus de Wet upheld an argument by Fischer, as defence counsel, on a flaw in the prosecution brief. But all the accused were then immediately re­arrested, and Goldberg found himself placed by mistake in the same cell as Hepple.

In The Mission: A Life for Freedom in South Africa (2010), Goldberg writes: “The prosecutor dropped a bombshell when he smugly announced that Hepple would be a state witness. This was politically devastating, even though we knew it was coming. In our cell under the court Bob again told me that the case against him was so strong that he had to do anything he could to avoid the death sentence. I understood that, but also knew that my life was at risk, the more so if Bob were to give evidence … [There] would have been serious consequences if Bob, with the knowledge he had of our operations, had given evidence.”

As with Kantor’s book, Hepple cites Goldberg’s memoir in his bibliography but makes no reference or response to this significant passage. This wouldn’t go unchallenged in a witness box.

Fifty years after the police raided Lilliesleaf in July 1963, the combination of Hepple’s fresh information and these loose threads lead one to conclude that his autobiography will not be the last word on the most important trial in South African ­history.

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