Two of the most important trials in Africa’s history are taking place in Pretoria, South Africa. One represents South Africa’s past, the second its future. Each trial is very different and yet both tell the same story. They show that reason and hope are disappearing in South Africa—that there is a widening gulf between, on the one hand, white liberals and even white radicals and, on the other, black radicals and moderates.

First, in the Palace of Justice, at the trial of Breyten Breytenbach, age thirty-seven, a leading Afrikaaner poet and a painter as well, the State is attempting to crush whatever liberal white views still exist. Breytenbach is married to a Vietnamese woman who was not permitted to live with him in South Africa. This is Breytenbach’s second trial. He was convicted in 1975 of treason under the Terrorism Act for trying to organize an underground movement against apartheid, and was given a nine-year sentence. Breytenbach would under the law be eligible for release after three years. Instead, the South African government, vindictive because he was one of theirs, threw him into solitary confinement for two years, telling him he would have to serve the full nine years of his sentence and threatening him with serving it in the most brutal kind of solitary imaginable.

Now Breytenbach is being tried again. This time he is charged under the Terrorism, Riotous Assemblies and Prisons Act with trying to escape from the Central Prison in Pretoria, and for trying to promote an underground organization to fight apartheid.

In fact the escape attempt was suggested by Pieter Groenewald, Breytenbach’s jailer in the prison. As the chief government witness, Groenewald admitted in court that he was sent into the prison by the secret police. He said he first suggested the escape attempt to Breytenbach and tried to use Breytenbach to implicate the remaining whites in the anti-apartheid movement.

Groenewald suggested to Breytenbach the names of a number of people who would help him if they were properly approached. After Breytenbach wrote letters to them, Groenewald met with them. Dr. André Brink, another important Afrikaaner poet, received Breytenbach’s letter describing his solitary confinement, depressions, and delusions. He gave Groenewald 300 Rand to help finance an escape. Brink and others who did not flatly turn Groenewald down expect to be indicted.

Breytenbach, admitting his escape attempt, tried in mitigation to describe what drove him to it. Deliberately kept next to the death cell for the full two years, where each month a dozen black Africans wait to be hanged, he heard the prisoners singing as they tried to quiet their fears—and watched as each of the over two hundred men walked to the gallows. The wardens made a point of telling how, even in their last moments, blacks were discriminated against. If a white man were hanged, he would get a new rope, but for the blacks, the same ropes were used over and over again, even though many of them were full of vomit and saliva from the hangings before. He saw the wardens wash their hands after each hanging as if it were a job well done. Only Breytenbach, of all the prisoners in the jail, was ordered to wear the prison clothes of the men who had just died.

The defense tried to show that Breytenbach was given an especially vicious kind of treatment, previously reserved only for blacks. The South African government had tried to break Robert Sobukwe, a black, by holding him nine years in solitary confinement—and they succeeded. Breytenbach was given the same treatment. No warden or prisoner was permitted to talk to him—no reading materials furnished to him. He spent twenty-three and a half hours in his lightless cell, and when he took his half-hour exercise he took it alone—away from all the other prisoners.

South Africa is asking for the death penalty. Conviction is a certainty. Only world opinion may influence the authorities to impose a lesser sentence.

In the second trial, the government also seeks the death penalty. Twelve blacks are charged with terrorism. They are members of the African National Congress, and, according to the government, some of them were trained as terrorists in Russia and China.

This trial, in an old dark woodpaneled Jewish synagogue taken over by the government, two blocks away from Breytenbach’s trial, will run, according to defense counsel, at least four months. Heavily armed police and soldiers surround the synagogue and during the trial sit in the alcoves where once the Jewish women were segregated from the men.

The pattern of the trial has been established.

The State’s first witness, Ian Deway Rwaxa—the key witness—after testifying for four days during direct examination, linked each of the defendants to Russia or China, told of bombing and killing, but then recanted. He said his testimony was false and beaten out of him.


Mr. Rwaxa, in his dramatic turnabout in open court, described what happened to him. After testifying for four days in his native Xhosa, he asked if he could address the court in English. He described the lot of potential black witnesses in South African jails—he spent three months in total solitary, away from his family, friends, and even police, and then was taken to see his son, given money by the police to give to the child, and told that if he cooperated he would get more money for his son. He understood that if he did not cooperate he would never see the child again. During the next three months he saw the police every day. But they kept asking him for more and more facts. Beaten daily, he was strangled, suffocated, tortured, and left naked in the cold cell.

