Almost 40 years after Nelson Mandela and seven other African National Congress activists were sentenced to life imprisonment for sabotage at the Palace of Justice, the imposing colonial building in Pretoria played host to a different type of "freedom fighter" yesterday.
Twenty-two white extremists, from a far right-wing group called Boeremag (Farmers' Force), appeared before a judge in the same court where the 1964 Rivonia trial took place, accused of planning to kill the former president.
The men, aged 22 to 54, face 43 charges, including terrorism and sabotage, in the first treason trial since the advent of democracy in South Africa. They are accused of plotting to kill Mr Mandela in 2000 and to overthrow the government, killing blacks and Indians or expelling them, and returning South Africa to the apartheid system that ended in 1994.
The group allegedly planned to reinstate the old Boer republics, inspired by a 19th-century Boer prophecy. Their plan was to cause riots to divert the security forces, disrupt electricity supplies, take over radio stations and call white people to arms. Conspirators were allegedly told: "Every man must bring his gun, ammunition, food and water enough to last for three days."
The extremists have been accused of the spate of bombings that rocked the black township of Soweto late last year, killing one person, injuring many more and destroying railway lines and other infrastructure. The group had sent a letter to newspapers after the Soweto attacks in which it demanded the release of jailed right-wingers and threatened a campaign of violence over Christmas.
The seemingly unrepentant right-wingers were not asked to plead yesterday because legal aid problems forced the trial to be postponed until next week.
Judge Eben Jordaan heard that seven of the accused had successfully applied for legal aid from the state-funded Legal Aid Board. The board appointed its own lawyer, Deon Mostert, to represent the seven but they wanted the board to restrict its role to paying the fees for their own preferred lawyer. They argued that Mr Mostert had not even consulted any of them so far and insisted they would not accept Mr Mostert because they had built up a relationship of trust with their current counsel.
Others among the accused said that while they had funds to continue for a few months without legal aid, they wanted the situation resolved for when they too would have to depend on the state to pay for their defence, even though the charges they face stem from a hatred of the same black-run state they want to rely on for legal aid.
Judge Jordaan ordered that all the parties, including the National Director of Public Prosecutions, work out their differences and re-appear before him next Monday.
But the atmosphere outside the courtroom was more highly charged. After the adjournment of the proceedings, hundreds of blacks gathered near the back of the Palace of Justice and hurled abuse at the white defendants as they were driven away in armoured vehicles under the tightest security arrangements seen at any trial in post-apartheid South Africa. "Kill the Boer! Kill the Farmer!" shouted the large crowd, using a popular anti-apartheid slogan.Reuse content