The Order of the Companions of O.R. Tambo in
Profile of Vernon Berrange
Vernon Berrange was a member of the legal defence team during the Rivonia Trial. Berrange, Bram Fischer, Isie Maisels and others were a group of senior lawyers and remarkable role models during the time. The apartheid government was determined to use the law not only to crush all opposition but also to directly oppress the people. These lawyers were just as determined to use the law in whatever way they could to protect their clients against the abuse of state power. Thus, paradoxically, the front line in the struggle for freedom in South Africa ran through the centre of the court.
The defence lawyers, led by Fischer and Berrange, two of the most brilliant and courageous of the breed of left-wing Johannesburg barristers, went through the piles of documents and considered their tactics. From the defence cross-examination, it seemed likely that some important parts of the evidence might not be disputed. It was also probable that one or two of the accused would explain why they had taken their stand. The charges, if proven, could carry the death sentence and thus a real possibility existed that some of the accused, including Nelson Mandela, could be hanged.
Berrange contended that the ideas and beliefs that were expressed in the Freedom Charter, although opposed to the policy of the government at the time, were such as they were shared by the overwhelming majority of humankind of all races and all colours and also the overwhelming majority of the country’s citizens. He also emphasised that what was essentially on trial was not just individuals, but the ideas which they and thousands of others in South Africa had openly espoused and expressed. He also stressed that they would assert and in due course ask the court to hold that they were the victims of political kite flying on the part of those responsible for these prosecutions.
These outstanding lawyers conceded that some of the facts asserted by the State were correct and rather focused their strategy on saving the accused from the gallows by proving that Umkhonto we Sizwe’s (MK) high command, although pondering the option of guerrilla war, had not actually adopted any plans that would go beyond sabotage directed solely at property. They also sought to protect other underground members of the African National Congress (ANC) by proving that MK and the ANC were separate, albeit overlapping, organisations. Vernon Berrange spoke for all those who were in the trial and set the tone for the conduct of the case. The team was determined to affirm, and not merely to defend the convictions and activities. None of the accused was sentenced to hang, and only given life sentences to be served on Robben Island.