After Rwaxa recanted, the judge advised, as the law required, that because Rwaxa changed his testimony, he could be charged with perjury. I asked one of the lawyers whether that was likely. He smiled softly, and said, “No, I don’t think he will be charged. I don’t think he’ll ever see a courtroom again. I don’t think we’ll ever see him alive. Remember, he remains with the police and he now can be charged as an accomplice but that won’t happen either. It took enormous courage for him to do what he did. He knows he may never be seen again.” And the trial moved on.

Perhaps the most significant fact concerning these trials is not the testimony but the way it points out the distance between the black and white communities. In two weeks, there was not one black spectator at the Breytenbach trial. There was only one white spectator among the 200 black spectators at the ANC trial. White liberals and radicals told me what I could see—there was no longer any contact between them and blacks of any political stripe.

Other comparisons. The Breytenbach courtroom, populated by some white students and some of Breytenbach’s friends, has a funereal air. A good portion of the audience are probably police. There are very few university faculty members. The sparse attendance is understandable. Every courtroom visitor is photographed and some day when he applies for a job or passport, he will be confronted with this transgression. Each day the audience files in quietly, sits quietly, and sadly hears the testimony.

The ANC trial is another matter. It reminded me of trials in the American South in the Sixties. The spectators hang on each word, and react to each answer. At lunch and at the end of each day’s court session, the defendants, lifting their hands in black power salutes, shout “amandla” (power). The audience answers “awetu” (to us). It often becomes noisy to the point of provocation.

Breytenbach leaves court each day, unobserved, in a van. At the end of each court day the ANC prisoners are removed in a van that, as it drives through the street, is surrounded by hundreds of black spectators. Each day the blacks sing freedom songs and cheer the defendants.

The ANC trial guards, holding machine guns and with a dozen Alsatian dogs trained only to bite blacks, kept pushing the crowd back, hoping to provoke an incident. The hatred of the white community is palpable, seen in the eyes not only of the police but also of the shopkeepers across the street. As the prisoners drive off in the van, they poke their hands through the holes giving the black power salute. At that point, on two separate days, the dogs were allowed to bite at the nearest black.

The Breytenbach and ANC trials are show trials. Starting on the first anniversary of the Soweto riots of last year, they are designed to “show” the government’s continued firmness. More arrests and trials will follow.

While these show trials are going on, the more normal trials continue. During a two-day recess from the ANC and Breytenbach trials, I watched the trial of blacks charged with violation of the passbook laws.

The passbook trials were conducted in two tiny courtrooms in a shiny new municipal building in the more rundown section of Johannesburg. The passbook laws govern every aspect of a black’s life. Without permission, duly acknowledged in the passbook, a black cannot live in one area rather than another, he cannot work at one job rather than another, and, ultimately, without the permission of the State, cannot live. The failure to have a passbook in his possession at all times or the failure to have a job or living area properly approved can result in severe criminal penalties, jail sentences as well as transport to a labor farm for re-education.


It took me quite a while to find the third-floor courtroom where the passbook trials took place. The South African government tries to hide the trials from whites and to discourage the defendant’s family from attending. The directory on the first floor, which describes the function of every other courtroom, did not even mention the existence of the passbook trial courtroom. What was even more remarkable was that the directory did not even mention that there was a third floor. And the elevator did not have a button for the third floor.

Once I was in the building, it took me a half hour to find the courtroom. I assume many black members of the defendants’ families never find the trials. I did so only with the help of clerks in other courtrooms who, while they helped me, refused to help blacks asking the same questions.

The courtroom was partitioned down the middle—one side for blacks and one side for whites. My companion and I were the only whites besides the judge in the room. The black side, with those family members who through conversations with other blacks had found the courtroom, was packed to overflowing.

I sat for four hours in a segregated courtroom where the trials were held at a rate faster than one a minute. During the four hours, 320 cases were tried. Not one defendant had a lawyer. Not one defendant pleaded innocent. Not one defendant spoke in the same language as the judge. The white Afrikaaner judge spoke English. The prosecutor doubled as the interpreter.

The sentences varied from the minimum of six Rand (equivalent to eight American dollars) or nine days in jail to two years. Any defendant who was given the option of paying money or going to jail went to jail.

Most defendants sentenced to jail or labor farms are the same day contracted out to white farmers. Since one of every four blacks in South Africa is imprisoned annually for passbook offenses, they form a large cheap labor force.

It often takes weeks for the family members to find out where the defendant is. A white businessman told me that when one of their servants was arrested, convicted, and sent out to a farm—all in one day—it took him three weeks to locate his employee and bring him back.

The trials, presided over by black-robed lawyers and red-robed English judges, who are addressed as your Lordship, are elegant façades covering one of the most vicious police states in the world. The judges have never meted out the justice that their procedures permit.

Justice, and these procedures, may soon be a relic of the past.

This Issue

August 4, 1977