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Apartheid Trials and Human Rights Histories

April 30, 2019

In 2010, Samuel Moyn’s The Last Utopia argued for a very short history of human rights. Against the grain of celebratory accounts of the rise of human rights, Moyn dated their birth to the 1970s. To support his claim of extreme discontinuity, Moyn demonstrated why earlier episodes, concepts, or vocabularies were not and could not be about human rights. ‘The drama of human rights’, he asserted, was ‘that they emerged in the 1970s seemingly from nowhere’. Chapter 3 of Moyn’s book was titled ‘Why Anticolonialism Wasn’t a Human Rights Movement’ and asserted that ‘anticolonialist forces were more committed to collective ideals of emancipation—communism and nationalism—as the path into the future, not individual rights directly, or their enshrinement in international law’. Moyn added, as evidence, that ‘postwar anticolonialists … rarely invoked the phrase “human rights,” or appealed to the Universal Declaration of 1948’. Jan Eckel, in a 2010 Humanity review essay, noted similarly that colonial and postcolonial leaders ‘simply did not refer to human rights.’



Moyn’s account has since given rise to a host of responses. Some, in particular, sought to challenge his evidence, and argument, about the marginal role played by human rights in anti-colonial struggles. The ensuing debate, however, tends to discount the relevance of the anti-apartheid struggle—in South Africa and globally—to the story of the origin of human rights.


Moyn’s book did reference apartheid, twice: once, to describe South Africa’s marginalisation at the General Assembly in the wake of India’s 1946 complaint against the treatment of ‘persons of Indian origins’ (discussed by Lorna Lloyd, Mark Mazower); and a second time to note how it took a ‘decline in elite sympathies for once-romantic anticolonial nationalism’ for human rights to triumph—how, in other words, ‘the international movement against apartheid was evolving’, after the 1976 Soweto uprising, ‘into a human rights struggle like others elsewhere.’ Indeed, the existence of a global movement is one standard Moyn applied consistently to tell human rights apart from other ‘utopias’—and to determine the precise moment of their birth. Moyn argued, accordingly, that it was ‘only in the 1970s that a genuine social movement around human rights made its appearance…’.


Moyn’s critics, in their search for evidence of human rights investment by anti-colonial protagonists, tend to pay little attention to apartheid and the ‘international movement against’ it. This scholarship has produced hitherto unfamiliar accounts of Asian agendas, Caribbean advocacy, and African agency that fuse together histories of human rights, decolonization, and the UN in the 1950s and the 1960s. It has, at the same time, largely failed to account for the human rights agenda, advocacy, and agency of the anti-apartheid struggle. In particular, it disregards ubiquitous evidence of activism and resistance surrounding trials taking place, in South Africa, during the same decades. This concerns mostly 1956 ‘Treason Trial’ and the 1963—1964 Rivonia Trial against ANC leadership. I focus here on Rivonia—a site of legal drama that played a crucial role in the global circulation of resistance to apartheid following the collapse of domestic resistance and the ascent of ‘activism in exile’.


Thus, Paul Gordon Lauren’s 2013 book The Evolution of International Human Rights does not mention Rivonia. Neither does Steven Jensen’s 2016 The Making of International Human Rights: The 1960s, Decolonization, and the Reconstruction of Global Values. Conversely, Ryan Irwin’s 2012 Gordian Knot (focused on ‘Apartheid and the Unmaking of the Liberal World Order’, not human rights per se) mentions Rivonia once, in a footnote, without linking it to the claim that in the 1960s, the UN bureaucracy sought ‘to shift the language of anti-apartheid criticism from African nationalism to universal human rights’. Rivonia is absent also from Roland Burke’s 2010 Decolonization and the Evolution of International Human Rights. One chapter addresses apartheid—to account for the ‘accidental’ birth of the Right to Petition (here, see Meredith Terretta’s work on trust territories and Carol Anderson’s essay on Reverend Michael Scott’s South West Africa advocacy ).


And yet, the Rivonia Trial furnishes much evidence on the deployment and circulation of human rights vocabularies and strategies. Consider Nelson Mandela statement made, on 20 April 1964, from the dock at the Pretoria Supreme Court, today known as the ‘I Am Prepared to Die’ speech. Alongside ‘freedom’ and ‘liberation’, Mandela alluded to ​​‘rights’, ‘political rights’, ‘human dignity’—and also to ‘human rights’.  This formed part of his calculated presentation of the ANC’s decision to resort to violence, having been deprived, by law, of the opportunity to express any form of political protest:


"The African people were not part of the Government and did not make the laws by which they were governed. We believed in the words of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, that “the will of the people shall be the basis of authority of the Government.”’


Mandela’s statement also referenced, frequently, the 1955 Freedom Charter which drew heavily, if selectively, on the ​

​Universal Declaration as a blueprint for democracy in South Africa, as Jacques Derrida observed in his reading of Mandela’s speech. It also formed part of a South African tradition, recorded by Saul Dubow, of engagement with rights—including with human rights.

The global circulation of Mandela’s speech began within days. Even before the verdicts were announced, a global campaign was launched to stop the death sentence. The ANC campaigned for the ‘Rivonia Eleven’, told their stories, reported prison brutality and catalogued apartheid’s illegalities using, at times, human rights language. The dean of a leading US law school ‘observed’ the trial. Prominent British lawyers attended the proceedings, met the defendants and their counsels, and liaised with the prosecutor and South Africa’s Justice Minister—all on behalf of the Geneva-based International Commission of Jurists.


The Commission had already published a severe criticism of the 1962 Sabotage Bill, the eventual legal basis for the trial. In December 1963, it claimed that the South Africa’s legislation and policies ‘will lead inevitably to the annihilation of human rights in South Africa’. After the trial, it published a report analysing apartheid policies as violations of the Universal Declaration. Legal aid funds issued appeals ‘to provide for legal fees for the defence of Mr. Nelson Mandela and his fellow-accused’ and other political prisoners, as well as subsistence for their families. Individual case reports were generalised to raise awareness, enlist activists, launch activities, and appeal for financial support. The American Committee on Africa supported such funds, lobbied State Department officials and lawmakers, and launched awareness campaigns. In London, the Anti-Apartheid Movement held demonstrations, published pamphlets and posters, and pressured politicians.


Resistance to apartheid, in Pretoria or globally, did not always speak of human rights explicitly. Nor did it speak the language of human rights exclusively. Yet the grievances it voiced concerned the substance of human rights—even where the term was not expressly invoked: torture, movement, due process, association, political participation, etc. Crucially, the forms of advocacy, modes of mobilisation, reporting practices, visual representations, cultural expressions, publication formats, organizational structures, even rhetorical tropes of resistance to apartheid attest to the global reach of a ‘genuine social movement’ focused on the Rivonia Trial (with some dating back to the Treason Trial). That these were the very features that would come to characterise the human rights movement in later decades suggests not that ‘the international movement against apartheid was evolving’ in the 1970s ‘into a human rights struggle like others elsewhere’ but, rather, that the human rights movement could, by that decade, already draw on a mould of global activism forged by the anti-apartheid struggle.

* Research for this entry was conducted within Professor Louise Bethlehem’s project ‘Apartheid—The Global Itinerary: South African Cultural Formations in Transnational Circulation, 1948–1990’ at the Hebrew University, and received funding from the European Research Council under the European

Union’s Seventh Framework Programme (FP/2007–2013)/ERC Grant Agreement No. 615564

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