Celebrated: Denis Goldberg and Andrew Mlangeni, two of the three Rivonia triallists who are the subject of Nick Stadlen’s film Life is Wonderful. The other is Ahmed Kathrada. The movie also focuses on three defence lawyers: George Bizos, Joel Joffe and Denis Kuny. Picture: VELI NHLAPO
Celebrated: Denis Goldberg and Andrew Mlangeni, two of the three Rivonia triallists who are the subject of Nick Stadlen’s film Life is Wonderful. The other is Ahmed Kathrada. The movie also focuses on three defence lawyers: George Bizos, Joel Joffe and Denis Kuny. Picture: VELI NHLAPO

When he was 17 years old, the retired British high court judge turned film maker Nick Stadlen ran away from a New York school and became a busboy in a restaurant.

The night he heard that civil rights leader Martin Luther King had been assassinated, it brought into sharp relief two moments seared into his childhood memory: the police turning water cannons and dogs on civil rights protesters in Birmingham, Alabama, and an interview with Father Trevor Huddleston, the Anglican priest who had been involved in the anti-apartheid struggle.

Stadlen caught a bus to Memphis and from there hitchhiked to King’s hometown of Atlanta, Georgia. He carried a placard with "Atlanta" written on one side and "Honour Martin Luther King" on the other. A man who gave him a lift for part of the journey opened his glove compartment and pulled out a gun: "This is for any of those …", as Stadlen puts it, "n-word-loving outsiders that I come across."

He worried for the rest of their journey which side up he’d left his placard.

Bram Fischer. Picture: SUPPLIED
Bram Fischer. Picture: SUPPLIED

Almost half a century later, in the week that Nelson Mandela died, Stadlen was in Cape Town. He had resumed his studies, became a barrister in the UK, a Queen’s Counsel and a high court judge, a position from which he had recently retired.

In its Mandela tribute, a local newspaper had published an interview with the former president’s fellow Rivonia triallists Denis Goldberg, Ahmed Kathrada and Andrew Mlangeni. Kathrada has since passed away; Mlangeni celebrated his 93rd birthday on June 6 and Goldberg is 85 years old. To Stadlen’s surprise, the reporter parted with Goldberg’s phone number and he spent a "life-changing" day with the political veteran at his Hout Bay home.

So his film Life is Wonderful was born, focusing on lesser-known Rivonia triallists: Goldberg, Kathrada and Mlangeni, as well as their three surviving defence lawyers — George Bizos, Joel Joffe (who died in 2017) and Denis Kuny.

"One of the things that left a lasting impression on me was that these three survivors of Rivonia had never tried to trade on it, cash in on their celebrity or their access to people at the top of the ANC. They all lived in extremely modest circumstances," says Stadlen.

The film is shot in the places that made history: the Lilliesleaf house in Rivonia where most of them were arrested; the holding cells under the Palace of Justice in Pretoria, where they were tried; the dock where Mandela challenged the judge to hang them; and Robben Island, where Kathrada and Mlangeni spent most of their 26 years in prison.

Because Goldberg is white, he served his sentence in Pretoria, but the film takes him to Robben Island. There he meets former political prisoner Thulani Mabaso, who recounts his torture at the hands of the security police. The holding cells in Pretoria are almost unchanged since 1964, with the same graffiti on the walls — lines from the Freedom Charter.

Although some triallists were "towering figures" such as Mandela and Walter Sisulu — and Bram Fischer, who led the defence team and was later arrested, tried and imprisoned — many were "more ordinary people who just found within themselves reserves of courage and commitment", says Stadlen.

Although some triallists were 'towering figures' such as Mandela and Walter Sisulu — and Bram Fischer, who led the defence team and was later arrested, tried and imprisoned — many were 'more ordinary people who just found within themselves reserves of courage and commitment'. 

"My aim is to prompt young people to ask themselves: if these ordinary people were prepared to risk their lives, and torture, and spend a quarter of a century in prison for their fellow countrymen and women to promote the ideal of a free and fair democracy, what can I do to change the world and make it a better place?"

In 1964 freedom was a dangerous dream. The Rivonia triallists had prepared themselves for the death sentence.

They decided not to appeal their conviction or sentence. The lawyers advised Kathrada and Raymond Mhlaba that they had good prospects of a successful appeal against their conviction and sentence, but they refused this option.

Goldberg had offered to take the blame for their sabotage operation, Operation Mayibuye, to shield the leaders. The triallists had also agreed that Mandela would not subject himself to cross-examination so that he could give an uninterrupted political speech from the dock.

The one glimmer of hope to save the men from the death penalty was that Operation Mayibuye had not been formally adopted by the ANC’s leadership. To establish this, the legal team put Sisulu on the stand and he was also tasked with testifying about the history of the ANC.

Most of the lawyers were nervous because the prosecutor, Percy Yutar, was arrogant, hostile and the "only PhD in the government legal service at the time", says Stadlen.

Sisulu, a man of modest education but huge intellectual depth, had an "encyclopaedic knowledge of the history of the ANC", he adds, "and was a person of immense authority and dignity".

The film also touches on Fischer, who showed remarkable courage, Stadlen says, and led the defence team although he had also been part of the underground movement and risked being recognised by some state witnesses.

The grandson of the first prime minister of the Orange River Colony and the son of a former judge president, Fischer won a Rhodes scholarship to Oxford and was destined to become a scion of the Afrikaner elite. Instead, he had a Damascus Road experience when he questioned his own distaste about shaking the hand of a black man.

He joined the Communist Party and remained a member after it was banned by the apartheid government. Fischer was arrested soon after the Rivonia trial but released on bail and allowed to go to London to argue a case before the Privy Council. He returned to SA and to court, but when the proceedings were adjourned, skipped bail and went underground.

Fischer’s fight against apartheid was marked by deep personal tragedy. His wife, Molly, was killed in a car accident while they were driving to Cape Town to visit the convicted Rivonia men on Robben Island; and after he was sentenced to life imprisonment, his son Paul died of a degenerative disease and he was not allowed to attend the funeral.

When Fischer began to ail, first with arthritis and then cancer, he was deliberately neglected by the prison authorities. Eventually, in 1975, partially paralysed, he was released into the custody of his brother and died two months later. He was the only one of the Rivonia team who did not live to see the "promised land".

In his speech from the dock, Fischer drew parallels between African freedom fighters and the struggle of the Boers against British imperialism.

He asked the court to imagine that Afrikaners were confined to the then Orange Free State and allowed into cities to work only under sufferance; that they had to carry passes, were excluded from skilled work and risked losing their jobs due to job reservation. He warned the court of the consequences of civil war and ended with the prophetic words of a "great" Afrikaner leader, Paul Kruger: "Whether we are victorious or whether we die, freedom will arise in Africa as the sun from the morning clouds."

Delicate negotiations 

Mandela’s more famous speech was the subject of delicate negotiations between him and the legal team.

Joffe typed up his first draft, which ended with the words: "I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die."

Joffe thought this was effectively challenging the judge to sentence them to death and excised the last two sentences. Mandela reinstated them. Bizos then intervened, suggesting the words "if needs be" be inserted before "I am prepared to die".

When the judge sentenced the men to life imprisonment, they were almost joyous. Goldberg turned to his mother in the courtroom and said: "It’s life," he said. "Life is wonderful."

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