The Congress of the People took place on the 26th June 1955, in Kliptown, just outside of Johannesburg. Attended by some 3000 people, the aim of the meeting was to discuss the content of the proposed Freedom Charter, with submissions for the document having been received from people all across the country. The Freedom Charter, some of the core tenets of which would go onto be included in the Constitution of South Africa, became the manifesto of the ANC, and a symbol of internal resistance against apartheid.
It had been questioned as to why the government had allowed the Congress of the People to take place. But months later, when 156 Congress leaders, including almost the entire executive committee of the ANC, were arrested and tried for high treason, the answer was clear – the government had aimed to break the power of the Congress Alliance once and for all, since previous bannings had not worked.
According to the prosecution, the Freedom Charter involved the violent overthrow and destruction of the existing government, as this was the only way that ‘equal rights for all’ would be achieved. The prosecution also accused the trialists of trying to establish a communist state. A trial date was set and new legislation was passed allowing for the creation of a special court, with three judges instead of the usual one. In addition, the courts allowed the Minister of Justice to handpick the judges.
Fortunately though, before the prosecution had even completed their case, charges were withdrawn against 73 of the 156 accused. Amongst those released were ANC President, Chief Albert Luthuli, ANC Secretary General, Oliver Tambo, as well as prominent officials of the South African Indian Congress, such as Dr Monty Naicker.
In many ways, the trial and prolonged periods in detention strengthened and solidified the relationships between members of the multi-racial Congress Alliance. The trial also allowed ANC leaders to consult about the direction of their struggle: many arrestees were detained in communal cells in Johannesburg Prison, resulting in what Mandela described as “the largest and longest unbanned meeting of the Congress Alliance in years”.
Initially white men, white women, and black people were all held in a separate parts of the jail, but when the trialists took over their own defence during the State of Emergency, they convinced prison authorities to let them meet to plan their defence and the white female, white male and black female defendants were all brought to the African men’s prison. The prison authorities still sought to physically separate these defendants by race and gender when they came together for their meetings. Mandela describes the practical dilemma the prison faced: “The authorities erected an iron grille to separate Helen and Leon [Levy] from us, and a second partition to separate them from Lilian and Bertha [Mashaba Gxowa]…. Even a master architect would have had trouble designing such a structure.”
On the 29th March 1961 all three judges agreed that the state had failed to prove the ANC or the Freedom Charter as communist, and after the longest treason trial in South African history, the accused were all acquitted. The government’s strategy to eradicate the Freedom Charter at birth had failed.
Going on for nearly four-and-a-half years the 1956 Treason Trial was a pivotal moment in South Africa’s history. The trial was one of the first examples of foreign intervention against apartheid – having learned of the trial, and the calls for the death penalty, Anglican priest, John Collins, raised £75,000 in order to pay for the accuseds’ legal costs, and look after the families of those on trial. The irony that the courts deemed the dozens of political prisoners not-guilty of inciting violence in order to overthrow the government was also not lost – it was around this time that the ANC reviewed their position of nonviolence, deciding that more drastic measures were needed in order to achieve their aim of freedom for all.